Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paranormal Activity: a review

My original response to the film Paranormal Activity.

Paranormal Activity is a movie of many dichotomies. It's amazingly suspenseful at times, yet crushingly dull at others. There are some genuinely frightening scenes, and yet also some frightfully inane moments. One of the two main characters is the target of a malevolent, monstrous force and seeks an answer to and release from the problem. The other central character acts -- during the same harrowing moments -- like it's playtime.

What the film gets right
There is no fang-brandishing, hunched, hairy CGI monster prowling this horror movie. Suspsense is masterfully created and heightened by the use of eerie soundscapes. The malevolent force makes its presence known by a low rumbling that sounds like the start of an earthquake. Then, behind that, there are various creaks and footsteps and other subtle manifestations. When there is visual manifestation of the presence, it comes in the form of the bedroom door moving on its own, the living room chandelier moving, as well as other objects. When one of the main characters powders the upstairs hallway with baby powder, hoping the entity will leave footprints, proof of the entity's movements in the house are scant, but present. They're compelling due to their scarcity.

What the film gets wrong
One word: Micah.

The main characters of Paranormal Activity are Katie and Micah. Katie, a college student, believes she's been haunted by a demonic presence since the age of eight. Micah is her live-in, day-trading boyfriend, to whom all of life, all the world, especially his girlfriend's supernatural stalker, is merely a joke; some spoof to be captured on camera. The movie is comprised of footage he shoots with a new video camera purchased for the purpose of documenting the "paranormal activity" that appears to follow Katie around.

Micah is obnoxious in the extreme from the get-go. He's an arrogant, shallow, frivolous frat-boy who alternates between inane jokes at Katie's expense, and empty bluster and boyish bravado when the shit starts to hit the fan. The inference of the movie is that Katie's haunting is exascerbated by Micah filming the happenings -- running the camera from a tripod while they sleep, capturing the majority of the activity when neither is conscious. Then there are the moments when Micah goes around the house with the camera "calling out" the demon like a drunken lout looking for a barfight.

Early in the movie, when Katie invites a psychic to the house to check things out, Micah comes up with one of his brilliant ideas: Why not get a Ouija board, ask the entity what it wants, and then give the entity what it asks for? To which the psychic says, "The problem is, I believe it wants Katie."

Micah's silent reaction? Most likely: Oh, didn't think of that.

After promising "not to buy a Ouija board," Micah cleverly borrows one -- and actually argues the fine distinction of his promise. Katie is rightfully outraged, having begged Micah not to undertake such actions that might aggravate the demonic presence. But since Micah cares for no one but himself, he is slow to acquiesce, and does so only after the damage is done.

What the film further gets wrong is how long Katie and Micah remain in the house where the escalating hauntings occur. Yes, it's established early on that Katie is the one being haunted, so moving locations, technically, wouldn't help. But given the foothold the presence has in that house, what could it hurt? By the time they decide on the obvious, it's too late.

In the end
The movie scores points with lay-ups -- meaning, all the scary stuff happens at about three o'clock on the morning. You can't miss with that. And you can't miss when you have scary shit happening to characters who are fast asleep -- especially under circumstances where no one with any ordinary functioning nervous system would be able to sleep. The reliance on the sound effects saves the day. But for every gain the sound departments achieves, the character Micah piddles away. The film is by turns jarring, affecting, annoying and boring.

It seems that Paranormal Activity maker, Oren Peli, is having trouble finding funding for his next film, Area 51. That may be due to the fact that not every film can be saved by sound effects. If Paranormal Activity says one thing about Peli, it's that he has no skill at as a storyteller. He creates situations, he can establish and heighten suspense, but the house of cards is continually falling due to the very weak story holding things together. He has a very difficult time making the audience care.

The film is worth seeing, but it all really boils down to watching two people being scared to death while they're asleep. That's the crux of the movie, which is not much for one to hang his hat on.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Battle of the self-publishing titans: A review of Wordclay's services

Here is the feedback I recently provided to's customer service:

I've been using since 2005, and thought I'd give Wordclay a try because Lulu's shipping rates have become outrageous. I uploaded -- and then deleted -- a manuscript to Wordclay this morning, and if anyone's interested, I have the following feedback:

Manuscript formatting
Although I was using an approved font -- Calisto MT -- my manuscript came out all wonky in the galley. I changed my font to Georgia, and that solved the problem, except for the fact that I prefer Calisto MT.

Wordclay's copyright page
Although I already have a proper copyright page in my book, Wordclay added it's own. So, my book had two copyright pages, which also threw off my headers at the beginning of the book (I don't want headers or footers to show until the start of the actual text of the book on page 14 or so. I had this all set and formatted in MS Word, but Wordclay's "bot" undid that).

Table of Contents
Not all of my books have a Table of Contents, but this one did. On entries where the text wrapped to a second line, I had formatted the page numbers to appear, along with all of the others, at the far right side of that page. Wordclay's "bot" undid this formatting so that pages numbers for entries that wrapped appeared right after the title, on the left.

The DIY cover fee/process. I was all set to go through with the publication process, just to see the quality of a Wordclay book, but was stopped in my tracks by the limited cover art options. I will not pay -- nor should I have to pay -- $25 to use my own cover art. You don't need a panel of experts to take my cover's rectal temperature, Wordclay only needs to provide dimensions and recommended resolution specs to users in order for proper covers to be uploaded.

So, there ended my experience with Wordclay. In light of the cover art limitations and fee, I won't and cannot abide the needless and awkward alterations to my manuscript by the Wordclay "bot", and thus will publish none of my work with Wordclay. I found you on Stumbleupon about a year ago, and only my inchoate dissatisfaction with led me to try you out. I don't agree with Lulu's outrageously overpriced shipping fees, but their service is easy-to-use and intuitive, and respectful to my work. They also allow mere vulgarians to upload their own cover art without the Panel of Elders' scrutiny beforehand.

Good luck and goodbye.

Monday, October 26, 2009

My own "Paranormal Activity" with a unionized poltergeist

Ever since I was a child, I've been freaked-out by the dark. When I was about seven or eight, I saw an episode of The Courtship of Eddie's Father (starring Bill Bixby), in which the magazine the main character published was running a story about ghosts. A blurry, black-and-white photograph of a "ghost" was shown, which to my young eyes looked like the Genuine Article. It scared the hell out of me. More than that, it left me with the subterranean dread: Oh no! Now the ghosts know that I know about them! They'll never let me live with this information! Which led to a string of sleepless nights.

The ghosts, however, did let me live. I guess I wasn't the threat to them that I figured I was.

To this day, though, I can't slide aside a closed shower curtain without involuntarily holding my breath, certain that either the Angel Gabriel or a moldering zombie -- something like that decomposing naked lady in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining -- might be standing in there. I'm a light sleeper. My mind assigns the most sinister origins to every creak and wheeze of my house in the middle of the night. I'm a rational atheist who knows there are no monsters prowling the dark, or waiting beneath my bed to grab my ankles, or standing behind doors waiting to throw an otherworldly half-nelson on me. Still, I keep a shillelagh under the bed.

In my weaker, more ridiculous moments, I'm sure I'm being stalked by an entity. Except, my pursuer is of a lazy, non-proactive variety. For instance, I only feel his presence after watching horror movies -- only particularly unnerving horror movies, like Ju On or The Ring, or most recently Paranormal Activity. It's as though my entity is a unionized dullard who loafs on the job until his supervisor gets wind that I've seen another horror movie.

"What are you waiting for?" the underworld supervisor shouts at my stalker. "Do you want him to keep watching horror movies until he's completely unmasked us?"

"No," my entity replies, hating to be yelled at.

"Well then, get him!"

So, my entity wakens in my attic and kicks a beam or two. Then, maybe, he passes between the walls down to the unfinished basement and messes up the messy pile of laundry lying on the floor by the washer and dryer. All the while, my insomniac antennae sends an alert to my brainstem, which disseminates a bulletin to all my nerve-endings: Something from the underworld is afoot.

But it never gets any more dramatic than that. My entity creeps around in the hallway outside my bedroom, looks over my collection of DVDs in my office -- probably stifles a sneeze because I never dust in there; and then curses himself for stifling the sneeze, realizing he's on scene to frighten and intimidate me; make me fear for my soul, for my sanity.

After all, I recently saw Paranormal Activity where I witnessed a very credible demonstration of a person being swallowed up by demonic possession. The film achieved the strangest wire-walk between stark terror, excruciating suspense, and utter dullness in between scares. But the scares stuck. I believe. I know an entity is also hunting me. He's just not very organized or consistent with his efforts. Maybe he's got an attitude problem, or trouble dealing with authority.

Demons (I throw all otherworldly beings into the same grab bag; maybe they'll come after for doing that) are supposed to be of a sinister nature, are they not? So, what's to keep a demon from disobeying his supervisor's orders? I can see the malevolent entities in their dark, dank lockerroom as they suit-up for another night's haunting. They greet each other with the old saw, "Haunting hard?"

"Hardly haunting."

Guffaws echo through the morgue-tiled changing area. A poster on the wall reads: "You don't have to be evil to work in this place, but it helps!"

Somehow, though, I think my entity got into the wrong line of work. "I'm a sloth-demon at heart," I can hear him confiding to a friend over drinks after the haunt. "I just want to plant myself somewhere, slow everybody down, muddle a few of the weaker minds, spoil a harvest or two, get someone chased out of the village. You know."

"Sure, sure," my entity's compadre says. "But you have to wait for a retirement to get one of those plum positions. Nobody's quitting those."

"I know," my entity grouses into his drink. "It's all who you know, not what you know."

"Count yourself lucky you're haunting in North America," the compadre says. "You ever get assigned to the Caribbean?"


"Shit, those shaman and witchdoctors'll eat you for lunch. We could learn from them."

"No kidding?"

"I don't kid about these things."

And so my entity gets lazy, rationalizing, Well look at this guy I'm haunting. He's an atheist, swears like a dockworker, laughs at only the sickest jokes, and reads the damnedest, most depressing books about the JFK assassination and C.I.A. drug-running. And that blog of his! Don't get me started on that blog! What's left for me to do?

So, word of my having seen Paranormal Activity has reached the underworld and my entity is back. I was up late last night working on the computer, and kept looking into the darkened hallway beyond the door, somehow thinking a bone-white, ancient, mummified form might suddenly sprint into my office, screeching unintelligibly, tackling me to the floor. Or, the Web browser on my computer screen fading out and being replaced with a horrifying face. Or, going into the bedroom where my wife slept without bother, and the ceiling fan might turn into four arms that'll lunge down, silently pin me to the floor so that I could be carted off to the underworld to be --

To be what?

I never get that far. What in the world would an otherworldly entity want with me? I have no information that would be useful to a presence that can presumably walk through walls and invisibly spy on people. And though I believe in the existence of a human soul, what would an entity -- or the outfit employing an entity -- want with my soul? It's not like it's capable of manual labor. To my knowledge, it's not combustible, or otherwise useful as fuel. There's a possibility souls could be held for ransom, or used as bargaining chips in disputes with benevolent deities. But that seems thin. I can't see my entity playing a mystical game of chess with Ra or Zeus or Xenu, for my or anyone else's soul. Poker is too crude and trendy a game to interest the underworld. Just because a presence may exude stinky ectoplasm on a suede couch, doesn't mean it would submit to the pedestrian rules of card play.

So, where does this leave me? The heebie jeebies inspired by Paranormal Activity are beginning to ebb. My entity seems already to be losing interest in me. I still jump when dishes in the sink shift, as gravity slowly attempts to reshuffle everything in the world that's stacked. Never in my life have I witnessed something I would even remotely consider "supernatural." Sure, the movie has me thinking about it. Maybe it's like everything else in the movies: the cinematic entities are looming and terrifying, powerful and cunning, when, in fact, ghostly presences in real life -- if they exist at all -- are nothing more than invisible roustabouts throwing rocks at someone's house in the night, running away, giggling, thinking, We so got them!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Ordealist - Part II

Read Part I

The only friend Bevin had in the company -- and in life -- was Roche, a technician at WorkplaceUSA, who set up mics and video equipment for executive meetings and presentations. Roche was an aspiring filmmaker in his spare time. A local film festival had sprung up in recent years, and the previous year had held a "48-Hour Film Contest," in which filmmaking teams signed up to write and produce a four-minute short in the space of a single weekend. Last year, Roche teamed up with his brother, Claude, along with Bevin and managed to wrangle third place out of two dozen entries. This year, Claude was out. He and his wife just had a baby, but Claude had also mentioned something in passing to Roche about wanting to strangle Bevin with piano wire. Roche had shrugged. Bevin's storyboarding skills were impeccable.

This year, Roche brought on board a guy named Raif, a writer who also worked the counter at a neighborhood sex shop. And Raif brought along his friend, Kurt, who was an all-around film buff willing to hold mics and help with set-ups.

Roche was the one with the camera, so after picking up the 48-Hour Film Contest package, everyone met at his house.

The four guys sat around in Roche's furnished basement. Roche had a clipboard on his knee. "All right, the prop we were given is a can opener, and the line of dialogue we have to incorporate is 'I think I've made a terrible mistake.'" He looked at the group. "All right, who wants to start the brainstorming?"

"Maybe we have a guy opening a really large can of tuna," Kurt said, "I mean a huge, coffin-sized can and he finds a dead person inside --"

"Can't do it," Bevin said, cutting in. "Where are we going to get such a large can with no budget and on such short notice?"

"Right, well," Kurt said, irritated, "isn't that where the filmmaking comes in? We do a series of shots to make it look like --"

"It's already been done," Bevin said. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

"OK," Roche said, moving conversation along. "What else?"

"We could go the absurdist route," Raif said. "And have a guy talking to his psychiatrist or someone, and the guy has the can opener affixed to his head."

"It's been done," Bevin said. "Saturday Night Live has been doing that sort of thing for years."

Looking at the clouding expressions on the faces of Kurt and Raif, Roche turned to Bevin: "How about you, Bev?"

"I was thinking," Bevin said, "about a guy who finds a magic box somewhere -- like a cafe -- that gives him three wishes."

Kurt and Raif looked at each other, and then at Roche. Roche nodded and scribbled something on his clipboard.

"How about locations?" Roche said after a couple of hours of brainstorming a premise -- nothing firm had been decided on that front.

"No problem filming at the store," Raif said. "Actually, we've got a surplus of three dozen inflatable sex dolls that only have one arm. They could be useful"

Roche and Kurt laughed. "That would be cool!" Roche said, writing on his clipboard.

"The movie has to be PG," Bevin said. "So, I don't think we can use the sex dolls."

The brainstorming session went on a few more hours, and the tension in the basement grew more and more rank and dense. Raif and Kurt were just not meshing with Bevin's meticulous nature, but Roche was confident that they'd all get over it as they narrowed in on a premise and began writing the script.

Raif went outside for a smoke at one point, and was joined by Kurt who simply needed some air -- some unBevinated air. "Can we say 'cock-blocker at every turn'?" Raif said. "Holy shit, if I hear one more time that an idea's 'already been done' or is 'cliche,' I'm going to . . ." he trailed off, unable to think of a good threat.

The process, the mood, the atmosphere, the working dynamics among the four aspiring filmmakers didn't improve as time wore on. It seemed they would never settle on a premise.

"How about some amputees sitting around a poker table playing for limbs?" Kurt said.

Against his quivering, shriveling will, Raif glanced at Bevin whose blank expression managed to evoke emotion: all different shades of dour disapproval. Why don't we dump this putz? Raif wondered, feeling the time nearing when he could no longer keep such thoughts locked politely in his head.

"What's funny about making fun of amputees?" Bevin droned.

"Well, maybe they're dead guys," Kurt said.

"It's already been done," Bevin said.

"But I haven't even gotten to my idea," Kurt said.

"Ghost, Sixth Sense," Bevin said. "Ghost Town."

"I give up!" Raif said, rising from his chair. To Roche: "Thanks but no thanks, I didn't sign on for this!" He walked out of the basement. Roche followed.

"Hey man," Roche said, catching Raif at the front door. "Don't be so sensitive. We're just kicking ideas around."

"No, you're buddy is kicking ideas to death," Raif said.

"Look, go home, have a beer, sleep on it, and come back tomorrow. We'll have a premise by then and we'll be all ready to go. What do you say?"

Raif thought about it. "All right," he said, hating himself for caving.

The following day was no better. Raif arrived at Roche's house -- Bevin was already there, and Kurt came twenty minutes later -- actually feeling a bit of optimism. The moment that he stepped into the hotzone of Bevin's contaminated radius, that optimism curdled like the cream in his coffee . . . and the ordeal continued.

No premise had been arrived at the evening before, so the brainstorming continued. By the stroke of noon, when Roche brought out the first beers of the day, Raif had resolved himself to sticking with the contest merely to see for how long and in how many different ways Bevin could cock-block the creative process.

Raif wasn't sure if it was the beer -- which was oddly flat and skunky -- or simple weariness that made him lose focus on the premise-seeking process, but around dinner time, the guys had decided their movie would be about a murderer who hid in the trunks of people's cars and sprang out at his unsuspecting victims.

The premise as Raif understood it didn't make any sense, but he was so punch-drunk from Bevin's unending onslaught of inane questions and his guillotining ideas before they were more than a few words out of someone's mouth, that he went along with the group. Bevin's meticulous storyboards -- which he produced in a short matter of time -- didn't illuminate the convoluted storyline. By then, Raif was beyond caring.

If the premise-seeking process hadn't proven tedious enough, setting up the first shot was surely madness-inducing. Bevin made so many crippling interjections in the conversation about how to begin that Roche -- himself wearying -- turned over directorship to his incessant friend. Then the guys were treated to the most bizarre sight yet: Bevin second-guessing, interrupting and cock-blocking himself as he tried to decide how to set up the first shot.

By then, Raif's brain felt like it was in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch, groaning and throbbing for oxygen that could not be had. He saw that Kurt had developed a facial tic he hadn't noticed before. Then he paused and realized a series of short-circuiting twitches ran riot around his own face. And still, Bevin continued, speaking in a low, flat, nasal-deadened voice; seeming to talk more to himself than anyone else.

Feeling more and more disconnected from the activity around him, Raif slipped into kamikaze auto-pilot. For instance, when Roche -- who was playing the killer in the film -- finally got into the trunk of his car, and the door shut upon him, Raif turned to Bevin and plucked the camera from his grip.

"What are you doing?" Bevin said. "I'm the director now."

Raif was aware of Bevin talking, but finally a mental callous had developed over his mind which dampened the sound of his voice. He handed the camera to Kurt, who, by the look in his own glassy eyes, seemed to be in the same dissociative mental space.

Raif punched Bevin in the face.

Part of him wished he was not buried so deep behind his defensive, mental callous because he would have really enjoyed the moment of contact. For once, Bevin did as he was supposed to do -- he fell down unconscious. By the time Roche figured there was something wrong, and began knocking on the trunk door to be let out, Raif and Kurt had carried Bevin into the backyard.

In storyboard snatches of consciousness, Raif and Kurt acted as one, as their own, sub-story telneted mentally between them.

They bound Bevin in plastic wrap. He was left to lay like a nightclub mummy on the lawn as Raif went to his car and brought box after box of one-armed inflatable sex dolls into the back yard. Kurt brought tanks of helium from Raif's backseat -- Raif kept such things on hand; one never knew when one might need helium.

They positioned Bevin in one of Roche's lawn chairs and fastened the floating, inflatable sex dolls to the chair with a series of bungee cords, sections of clothesline, various length extension cords found in Roche's house, and the rest of the plastic wrap. By then, Bevin had wakened -- his left eye swelling nicely -- and struggled meekly against his restraints. He moaned behind the gag they'd affixed.

When the sixteenth sex doll had been inflated with helium, Bevin began to hover inches above the ground. When the twenty first doll was fastened to him, he rose into the air. As he slowly cleared Raif and Kurt's height, Bevin's eyes widened with genuine fear. It was the first actual human emotion anyone would have seen in that obsidian gaze.

Kurt stood back with Roche's camera, filming Bevin's lazy ascent. When the counter indicated that he'd come to the three-minute and forty-second mark, he turned the camera on Raif who said, "I think I've made a terrible mistake," and waved a can opener in front of the lens. There was a two second pause, and then he said: "Naahhhhhh."

Bevin's ascent leveled-off when he passed the height of the telephone wires running behind Roche's house. Then he drifted beyond the neighbors' trees and out of sight.

The film, titled C-Blocker, was entered into the 48 Hour Film Contest the following day as a mockumentary. It took First Prize, which greatly eased Roche's anger over the project being high-jacked while he was locked in the trunk of his car (for some reason, the fact that he hadn't seen the safety lever inside the trunk that would have allowed him to open the door himself made him ever more angry at Raif and Kurt). But winning a film contest assuaged that nicely.

The film was also Exhibit A in Bevin's lawsuit against Raif, Kurt and Roche. As Bevin came to no bodily harm as a result of his sex doll flight, and Raif's punch had left no lasting damage -- and after reviewing Roche's notes of the premise brainstorming session preceding the sex doll flight, augmented by Raif and Kurt's descriptions, and further supplemented by Bevin's own interjections -- the judge in the case had no choice but to find Raif, Kurt and Roche guilty and give them a suspended sentence.

He didn't say so in court, but the judge commented that evening to his wife: "I had a defendant today who was completely in the right" referring to Bevin, "but the kid was the damnedest pain the ass I've ever encountered."

After which, the judge's wife noticed with concern a facial tic twitching around her husband's eyes and the corner of his mouth.

The Ordealist - Part I

Wherever Bevin Bleakman went, he made an impression. He was like a human EMB (electro-magnetic bomb), silencing laughter by questioning jokes until they lay in pieces like disassembled clocks, mangling conversations with inane, irrelevant comments, and dowsing all cheer and merriment with his bland, clay-colored countenance, and dung-pillar bearing.

"I highly doubt there were a million kids at the Chuck E. Cheese," Bevin wheezed, unsmiling, interrupting a colleague talking about his child's birthday party over the weekend.

"I just meant the place was packed," the colleague said, annoyed.

"Then just say it was packed," Bevin replied, and walked away to get a Fresca from the soda machine.

Bevin kept no plants in his cubicle or at his apartment, but his colleagues did. Strangely, there was an invisible field radiating out from Bevin's cubicle, approximately thirty feet or so, in which his colleagues' plants wilted and died no matter how much love and attention they received. When Bevin stopped by a colleague's desk with a question or comment, that person's coffee went rancid, their pop went flat, their computer crashed, long dormant stuttering resurfaced, and facial tics suddenly flourished.

At the counter of the lobby cafe, Bevin eyed the food in the glass display case: "Uh, the egg-and-cheese-and-sausage-on-an-English-muffin," Bevin said to the cashier, "what's in that?"

"Egg and cheddar cheese, and sausage, on an English muffin," the cashier sighed. She went through this with him every time he came round.

"And the cinnamon roll," Bevin said, "what's in that?"

"Cinnamon and pastry," the cashier said -- then caught herself: "And pieces of walnut."

"No peanuts? I'm allergic to peanuts," Bevin said.

"Just walnuts."

"Mushrooms?" Bevin said. The cashier looked at him, wondering if he was joking, but realized, he never joked. He just went on and on and on, no matter how many increasingly-impatient people stood in line behind him. Bevin was impervious to the overt, angry coughs, the huffs of impatience, the odd "Come on, guy, we don't have all day!" from the others waiting.

"We don't put mushrooms in our pastries," the cashier said.

"Were they near mushrooms during transport?"

"No. I don't think so."

"Were they near mushrooms where they were made?"

"I have no idea."

After a further excruciating moment of deliberation, Bevin ordered a small, cup of hot water.

"What kind of tea do you want?" the cashier asked.

"None," Bevin said, placing a quarter on the counter for the cup. "I have my own upstairs."

The others in line watched like an outraged war crimes tribunal, as Bevin walked away, oblivious.

The depleted uranium of Bevin's personality first came to light at WorkplaceUSA soon after he was hired as a programmer for the Web site. Although it wasn't his job, he reviewed the HTML code of various pages on the site, and approached Sledge McFarland, the senior, lone, overworked Web designer, with a few pages of print-outs.

"Sledge," Bevin said, coming up behind the frenetic, overweight Web designer, startling him. "Can I talk to you about your coding?"

Sledge's startlement curdled -- as did the half-full pint of chocolate milk by his mouse pad -- into astonished rage. He slowly turned from his twenty-one inch monitor in which he had sixteen applications open and running in as many various-sized windows. "You want to talk about what?"

Oblivious, Bevin showed Sledge the pages he printed out. "You're not closing your 'p' tags. Best practices dictates that all tags must have closing tags."

Sledge glared at Bevin. Anyone else would have instantly read the look on the man's face: Are you kidding me? Anyone but Bevin.

Sledge rallied. This was the new guy; new guys made mistakes. About a hundred years ago, Sledge was the new guy and the odd person cut him a break, here and there. He unclenched his jaw, unclenched his fists, unclenched the cheeks of his expansive buttocks. "Guy," he said, trying to sound as friendly as he could manage.

"My name's Bevin," Bevin said, interrupting. "We were introduced last week. I'm Bevin Bleakman, programmer."

A facial tic began slapping around the corner of Sledge's right eyebrow. "Yeah," he said. "OK. Well, Bevin, I'm doing the work of four people here, and wherever I can make up a little time, I do it."

"Best practices dictates that all tags must have closing tags," Bevin said. He spoke as though he could repeat the line all day long, into the night, to the empty darkened office; into infinity.

"Then how about this?" Sledge said, sharpening his tone. "You do your job, and I'll do my --"

"Best practices dictates that all tags must have closing tags."

"It's perfectly acceptable to leave 'p' tags open!" Sledge exploded. "Each new 'p' tag is as good as a closing tag for the previous one!"

"Best practices dictates that all tags must have closing tags."

Sledge lurched his massive frame from his lopsided chair. "The pages look the way we want them to look! That's all that matters!"

"Best practices dictates that all tags must have closing tags."

The tic abusing Sledge's right eyebrow spread through his face like an electrical storm. He opened his mouth to tell Bevin to mind his own business, that he was not team lead, nor the manager, nor the director of the Web team, but all that came out was a scream: "Ahhhhhhhhhh!"

For the first time in a decade, Sledge ran. He had no idea why. The facial tic must have infested his brain, turning everything in there into static. Sledge lumbered to the end of the aisle, and without breaking stride, drove his large body into a file cabinet. He left a dent like a Volkswagen would have. He crumpled to the floor, eyes wide, blind, and verbalized what was in his mind: "Ugh! Ahhhhh! Yoooo-zebbbbb-yooooodel-dooooodel-mmmmmmmm . . ."

Colleagues jumped to their feet to see if Sledge was OK. One of them turned to Bevin to ask what had happened, but Bevin interrupted: "Best practices dictates that all tags must have closing tags."

The monitor on Sledge's desk flickered as his computer crashed.

Part II

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tonight… We Are All Rush Limbaugh

From ESPN: Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was dropped from a group bidding to buy the St. Louis Rams.

Rush, you are not alone!

It wasn't so long ago that I made a bid to buy the greatest jai alai team on the planet. They were the Tangeryland Titty Twisters, and they were a ferocious delight behold. As my people were finalizing arrangements, a scurrilous story appeared in the media, purportedly written by me.

How's that for the Thugs of Slander to grab my own hand and batter my face with it, saying, "Why're you hitting yourself? Why're you hitting yourself?" That they would not only put forth a grossly hurtful story, but one allegedly given in the first person by me, slandering and libeling and humiliating myself.

The story? I'll share it now because the harm is already done: My First Firsthand Experience with Crucifixion.

Is the story true? Did I, as a child, once build a small cross and crucify a rubber Spiderman upon it? Yeah, so what? But I would never share such a story! I was eight years old at the time, hardly in the sandlot of reason.

But it doesn't matter now. When the Titty Twister management saw the story, they threw the brakes on my purchase of the team. As it turns out, they couldn't care less about any offense to the Christian church the story might have aroused, they were outraged to the point of violence by my disrespect toward Spiderman. Who knew he held such a lofty place in their culture? I certainly didn't.

So what if Rush Limbaugh has figuratively nailed a few Spidermen to homemade crosses? He's a self-made man and should be able to exercise the right of the wealthy to buy any gawddamned thing he wants. But no, the proprietors and adherents of this world's Spidermen prefer to discriminate, criminalize and marginalize poor, humble, eager-to-please multi-millionaires like us. Such is the injustice in this imperfect world.

I feel your pain, Rush. Maybe you can take solace as I did -- I purchased the homeland of my oppressors and put them all in prison.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Persuasiverse: The why, the "who cares?"

"Whaddya all want for nuthin'? A rrrrubber biscuit?" Dan Ackroyd once sang as Elwood Blues on a rendition of The Chips' 1956 song, "Rubber Biscuit," rolling the "r" like an Italian auctioneer.

The blog posts that comprise the new book, At One With the Perversiverse, were offered up free on the Web here on Inside the Hotdog Factory, written by the reclusive, enigmatic figure, Whetam Gnauckweirst. Such a "front" entity was needed because in today's free North American society, a person can be fired from their day job based upon what they write on their blog -- even if it has nothing to do with their employer, their industry, their job duties, etc.. Satirize your boss's favorite laxative, and you're on the street.

So, Whetam Gnauckweirst -- the caped, angry jester; the Barbadian garbage man -- wielded (and continues to wield) his satirical scythe here, centering his odd-colored eyes on the shape-shifting target of base human stupidity, cruelty, greed, avarice, corporatism, ambition and petty gain at the expense of others' pain (hello Oprah). There are also music and movie reviews.

Here are 98 blog posts, each a stone launched at the cranial vault of a multitude of Goliaths. Whether they are wife-beaters who think the single day's reprieve of Valentine's Day makes up for the pain and misery they lather on to their loved ones, or Rick Wagoner, former CEO of GM, drinking Putz Beer while smelting down his golden parachute, or Oprah Winfrey providing a pornographic venue for baffling, pathetic souls like Mackenzie Phillips to get up and humiliate themselves, the stones are thrown, accusations made, and satirical barbs swung at soft, unprotected regions of the guilty.

Some people think blogs are self-indulgent. Others believe blogs lack the journalistic integrity of established news sources. Show me a blog that's owned by GE or Disney. The only thing false on the Inside the Hotdog Factory is the moniker under which the posts are written. The rest is as truthful as one soul can be.

The backside of the Perversiverse

At One With the Perversiverse available now!

The “Perversiverse” is the tumultuous, paradoxical, multifarious, sweet-and-sour world-system that envelopes and influences our society. It’s where George W. Bush can be president of the United States, where Oprah Winfrey parades society’s lame and leprous before adoring audiences, where McDonald’s invades the Louvre, CEOs smelt down golden parachutes, political hacks control the discourse, and yuppie parents raise their children to possess a Mount Rushmore of self-worth, but not a mole hill of personal responsibility.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

At One With the Perversiverse

Posts from this blog from the last three years have been corralled, straightjacketed and committed to the pages between two book covers. You can read the whole thing here for free; I've been casting these posts to the wind for going on five years. The indifference of the actual universe has been a useful crucible to me in forging the pieces that comprise At One With the Perversiverse.

A synopsis of the book is as follows:
The Perversiverse is the tumultuous, paradoxical, multifarious, sweet-and-sour world-system that envelopes and influences our society. It's where George W. Bush can be president of the United States, where Oprah Winfrey parades society's lame and leprous before adoring audiences, where McDonald's invades the Louvre, CEOs smelt down golden parachutes, political hacks control the discourse, and yuppie parents raise their children to possess a Mount Rushmore of self-worth, but not a mole hill of personal responsibility.
Check out At One With the Perversiverse. It's not The Secret and it's not The Lost Symbol. It's light on philosophy at times, but heavy with the heavy-handedness.

The wonderful Books I Love on Twitter was extraordinarily kind and gave this book a mention this evening. Much appreciated!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reactions from around the neighborhood to Herta Mueller winning the Nobel Prize in Literature

"I don't know if I ever mentioned that I've always been a huge Mueller fan. I'm president of the Muller fan club in Polk County." -- Jeff the mailman

"My local book seller thinks I'm a real pain in the neck because I camp out on his doorstep on the eve of publication of every Herta Mueller book. Been doing it for years. Sometimes he calls the cops." -- Willem the butcher

"Every time I go into my local bookstore, I trip over a big pile of Herta Mueller books, it's getting to be a problem. And anytime you want to talk to the farmers at the local coffee shop about soybean crops and crop rotation, all they want to talk about is Herta Mueller. I'm sick of her." -- Kenny the alderman

"I went into the bookstore this morning and tripped over a stack of Herta Mueller books, as usual. Next, I went to Burger King, with the new Philip Roth novel under my arm. Everyone looked up from their Herta Mueller novels and glared at me. Crack-heads, truants, junkies, nitwits and pinheads, the kind of person who hangs around Burger King on a Friday morning at 10 a.m. (Myself excepted.) I perceived store-wide hostility as I slowly turned to the first page of the Roth book. I heard titters and jeers. Finally, a swarthy Negro wearing eleven parkas and 48 layers of clothing in 60-degree weather came over to my table and asked what kind of chump-ass shit was I reading when his Main Writer be winning the Nobel Prize. I fled the restaurant ahead of cries of Jew-loving punk and jive-ass pseudo-intellectual-capitalist-traditionalist-honkie-motherfucker. . . . Tough room in the age of Herta." -- Dalton, former mayor

While in the video store, Kathy the notary public was advised to watch the comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, to which she replied, "Is this the Drop Dead Gorgeous directed by Akira Kurosawa, with a screenplay by Samuel Beckett, based on a novel by Herta Mueller?"

"I tried to get my car winterized today and the guy at Jiffy Lube was too busy reading Herta Mueller to help me. So I went across the street to McDonald's and instead of asking me if I wanted fries with my order, she said 'Do you want Herta Mueller with that?' 'Hell yes, super-Herta me!'" -- Zeb the dogcatcher

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Cries of "Bad taste" as McDonald's moves into 'Mona Lisa' museum

"Shortly after McDonald's' celebrated its 30-year presence in France, the fast-food chain is conquering one of the country's most valued cultural institutions --the Louvre.
. . .

"McDonald's plans seem to have caused more media attention abroad than in France, but for some French outlets, the idea of combining fast food and ancient art is stomach churning.

"The Parisian Web site 'Louvre pour tous' (Louvre for everyone) describes McDonald's' decision to open a restaurant in the prestigious museum as 'bad taste' and blamed the Louvre's directors for failing to prevent what could result in 'fragrances of fries drifting under Mona Lisa's nose'."
Elitists. Snobs. Kill joys.

McDonald's has been making people happy for almost 70 years. I guess the French don't want people to feel happy after looking at all their depressing art in the Louvre. I suppose the arbiters of taste would prefer mimes outside of the Louvre handing out week-old baguettes to hungry tourists at inflated prices.

I have long supported a citizen's group that's advocated for more McDoanld's, and strategically positioned McDonald's restaurants. We'd like to see more McDonald's franchises in funeral homes, for instance. And in rape counseling centers. Also, walk-in psychiatric facilities would be the perfect locations for a McDonald's -- Lord knows those down-in-the-mouth sad-sacks could use a good pick-me-up. And what about Ground Zero in New York? If there is one place in America that could use a good, old-fashioned clown smile boost in spirits, it's that unhappy place. We should get back to basics and put a McDonald's right in the middle of Ground Zero.

Instead of lining the border between North and South Korea with tens of thousands (if not millions) of landmines, why not line the border with one McDonald's after another? We should remind those Gloomy Guses in the North what they're missing out on.

Fact is, McDonald's is what people have wanted since the 1940s. The numbers don't lie. So, I say the elitist schmucks who want to put their no-fun, show-offy effete tastes ahead of popular opinion should take a backseat and get out of the way of everyone else's fun. Better yet, they should order some Happy Meals. Who doesn't feel better after eating a few Happy Meals?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Barbarians at the Gate

Liz Hastlethwarte smiled genially when she appeared on the nationally televised morning program. She was an editor with a major publishing house, and was appearing on TV to promote the latest opus by the publisher's most popular name-brand author. The book was a vampire-themed romantic techno-thriller about symbols in famous works of art and international architecture. The novel was considered a "roller coaster ride," as well as "rollicking good fun." It had a first printing of 1.5 million copies.

"So, do you have any new up-and-coming writers we should watch for?" the bubbly morning show host inquired.

Liz looked at her, blank. "No."

As the car service delivered Liz back to the publishing house headquarters -- she enjoyed thinking of it as a "house" even though it was actually a ten-floor office suite in a ninety story fortress-like skyscraper -- she pondered the TV host's odd question near the end of the otherwise successful interview.

New . . . writers? The concept struck Liz as strange. The only writers she'd ever worked with had been publishing for as long as she'd been alive. The only authors the publisher handled were those whose names filled half a dozen slots on the bestseller lists of any given newspaper on any given week of the year. When Liz thought of those authors, the only words that came to mind were brilliant, eminent, erudite, and a couple who were feisty with a hint of devil-may-care about them. But new was not a word she associated with writers.

When she returned to the marble walled office, Liz took a few minutes to sit at her desk and re-acclimate herself to the rarefied air. When the slight buzz induced by "outside" air had passed, she decided to seek an answer to this strange question about "new writers."

She didn't dare ask any of her peers for fear that any sign of weakness would give them a competitive edge as they all clawed their way toward becoming senior editors, and thence on to VPs and other assorted executives in the company.

Liz started with the company's Web site. It took some searching, and ultimately she had to refer to the Site Map to find the link to "Submission Guidelines." When the page came up, she chuckled seeing that the guidelines essentially told vulgarian scribes not to bother submitting at all. Of course, the language was dressed-up to read "We do not consider or accept unsolicited manuscripts," but the message was clear.

"Of course we don't," Liz mumbled to herself. My gosh, can you imagine what would come in the mail if we did? she thought. The collected works of rest room wall graffiti perverts, lists of dirty jokes, filthy limericks, the ravings of lunatics. She bristled.

After exhausting the scant information on the company Web site, Liz went out of her office.

I'll bet people still submit manuscripts to us even though the Web site is crystal clear on the matter, she thought. Like people who don't come to a complete stop at a STOP sign, but just roll through.

She went down to the mail room.

The first thing she noticed about the area was the noise and the heat. There was the squeak of gears and pulleys and the bang of metal collapsing against metal. It was like a workhouse setting in a Dickens novel.

The immediate area Liz entered looked ordinary enough where gray-faced hourly-waged workers sorted letters. She approached one of the smaller, wan female sorters. "Have you ever handled a package that contained a manuscript?" she asked. The moment the words were out of her mouth, Liz regretted the question. This poor dimwit probably has no idea what a "manuscript" is.

But the girl pointed to a double-doorway that led toward the area from which the heat and noise emanated. Liz cautiously made her way over there.

The heat in the dimly lit area was sweltering. The heavy clanging noise came from a set of steel doors that slowly opened and banged closed like a giant mouth. Hordes of shirtless, sweaty men worked before the door with shovels, loading large manila envelopes in the giant mouth. Each time the doors slowly opened, massive flames came forth like ravenous, monstrous tongues.

A man wearing a shirt and holding a clipboard approached Liz. She was grateful. She couldn't take another moment in that hellish scene.

"Are you lost?" the man shouted over the noise.

"No," Liz shouted back. She was ready to retreat, but figured she may as well ask her question while she was here. "I'm looking for the area where manuscripts from new writers come in."

The man shook his head. "This is where we deal with unsolicited manuscripts. You should check with HR."

Liz was surprised she hadn't thought of that herself. She thanked the man and hurried back to the elevator, haunted by what she had witnessed.

The Human Resources department directed Liz to the fourth floor, to an area called Acquisitions.

She was met at the door by a person whose gender she could not determine. The person was bald, had no eyebrows or eyelashes, and wore a formless metallic smock. The person had large, intense eyes and spoke with a voice like Muzak.

"Welcome," the person said. "I am Radian. How may I help you?"

Liz stared at the person, vaguely wondering if he or she was even human. She quickly regained her wits. "I'm looking for the area that accepts manuscripts by new authors." Liz spoke like a child asking for confirmation that newborn babies were, actually, the result of sexual intercourse.

Radian smiled warmly. "Yes, this is the place."

"Really?" Liz said. "May I look around? Is there someone who can tell me how it works?"

"Certainly," Radian said. "I will answer your questions."

As they walked through this portion of the publishing house, Liz was struck by how dissimilar it was to the other offices. There were no corners, no right angles anywhere. The walls, floor and ceiling were white, and merged into one another with soft, rounded gradients. It was like moving through tunnels, rather than corridors.

"I know that we don't accept unsolicited manuscripts," Liz said. "Which only makes sense. But how do we find the authors we do publish?"

Radian led Liz through an archway that gave onto a large, pod-like room. There was a clear pool in the center of the room in which five beings who looked like just Radian lay. They appeared to be naked, but had no nipples or genitals. They lay motionless with their eyes closed. The only movement was their chests slowly rising and falling with breath. From their bald heads rose bouquets of wires that disappeared into holes in the flooring above them.

"Here we have the solici-psychics immersed in amniotic fluid," Radian said softly. "They transfer psychic impressions to the main data collecting server, which filters out impurities and compiles lists of authors we should approach about writing books for us."

"Where do they get their impressions?" Liz said. "They don't look like they've ever been outside."

Radian smiled its beneficent smile. "You don't have to go into the world to find books that will sell." Radian walked back into the hallway/tunnel.

Liz was taken to another large room where the floor was covered by an enormous map of the country. Once again, people who physically resembled Radian populated the room. They walked, slowly, back and forth across the map holding what looked like dowsers, or divining rods.

"You are correct," Radian said, though Liz had said nothing. "Those are divining rods."

Liz looked at Radian, flustered. "How did you know that's what I was thinking?"

Radian smiled.

"What are these people doing?" Liz asked.

"They divine areas of the country the soli-psychics should focus on for their impressions."

Radian led Liz to yet another room. As they walked, Liz thought that she could no longer be shocked by what went on in Radian's area. She was wrong. This time, she had no difficulty identifying the beings populating that room -- they were chimpanzees. Liz and Radian observed them through a window. Inside, the chimps stood to one side of the room and hurled darts at pages affixed to the opposite wall.

"What are they throwing darts at?" Liz said.

"Those are lists of recent graduates of MFA creative writing programs. The names and locations are cross-referenced with data cultivated by the dowers and solic-psychics. Once all of the data has been filtered and collated, we run lists of authors from whom we solicit manuscripts."

Liz looked at the busy chimps. Psychics . . . dowsers . . . and chimps . . . of course, she thought.

"Would it be possible for you to give me the name, or possibly the manuscript of a new author?" Liz asked.

"Of course," Radian said.

Liz returned to her office with the manuscript by a heretofore unpublished author. The novel was scheduled for publication with great fanfare next quarter. It was a vampire-themed romantic techno-thriller about symbols in famous works of art and international architecture . . . with a twist.

She couldn't wait to read it.

Before she did, however, Liz made arrangements to return to the nationally televised morning show to promote the book the day of its release.

JayStar -- Poor man's OnStar


Sometime after two a.m., the door to Burger World opens. A disheveled drunk stumbles into the place, clearly after a night of heavy consumption. The eel-eyed cashier is an unhappy teenager with a superiority complex. He sighs as the drunk approaches.

"Help you," the cashier says.

The drunk looks at the vast, illuminated menu board as though it's the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. "Jus' a sec," he belches. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of soiled change. He stares at it like he doesn't recognize the currency.

As another belch rises in his throat, the drunk takes out his cell phone and hits the JayStar button.

The signal banks off a dozing satellite and shoots into the squalid apartment, which serves as the JayStar headquarters.

JayStar, an unkempt man of indeterminate age, lounges in black jogging pants before a television showing reruns of Family Guy. His com-device signals with its distinctive beee-booop, rousing him. He grabs the handset.

"JayStar here -- go."

Back in Burger World, the drunk tries to collect his thoughts. "Uh, yeah man, whoa, I'm at Burger World and I only got two dollars and thirty one cents."

"What've you had tonight?" JayStar asks.

The drunk turns away from the counter. The cashier rolls his eyes.

"Uh, about eight beers, six rye-and Cokes and two doobs."

"How many people sharing the doobs?" JayStar inquires.

"Four of us."

"All right . . . today's what? Tuesday. OK, get the Fisherman's Catch Combo and an apple pie."

"Hang on," the drunk says into his cell phone. He turns to the cashier. "Gimme the Fisherman's Catch Combo and an apple pie."

The cashier punches the order into the register. "That'll be two dollars and twenty-nine cents."

The drunk slaps his change onto the counter. "Keep the change!" Into the cell phone he says, "Thanks JayStar!"


Party-time always leads to "munchie time," but seldom does it lead to "clear-thinking-time." But that doesn't bother you because you've got JayStar.

Having difficulty satisfying your munchies on a limited budget? Call JayStar, he'll instruct you on how to order the most food for the lowest price -- every time! Experiencing "option paralysis" choosing that last drink for the walk home? JayStar knows what you need. Having trouble navigating that confusing and convoluted telephone directory? Fear not, JayStar has the information you need.

For serious partiers, there is only one serious answer to those snags that keep you from enjoying your night to the fullest. Get JayStar today!


"This is JayStar -- go!"


Convenience store. After midnight. A burn-out stands in the snacks section, teetering like a tower in a windstorm. He suffers from option paralysis. In one hand, he holds a bag of Cheese Bursts. In the other, he holds a bag of Guacamole Diddlers.

Then inspiration hits.

The burn-out takes out his cell phone and hits the JayStar button.

The signal is slapshot into JayStar's apartment as he entertains some women he met in the laundry room of his apartment complex. JayStar, staying mentally limber, regales the ladies with an anecdote: ". . . dude's girlfriend carries a metal spoon in her smock so when she's giving the old guys sponge baths and one of them starts coming to attention, she gives his unit a thwack with the ole spoon --"


JayStar grabs the device-com's handset. "JayStar here -- go."

"Yeah, man, I'm at a store and I've been partying pretty heavy, and I don't know if I should get the Cheese Bursts or the Guacamole Diddlers."

"All right, Amigo," JayStar says, "breathe easy and tell me what you've had this evening."

"Uh, well," the burn-out wheezes, "I wasn't really counting --"

"That's OK, give me a rough ballpark guesstimate."

Eyes closed, trying to conjure images of his consumption that evening, the burn-out recounts: "Some beer -- about half a case at least. A fifth of vodka. Couple tequila shots. And some pot."

"Weed or oil?" JayStar inquires.

"Oil!" the burn-out says, momentarily recalling. "Oil. Right. Oil."

"If it was oil, go for the Diddlers. No question about it. Diddlers won't let you down."

The burn-out takes the bag of Diddlers to the counter and pays for them. As he walks out of the store, he raises his cell phone to his ear. "Thanks JayStar!"

"That's why I'm here," says JayStar.