Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Weighting is the Hardest Part

Thanks to the recent blizzard (ummm, Blizzard™) I’ve spent several days inside, trapped with all the trappings of the holidays: the tree, the gifts, the indescribably painful when stepped on Legos, and, of course, the food. The Christmas ham, homemade cookies, plates of fudge, and enough boxed chocolate to make Willy Wonka weep. And with nothing better to do, I’ve been eating it.

Now, like most chubby Americans, I’m planning to start my new year off with a resolution to lose weight – which is how I found myself in a race against time to see if I can polish off all the leftover food before January 1st arrives.  I know it’s counterproductive, and that all the weight I pack on this week is just going to make it harder on me for next week, but we’re talking about fudge, people. Sweet, sweet fudge.

And shrimp. Last Sunday, during the latest Giants debacle, I must have ate an entire pound of them – I know there’s a lame pun to be made with Giants and shrimp, but now is not the time. No, now is the time to get working on the last two trays of cookies, as I only have about 36 hours to finish them off.

I suppose I could just throw them away, or feed them to the birds, but that just seems wasteful (again, note how I’m avoiding the obvious “waist full” pun.)  Someone spent a lot of time and money making these things, and it’s my obligation to see that they are given the respect they deserve.

The other option is to let my family eat them, but they’re not the ones who are giving them up for new years  (cough -skinny bitches – cough) I am. So like a camel preparing to go out into the desert by loading up on water, I’m preparing for my diet by loading up on dessert (sorry, some puns just can’t be avoided.)

I know eating everything in sight is not the best way to start a weight loss regiment, but I have a fool-proof plan, which I will share here on New Year’s Day.  It’s not a gimmicky grapefruit diet or difficult exercise plan, it’s simply the easiest way to lose weight since liposuction.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a race to finish…an entire race of Gingerbread Men! 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Art of Revenge

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but according to my word count, this one is apparently worth 1053.  But before I explain the photo above, I have to explain the picture in my hands…

I’m not sure how it started, but for the past several years, my wife’s cousin, Renee, and I have engaged in a bit of a battle – oh wait, I do know how it started – I was cleaning out our basement and came across a load of wedding gifts that we had never used/opened (crystal serving pieces, candle holders, etc.) and rather than throw them out, I thought it would be funny to enroll Renee in the “Gift of the Month” club, where I would secretly send her the items every few weeks. So I boxed up some of the things, took it down to the post office, and sent it away. It cost a few bucks, but it was worth it for both the joke and never having to see that stuff again. Or so I thought.

I came home one day to find the same box sitting on my front porch with its original contents and a bunch of Renee’s unwanted items inside, including what looked to be the entire contents of her kitchen junk drawer.  Now, as someone who likes to dish it out, I can take it – but – while I appreciated her retaliation, I did not think it fair that she returned my stuff along with hers.  She should have at least kept the crystal napkin rings, right? But I soon learned Renee plays by her own rules, and thus a war was born.

I responded by secretly placing a very large sign in her front yard advertising a free cat spaying clinic (complete with pictures of Renee and her husband holding up cats by the tails and brandishing hedge clippers.) Unfortunately she found the sign before anyone could take her up on her services -  she also somehow found the time to stick a large “Gay Pride” magnet on the passenger side of my truck – which I drove around with for months before noticing it.

Things settled down for a while, until one day I came home from dropping my wife, Sarah, off at her baby shower, and found a beautiful gift basket on my porch. It was wrapped in cellophane and had a nice note explaining how while all the ladies were at the party, I should have some snacks to munch on as well. It was so nice, I didn’t even open it, as I wanted Sarah to see how thoughtful her friends were. When she came home, we opened it together, and inside were just these awful, awful things: kippered herring, creamed chipped beef, pork rinds, some sort of curdled tofu in red sauce. Just gross, nasty things. But it was so artfully arranged and the note so sincere, I still didn’t suspect Renee. I just figured my wife’s hippie friends had strange tastes in junk food. I even talked to Renee about it one night on the phone, telling her how afraid I was to open to the paneer tika masala, but she convinced me to settle my curiosity. It wasn’t until I opened the box and pulled out the foil packet inside and saw the photo of Renee’s daughter glaring at me that I knew I had been had again.

I bided my time, knowing revenge would be sweet (but also recognizing by now, short lived, for as soon as I responded, Renee would come back twice as hard.) My revenge took almost a year, during which I kept warning her how screwed she was, that my plan was so evil and well-crafted, it would haunt her forever. She laughed it off, claimed I was full of hot air, and let down her guard. And that’s when my book came out, complete with a nice paragraph in the end “thanking” Renee for all her hard work running the kissing booth outside the local woman’s prison. She was mortified, and I was avenged.

Again I thought things were settled. We were even. Game over. But then came a rapid series of responses: a pair of Scarface sneakers, some embarrassing photos, and “presents” left about the house after every visit (Monkey Butt Powder, a tissue box with my face on it and Kleenex coming out my nose, etc.) I figured I deserved it, and pretty much let her run free for a while, save for the Linda McMahon bumper sticker I put on her car.

Then, this Christmas, while taking all the decorations out of the attic, I found an ancient ceramic jar filled with individually wrapped biscotti. So of course I wrapped it up and gave it to Renee the night she invited us over for a holiday party. She knew something was amiss when she noticed some unidentified goo stuck to the side, but she went ahead and opened it anyway.  I warned everyone not to eat them, but every time Renee looked away, I would take one and hide it in her house, Easter Bunny style.

Which brings is, finally, to the photo above, where you see me enjoying the best gift I’ve gotten in years. And believe it or not, it was from Renee. A few months back, we were at a cousin’s house for a birthday party, and we all admired a framed photo-illustration of his last name, with each letter an actual photograph of something resembling the letter. So when I opened my gift and saw my last name depicted in such a manner, I was touched that Renee remembered that I had liked the idea and would care enough to track one down for me. Until a closer inspection revealed that each letter was made up of one of the “gifts” I had bestowed on her in the past!

Look closely and you’ll see that the W is formed from broken biscotti, the O a bowl of Jell-O, the other O a wood-burned cat off of a plaque I bought at a shop that sold items made by inmates, and the D the handle to a “I Love My Teacher” mug that I gave her last year. 

It was the perfect gift. A wonderful mix of clever creativity and subtle snarkyness  that was both thoughtful and spiteful, proving once and for all that revenge can be sweet!

Me and my nemesis (note the 40 oz "gift" she gave me)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas

From the "I wish I wrote that..." file: 

Above is Paul Auster, and below is his wonderful short story, Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, immortalized in the movie "Smoke" - I know it's long, so this will be a two day post (today AND Saturday) - the whole thing is worth a read, but if you're in a hurry, scroll down to the last video, which captures the events, and features a great Tom Waits song!  Happy Holidays


I heard this story from Auggie Wren. Since Auggie doesn't come off too well in it, at least not as well as he'd like to, he's asked me not to use his real name. Other than that, the whole business about the lost wallet and the blind woman and the Christmas dinner is just as he told it to me.

Auggie and I have known each other for close to eleven years now. He works behind the counter of a cigar store on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, and since it's the only store that carries the little Dutch cigars I like to smoke, I go in there fairly often. For a long time, I didn't give much thought to Auggie Wren. He was the strange little man who wore a hooded blue sweatshirt and sold me cigars and magazines, the impish, wisecracking character who always had something funny to say about the weather, the Mets or the politicians in Washington, and that was the extent of it.

But then one day several years ago he happened to be looking through a magazine in the store, and he stumbled across a review of one of my books. He knew it was me because a photograph accompanied the review, and after that things changed between us. I was no longer just another customer to Auggie, I had become a distinguished person. Most people couldn't care less about books and writers, but it turned out that Auggie considered himself an artist. Now that he had cracked the secret of who I was, he embraced me as an ally, a confidant, a brother-in-arms. To tell the truth, I found it rather embarrassing. Then, almost inevitably, a moment came when he asked if I would be willing to look at his photographs. Given his enthusiasm and goodwill, there didn't seem any way I could turn him down.

God knows what I was expecting. At the very least, it wasn't what Auggie showed me the next day. In a small, windowless room at the back of the store, he opened a cardboard box and pulled out twelve identical photo albums. This was his life's work, he said, and it didn't take him more than five minutes a day to do it. Every morning for the past twelve years, he had stood on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Clinton Street at precisely seven o'clock and had taken a single color photograph of precisely the same view. The project now ran to more than four thousand photographs. Each album represented a different year, and all the pictures were laid out in sequence, from January 1 to December 31, with the dates carefully recorded under each one.

As I flipped through the albums and began to study Auggie's work, I didn't know what to think. My first impression was that it was the oddest, most bewildering thing I had ever seen. All the pictures were the same. The whole project was a numbing onslaught of repetition, the same street and the same buildings over and over again, an unrelenting delirium of redundant images. I couldn't think of anything to say to Auggie, so I continued turning pages, nodding my head in feigned appreciation. Auggie himself seemed unperturbed, watching me with a broad smile on his face, but after he'd seen that I'd been at it for several minutes, he suddenly interrupted and said, "You're going too fast. You'll never get it if you don't slow down."

He was right, of course. If you don't take the time to look, you'll never manage to see anything. I picked up another album and forced myself to go more deliberately. I paid closer attention to the details, took note of the shifts in weather, watched for the changing angles of light as the seasons advanced. Eventually I was able to detect subtle differences in the traffic flow, to anticipate the rhythm of the different days (the commotion of workday mornings, the relative stillness of weekends, the contrast between Saturdays and Sundays). And then, little by little, I began to recognize the faces of the people in the background, the passers-by on their way to work, the same people in the same spot every morning, living an instant of their lives in the field of Auggie's camera.

Once I got to know them, I began to study their postures, the way they carried themselves from one morning to the next, trying to discover their moods from these surface indications, as if I could imagine stories for them, as if I could penetrate the invisible dramas locked inside their bodies. I picked up another album. I was no longer bored, no longer puzzled as I had been at first. Auggie was photographing time, I realized, both natural time and human time, and he was doing it by planting himself in one tiny corner of the world and willing it to be his own, by standing guard in the space he had chosen for himself. As he watched me pore over his work, Auggie continued to smile with pleasure. Then, almost as if he'd been reading my thoughts, he began to recite a line from Shakespeare. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," he muttered under his breath, "time creeps on its petty pace." I understood then that he knew exactly what he was doing.

That was more than two thousand pictures ago. Since that day, Auggie and I have discussed his work many times, but it was only last week that I learned how he acquired his camera and started taking pictures in the first place. That was the subject of the story he told me, and I'm still struggling to make sense of it.

Earlier that same week, a man from the New York Times called me and asked if I would be willing to write a short story that would appear in the paper on Christmas morning. My first impulse was to say no, but the man was very charming and persistent, and by the end of the conversation I told him I would give it a try. The moment I hung up the phone, however, I fell into a deep panic. What did I know about Christmas? I asked myself. What did I know about writing short stories on commission?

I spent the next several days in despair, warring with the ghosts of Dickens, O.Henry and other masters of the Yuletide spirit. The very phrase "Christmas story" had unpleasant associations for me, evoking dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush and treacle. Even at their best, Christmas stories were no more than wish-fulfillment dreams, fairy tales for adults, and I'd be damned if I'd ever allowed myself to write something like that. And yet, how could anyone propose to write an unsentimental Christmas story? It was a contradiction in terms, an impossibility, an out-and-out conundrum. One might just as well imagine a racehorse without legs, or a sparrow without wings.

I got nowhere. On Thursday I went out for a long walk, hoping the air would clear my head. Just past noon, I stopped in at the cigar store to replenish my supply, and there was Auggie, standing behind the counter as always. He asked me how I was. Without really meaning to, I found myself unburdening my troubles to him. "A Christmas story?" he said after I had finished. "Is that all? If you buy me lunch, my friend, I'll tell you the best Christmas story you ever heard. And I guarantee that every word of it is true."

We walked down the block to Jack's, a cramped and boisterous delicatessen with good pastrami sandwiches and photographs of old Dodgers teams hanging on the walls. We found a table in the back, ordered our food, and then Auggie launched into his story.

"It was the summer of seventy-two," he said. "A kid came in one morning and started stealing things from the store. He must have been about nineteen or twenty, and I don't think I've ever seen a more pathetic shoplifter in my life. He's standing by the rack of paperbacks along the far wall and stuffing books into the pockets of his raincoat. It was crowded around the counter just then, so I didn't see him at first. But once I noticed what he was up to, I started to shout. He took off like a jackrabbit, and by the time I managed to get out from behind the counter, he was already tearing down Atlantic Avenue. I chased after him for about half a block, and then I gave up. He'd dropped something along the way, and since I didn't feel like running any more, I bent down to see what it was.

"It turned out to be his wallet. There wasn't any money inside, but his driver's license was there along with three or four snapshots. I suppose I could have called the cops and had him arrested. I had his name and address from the license, but I felt kind of sorry for him. He was just a measly little punk, and once I looked at those pictures in his wallet, I couldn't bring myself to feel very angry at him. Robert Goodwin. That was his name. In one of the pictures, I remember, he was standing with his arm around his mother or grandmother. In another one he was sitting there at age nine or ten dressed in a baseball uniform with a big smile on his face. I just didn't have the heart. He was probably on dope now, I figured. A poor kid from Brooklyn without much going for him, and who cared about a couple of trashy paperbacks anyway?

"So I held on to the wallet. Every once in a while I'd get a little urge to send it back to him, but I kept delaying and never did anything about it. Then Christmas rolls around and I'm stuck with nothing to do. The boss usually invites me over to his house to spend the day, but that year he and his family were down in Florida visiting relatives. So I'm sitting in my apartment that morning feeling a little sorry for myself, and then I see Robert Goodwin's wallet lying on a shelf in the kitchen. I figure what the hell, why not do something nice for once, and I put on my coat and go out to return the wallet in person.

"The address was over in Boerum Hill, somewhere in the projects. It was freezing out that day, and I remember getting lost a few times trying to find the right building. Everything looks the same in that place, and you keep going over the same ground thinking you're somewhere else. Anyway, I finally get to the apartment I'm looking for and ring the bell. Nothing happens. I assume no one's there, but I try again just to make sure. I wait a little longer, and just when I'm about to give up, I hear someone shuffling to the door. An old woman's voice asks who's there, and I say I'm looking for Robert Goodwin. 'Is that you, Robert?' the old woman says, and then she undoes about fifteen locks and opens the door.

"She has to be at least eighty, maybe ninety years old, and the first thing I notice about her is that she's blind. 'I knew you'd come, Robert,' she says. 'I knew you wouldn't forget your Granny Ethel on Christmas.' And then she opens her arms as if she's about to hug me.

"I didn't have much time to think, you understand. I had to say something real fast, and before I knew what was happening, I could hear the words coming out of my mouth. 'That's right, Granny Ethel,' I said. 'I came back to see you on Christmas.' Don't ask me why I did it. I don't have any idea. Maybe I didn't want to disappoint her or something, I don't know. It just came out that way, and then this old woman was suddenly hugging me there in front of the door, and I was hugging her back.

"I didn't exactly say I was her grandson. Not in so many words, at least, but that was the implication. I wasn't trying to trick her, though. It was like a game we'd both decided to play - without having to discuss the rules. I mean, that woman knew I wasn't her grandson Robert. She was old and dotty, but she wasn't so far gone that she couldn't tell the difference between a stranger and her own flesh and blood. But it made her happy to pretend, and since I had nothing better to do anyway, I was happy to go along with her.

"So we went into the apartment and spent the day together. The place was a real dump, I might add, but what can you expect from a blind woman who does her own housekeeping? Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her. I told her I found a good job working in a cigar store, I told her I was about to get married, I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. 'That's fine, Robert,' she would say, nodding her head and smiling. 'I always knew things would work out for you.'

"After a while, I started getting pretty hungry. There didn't seem to be much food in the house, so I went out to a store in the neighborhood and brought back a mess of stuff. A precooked chicken, vegetable soup, a bucket of potato salad, a chocolate cake, all kinds of things. Ethel had a couple of bottles of wine stashed in her bedroom, and so between us we managed to put together a fairly decent Christmas dinner. We both got a little tipsy from the wine, I remember, and after the meal was over we went out to sit in the living room, where the chairs were more comfortable. I had to take a pee, so I excused myself and went to the bathroom down the hall. That's where things took yet another turn. It was ditsy enough doing my little jig as Ethel's grandson, but what I did next was positively crazy, and I've never forgiven myself for it.
"I go into the bathroom, and stacked up against the wall next to the shower, I see a pile of six or seven cameras. Brand-new thirty-five-millimeter cameras, still in their boxes, top-quality merchandise. I figure this is the work of the real Robert, a storage place for one of his recent hauls. I've never taken a picture in my life, and I've certainly never stolen anything, but the moment I see those cameras sitting in the bathroom, I decide I want one of them for myself. Just like that. And without even stopping to think about it, I tuck one of those boxes under my arm and go back to the living room.

"I couldn't have been gone for more than three minutes, but in that time Granny Ethel had fallen asleep in her chair. Too much Chianti, I suppose. I went into the kitchen to wash the dishes, and she slept through the whole racket, snoring like a baby. There didn't seem any point in disturbing her, so I decided to leave. I couldn't even write a note to say goodbye, seeing that she was blind and all, so I just left. I put her grandson's wallet on the table, picked up the camera again, and walked out of the apartment. And that's the end of the story."

"Did you ever go back to see her?" I asked.

"Once," he said. "About three or four months later. I felt so bad about stealing the camera, I hadn't even used it yet. I finally made up my mind to return it, but Ethel wasn't there any more. I don't know what happened to her, but someone else had moved into the apartment, and he couldn't tell me where she was."

"She probably died."

"Yeah, probably."

"Which means that she spent her last Christmas with you."

"I guess so. I never thought of it that way."

"It was a good deed, Auggie. It was a nice thing you did for her."
"I lied to her, and then I stole from her. I don't see how you can call that a good deed."
"You made her happy. And the camera was stolen anyway. It's not as if the person you took it from really owned it."
"Anything for art, eh, Paul?"
"I wouldn't say that. But at least you put the camera to good use."
"And now you've got your Christmas story, don't you?"
"Yes," I said. "I suppose I do."
I paused for a moment, studying Auggie as a wicked grin spread across his face. I couldn't be sure, but the look in his eyes at that moment was so mysterious, so fraught with the glow of some inner delight, that it suddenly occurred to me that he had made the whole thing up. I was about to ask him if he'd been putting me on, but then I realized he'd never tell. I had been tricked into believing him, and that was the only thing that mattered. As long as there's one person to believe it, there's no story that can't be true."
"You're an ace, Auggie," I said. "Thanks for being so helpful."
"Any time," he answered, still looking at me with that maniacal light in his eyes. "After all, if you can't share your secrets with your friends, what kind of a friend are you?"
"I guess I owe you one."
"No you don't. Just put it down the way I told it to you, and you don't owe me a thing."
"Except the lunch."
"That's right. Except the lunch."
I returned Auggie's smile with a smile of my own, and then I called out to the waiter and asked for the check.

Christmas is Not in the Cards

Julianna and Eli, 2010

Christmas cards have become a bone of contention in my house – whether it’s arguing over what to do with the ones we receive come January 1st ( Me wanting to throw them away vs Sarah wanting to save them)  to deciding whether or not we should send one out (Me: “Why bother, they’re just going to get thrown away!” vs Sarah: “Not everybody is as unsentimental as you!”)  - these tidings of comfort and joy are right up there with credit card bills as an annual source of disagreement.
Of course, my wife usually gets her way, which is why five days before Christmas, we’re scrambling to get the kids together for a photo shoot. I know we only have two to wrangle, but it’s harder than you’d think.  Even though the 21-month old enjoys posing for pictures - for about three seconds - our camera has a ridiculously slow response time, so by the time it captures the image, his cute "Cheese!" has aged to an Extra Sharp Cheddar.  And then there’s the 15-year old, who seemingly spends half her life taking pictures of herself and the other half posting them on facebook, yet for some reason, when we ask her to pose for the Christmas card, she acts like we're committing child abuse.
Now, if we were like some of the family cards I’ve seen, she 
might have a point. But we’re not asking for much. A nice sweater and a smile is all.  No one’s forcing her to sit on Santa’s lap, or wear matching outfits. There are no props or costumes. No staged snowball fights or recreated scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As you can see from our pictures, it’s just the two of them in front of the fireplace. Classic and simple. 

Sure, some people tend to go over the top, forcing their kids to reenact the birth of Christ or savor cups of cocoa like they’re in a Swiss Miss commercial, which I find obnoxious but entertaining. Unlike the ones that are obviously just vacation photos, which are just obnoxious. Maybe it’s just me, but if it's not Chrismassy, what’s the point? It’s December. I don’t need to see your kids building sandcastles on the beach or shaking hands with Mickey. And I certainly don’t care to see them in front of Yankee Stadium.  I mean, c’mon people, make some effort to be seasonal. 

I’ve probably already said too much, but I might as well dig my grave deeper by adding this final thought: If you don’t have kids, don't send out photo cards! I’m not trying  to exclude singles or childless couples from from the joys of the holiday, just trying to save them from the additional expense…and ridicule.  Your friends will never say it to your face, but when you send out a picture of your cat with Santa Claws, they don't think it's cute -they think you're crazy. So stick with the store bought cards and save the photo ones for the kids.

I know I sound like a Grinch, but to tell you the truth, having a baby around has softened me a bit - which is why this year when it comes time to take down all the Christmas cards, I won't throw them in the trash. I'll toss them in the recycling bin instead.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Serial Part Quatre

Previously on The Grand Caper: When the U.S. decides to go metric, two men go a little mental. Dave, the leader of a grassroots effort to stop the conversion meets Ray, who's "crazy, but only 3/5ths so" and together they created a bestselling book parodying the effect metric conversion would have on popular culture. The book lands them an appearance on the David Letterman show, and afterwards, Ray shares  some secrets about his past while walking through his old hometown in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. It is there that he also unveils his plan to use the profits from the book to travel to France and steal Le Grand K.

"How much further is it?" Dave whined, his hands tensely gripping the wheel in anticipation of entering another traffic circle. It seemed like the French roads had a roundabout every other mile, and Dave was flustered by the way drivers buzzed through them in their tiny little cars like caffeinated bees. But at least they drove on the right side of the road, he consoled himself.
            "I'm not sure exactly," said Ray, "we're looking for a place called Parc de Saint-Cloud. It may be just over this hill..."  
            They had arrived in Paris the day before.  Since neither spoke French, it had taken most of the day just to rent a car and secure a room.  Ray did most of the "talking" - which involved pecking away at a calculator-sized translator before phonetically reciting the words that popped up on the screen. Only Ray kept reverting back to the Spanish accent learned from his high school days, making him sound like something born of an unlawful union between Speedy Gonzalez and Pepe le Peu.   

Even so, they quickly learned that asking was the easy part, it was the listening and understanding that was tricky. 
After renting the car, a Peugot that made those little Shriner cars look roomy, they set off to find their hotel. When the map proved useless, they took to pulling over and pestering pedestrians.

 " hotel Mondial?" Ray would yell out the side window.
  (Where is the Mondial Hotel?)           

 "L'hôtel Mondial?" they'd repeat.  "Il est situeé à guache de la rue Sommet."
 (The Mondial Hotel?)                      (It is located to the left of Summit Street)
Or, as Dave and Ray heard it:

"Lotelmondeeal?  Illay sittuayagoshederoosummay." 

Ray would then valiantly input the rush of words into his device, usually coming up with something useful, like "Island soldiers making merry on leave"           
"Merci," he'd say, thanking the man for his help, before turning to Dave. "I think it's just over this next hill." 
            It was in this manner that they managed to find their hotel, order dinner at a restaurant (actually a McDonald's, but even so, still stressful), and pay for enough gas to get them to Sevres, a small town on the western outskirts of Paris. They were looking for the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM), the organization responsible for the creation and provision of all standard measures.  The BIPM was housed in the Pavillon de Breteuil, which according to Ray, was a "Large mansion commissioned by Louis XIV in 1672 to be built as a gift for his brother,  but is now home to the current director of the BIPM."
 "There!" Ray shouted. "Up on the right. See the sign?"
Dave did, but there was no way to get over in time.
"Damn. Hang on," he said, resigning himself to another lap in the roundabout. "And if you make one more Chevy Chase joke, I swear I'll open your door, shove you out, and run you over next time I come around." 
It took two more trips around the circle before he could finally exit, but Ray wisely refrained from calling out "Big Ben" or "Parliment."

The building was right off the main road, and not knowing what else to do, Dave simply pulled into the driveway and parked the car in a large lot to the right of the main building.  He had expected some sort of guard house or sentry station, but the only sign of security was a tall iron gate, similar to those surrounding cemeteries.  The large gate door was wide open and unmanned, so Dave just drove right through it.  To Dave, the Pavillon looked pretty much like the back view of the White House, as pictured on the reverse of the new twenty dollar bills, only without the columns. 

            Ray was busy snapping off pictures for later study, for this was to be just a fact-finding mission, or reconnaissance, as Ray called it  - which Dave couldn't help but point out was the first French word he had pronounced correctly in nearly 48 hours. He also pointed out that taking the free tour that the BIPM offered to the public hardly qualified as espionage.  

"We'll see about that," Ray responded cryptically.  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The First Annual Woody Awards!

Seeing as how this is the season for giving thanks and spreading joy, I’d like to use this forum to publicly thank some people (not already listed in my book's credits) who have gone above and beyond with helping me promote it by presenting them with the coveted Woody Award.

The Woody is given semi-regularly to those who deserve it  A select few have received my Woody, and so far there have been no complaints.  So, with no further adieu, I’d like to give a Woody to…

James Barraford! 

I have never met the guy, but he’s been a staunch supporter of my book since it came out. He’s Twittered about it, shared it on facebook, reviewed it on Amazon, and I’m pretty sure he’s even read it! As far as I'm concerned, he could have stopped there and still won - but I’ve seen James champion many causes for other people as well. He’s helped my nemesis Renee search for her missing cats. He’s praised the good folks at Sunflower Farms. He’s a proud fan of minor league sports. And he even likes Canada! He just seems like an all-around good guy and strong supporter of the underdogs (and cats) out there. The world needs more people like him. So thank you James, and enjoy your Woody.

PS - stay tuned for some rather unusual upcoming events. I have several potentially embarrassing (for me) things in the works, all aimed at promoting the book. The first is scheduled for Jan. 10th, where I will be performing a one-man show (with the help of two other men) at the Huntington Street Café. It’s based on a short story that I wrote (available here). There will be two performances: 6:00-7:30 and 8:00-9:30. Tickets are $5 and there will be a cash bar (beer and wine.)

That is all for now. Be sure to check back on Tuesday to see who walks away with the next Woody

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

HELLo Santa

As much as I love Christmas, I’m not a huge fan of Santa – not that I’m a Jesus freak, mind you, it’s just that when it comes to decorating and whatnot, you’ll find more pop culture items (Rudolph, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Story, etc.)  around my house than Santa stuff.  
It probably stems from my childhood, when my neighbor, and future sister-in-law, Kelly, had these horribly scary Santa faces hanging in her house. The picture below hardly does them justice, but believe me, they were terrifying.

Speaking of pictures, hang out at the mall for an hour and watch kids reactions to Santa. My theory is the ones who take to him immedietly and have no problem sitting and smiling on his lap are most likely evil, while the ones who are afraid, like my angel Eli, are the good kids.  I have no proof of this, but it makes sense to me.

Me and Eli on the front page of the Huntington Herald

Especially when you consider that when you move the “n” in Santa to the end, you get Satan. It may just be a coincidence, but there’s no denying that they do have many similarities: they both dress in red, they’re both blamed for turning people away from Jesus, and they both like to come down chimneys (only Satan does it just to be gross!) Oh, and they’re both very good at scaring children.
For one month, parents can control their kids with, “Be good, or Santa won’t bring you any presents” and the rest of the year they can rely on saying, “Be good, or Satan will burn you in Hell!”  - the only difference is Santa apparently has a phone, as I’ve never heard a mom threaten to call the devil and let him know little Johnny was being bad.
Now that I think about it, they’re probably in cahoots. All that coal that Santa gives to the bad kids is probably the same coal that Satan will later use to stoke the fires under them. And in return,  Satan gets first rights to the names on Santa’s “Naughty” list to give to his telemarketers (hellamarketers?) for sales leads.
Of course, this blog entry will probably land me on the Naughty list, but I can handle it - I've got Caller ID and registered for the Do Not Call list - and with the cost of oil these days, I could really use the coal.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Third Helping of Saturday Serial

Previously on The Grand Caper: When the U.S. decides to go metric, two men go a little mental. Dave, the leader of a grassroots effort to stop the conversion meets Ray, who's "crazy, but only 3/5ths so" and together they created a bestselling book parodying the effect metric conversion would have on popular culture. The book lands them an appearance on the David Letterman show, and afterwards, Ray shares  some secrets about his past while walking through his old hometown in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. It is there that he also unveils his plan to steal Le Grand K...

 The Pavillon de Breteuil, home of Le Grand K in Sevres, France

“First, a little history” Ray started. “As you know, the kilogram is the base unit of mass in the metric system. And as a base unit, many other units are defined in relation to it, so its stability is important. But for some reason, unlike other units of measure, the kilogram was not defined by a natural constant…”

Seeing a blank stare, Ray stopped to explain.

“Natural constants are fundamental physical properties that can be replicated in laboratories, take the speed of light, for example. The idea is that if things are defined by what we can find in nature, there’s no chance of variability or human error. Anyway, scientists searched for a constant, and came close when they found that the weight of a liter of water was almost equal to a kilogram. But in order to be as accurate as possible, the International Committee for Weights and Measures decided to manufacture a prototype, and that’s how the IPK was born. Using somewhat circular logic, the kilogram was defined as being equal to the mass of the IPK, which stands for the International Prototype Kilogram. The IPK, or Le Grand K as the Frenchies call it, is a platinum-iridium cylinder that is stored in Sevres, France - and while it’s literally worth its weight in platinum, its real worth to the sanctity of the metric system is invaluable. Which is why I’m suggesting we steal it!”

Dave laughed, assuming Ray was joking. But when the laughter stopped and Ray was still watching him expectantly, he realized he was serious
“So let me make sure I have this straight,” Dave started, choosing his words carefully. “First, I’m going to forget the whole stealing thing for a moment - which is just crazy -  but are you telling me that without this cylinder, there would be no way to accurately measure metric weight anymore? We could kill the kilogram?”
“Not exactly. You’ve heard of Greenwich Mean Time, right? How  we basically set our clocks based on the official time over in England? Well let’s say that British clock were to be destroyed, time would still continue, right? I mean, the sun would rise and set, days would pass. Life would go on.. But, there’d be no reliable reference point anymore. Nothing to synchronize our watches to. It wouldn’t be chaos, but it would be confusing for a while.”
“Confusing? You want to risk going to jail, creating an international incident and perhaps getting ourselves killed, just to generate some confusion?”
“It’s from Henry Miller, one of my favorite authors. What I’m trying to say is that if we want to change the world, or in our case, stop our world from changing, then confusion may not be a bad place to start. Right now, the American people are lemmings, blindly following their leader. We need to open their eyes and show them that there are other options. And confusion, by definition, occurs when there is a wealth of options.”
“But what you’re suggesting is criminal.  And dangerous.  I started this movement knowing full well I’d be subjecting myself to ridicule and maybe some mild harassment, but I’m not a terrorist!”
Ray shook his head, but it was unclear if he was chiding Dave or dismissing his concerns, until he spoke…
“There’s a thin line between terrorism and activism,” he said, “and I think we may have to cross it. But don’t worry. I have a plan. If things work out, no one will get hurt. ”
The two men continued walking.  Dave was no longer sure if Ray had a destination in mind, yet he was following him anyway. He thought back to their first meeting, and the strange sense that he had just shook hands with the devil. So far their partnership had been both fun and rewarding, but he couldn’t shake the thought that they were headed for disaster.  

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sweet Release?

Ooops, I spent the evening narrating a video for my play and putting together a press release for newpapers like the Connecticut Post and forgot to do something for my blog post. So killing two birds with one stone, here's the press release before it hits the presses - a blogsclusive! 


Date: December 8, 2010
Press Contact:  Mike Wood, author, 203-922-1377 or

RE: Local Novelist Turns Playwright; Premier to Take Place at Huntington St. Cafe on 1/10/11

Local Novelist Turns Playwright; Premier to Take Place at Huntington St. Cafe on 1/10/11

SHELTON – To his students, he’s Mr. Wood – West Shore middle school’s 6th Grade English teacher. To readers of nostalgic fiction, he’s Mike Wood – author of the acclaimed novel, Alchemy. And to theater goers, he’s absolutely no one. But that could change once his first play, "Ecnalubma," hits the stage in early January.

Premiering at the Huntington St. Café on Monday, January 10th, "Ecnalubma" can be viewed as a modern fable about a young man resisting the urge to become an adult. Or maybe it’s a metaphor about the predictable uncertainties in life. Or it could just be a funny story about three guys getting high in a car that turns into a dark look at the seemingly meaningless moments that ultimately make us who we are. Using a multi-media approach that allows the audience to journey along with the main character as he revisits several milestones in his life, “Ecnalubma” is all of the above and more.

Wood, 40, said he was looking for unique ways promote his book and realized that as a first time author, he couldn’t rely on simply selling the story, he had to sell himself. And thus a play was born. The story he brings to the stage is both very personal - “Too personal,” Wood jokes, and universal. “There’s something for everyone, so long as they’re over 21,” he cautions, referring to the adult content of the play.

In addition to Wood, the play features two former Shelton residents, Geof Johnson and Gary Perez, childhood friends who the author recruited to play themselves on stage. “That was probably the hardest part,” Wood admits. “They have been very supportive of my writing, but I wasn’t sure how they’d feel when I turned my pen on them! Luckily, they not only approved of it, they agreed to star in  it!”

You can see the results for yourself on Monday, January 10th, 2011 at the Huntington St. Café (90 Huntington Street, Shelton, CT (203) 925-9064) There will be two performances of the 45-minute play, 6:00-7:30 and 8:00-9:30. The Café’s bar and kitchen will be open for food and drink. Tickets are $5, and can be reserved by calling Mike Wood at (203) 922-1377, or emailing him at

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday Morning Serial (Bowl Two)

Previously on The Grand Caper: When the U.S. decides to go metric, two men go a little mental. Dave, the leader of a grassroots effort to stop the conversion meets Ray, who's "crazy, but only 3/5ths so" and together they created a bestselling book parodying the effect metric conversion would have on popular culture. The success of the book is what will give them the capital to go ahead with their plan: stealing Le Grand K, the kilogram standard housed in Sevres, France.  

We pick up with them walking through the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, Ray's hometown, after an appearance on David Letterman.

Or, if that didn't bring you up to speed, click here for last week's installment.

"So this is where you grew up,” Dave asked, as they headed south down Manhattan Avenue so Ray could prove that the streets were indeed in alphabetical order.

“A, Ash. B, Box. C, Clay,” he called out as they approached each sign. “D, Dupont. E, Eagle. F, Freeman…”

“Okay, I believe you. Can we stop now? I’m tired.

“G, Green. H, Huron. I, India…”

“Well then can we at least take a cab? These shoes weren’t exactly made for walking.”

“Well then why make them?” Ray asked seriously. “And more importantly, why buy them?”

“I wanted to look nice for the show. I still can’t believe we were on Letterman!”

“Speaking of letters, here comes J, Java! K, Kent. And off to our left is Newtown Creek, site of the nation’s worst oil spill…that is until the Exxon Valdez and BP stole our title.”

“I’m sorry for your loss?” Dave tried, still not sure what to make of his new friend and business partner. “There’s always next year?”

“Of course I’m not happy about,” Ray explained. “But not in the way you’re thinking, smartass. My point is, it should have stayed the nation’s largest spill because we should have learned our lesson.  There shouldn’t have been another one. Or two. Or goddamned dozens. But we never learn. No one listens. When money talks, reason walks.”

“Well, I for one see no reason to continue walking,” Dave pressed. “Are we there yet?”


“Your childhood home. Isn’t that what we came here to see?”


“What do you mean, why? You said you were born and raised here.”

“I was.”

“So I thought you wanted to check out your house. Visit the old stomping grounds.”

“Well we all know what happened to Thought, don’t we?”

Dave just shook his head, perplexed.

“Thought thought he had to fart, but he shit his pants instead!”

“So then why are we here,” Dave pressed, ignoring Ray’s “explanation.”

“We were in town, so to speak. It’s been a while since I’d been back here – not since the Asian long-horn beetle fiasco…”

“The what?”

“Long story…ha, ha! Get it? Long story? Long-horn beetle?” Ray giggled crazily. A full 5/5ths crazily in Dave’s opinion.

“What is the matter with you? I've never seen you like this. Is something wrong? You seem so nervous. Well, more nervous than normal.”

They had stopped walking, and spotting a bench, Dave took the opportunity to rest and rub his feet while waiting for Ray to explain.

Ray took several childlike spins around a street sign before continuing.

“It was the summer of ’96 and I was working for the phone company.  Literally for the company, not part of it.  It was my job to trim the tree limbs that were interfering with the telephone wires coming off the poles. An advance crew would mark the trees, and we would go out, prune them and then come back and dispose of the wood. But one day we ended up with a full load well before the end of our route, so I decided to just dump the load in some nearby woods…”

Dave gasped in mock horror. “For shame! You of all people, growing up in the land of the largest oil spill, a litterbug?”

“I know, I know.  But it was just wood. Ashes to ashes, right? But it wasn’t. Turned out the branches were infested with Asian long-horn beetles, and my illegal dumping spread them into Amityville.”

“Amityville? As in "Horror?"” Dave asked, seizing on to the one detail he found interesting.

“Yes. The same. But those beetles were worse than any flies…or flying pigs. For one thing, they were real. And another, they  totally destroyed trees.”

“So what then?” Dave asked, struggling to find the point in the story. “Let me guess. They ended up eating all the trees and putting you out of business? Or did you got arrested?”

“No, no. Nothing like that. No one even found out it was me.”

“So why are you telling me all this?”

“You asked!”

“Me? When? All I wanted to know was why you’re acting so jumpy…well, jumpier than usual. You’re the one who started with all the bug stuff.”

“Well, it’s sort of connected. You see, it seemed like good idea at the time…dumping that wood. But it ended up causing a lot of trouble. And even though I never got caught, and it wasn’t really my fault, I still feel guilty.  You understand what I’m saying?”

Dave nodded.

“Good.  Because you see, I have this other idea that seems like it might be pretty good…”

And that’s when Ray told him about Le Grand K

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bright Lights, Big Pity

It’s not often that I applaud the actions of thieves, but in this case I am willing to make an exception, for they have recently turned their attention to stealing those increasingly popular, incredibly expensive, and inexcusably annoying Xenon headlights.  You know the ones I’m talking about, the headlights that emit the blue glow that turns night to day by burning brighter than a military flare?  Well apparently they are being stolen at quite a steady clip, and at quite a heavy cost to the owners, for these stolen headlights can cost as much as $600 dollars each to replace.  Yes, I said each. And that doesn’t even include the cost of repairing the damage done in removing them, or the labor to reinstall them.  At the end of the day, we’re talking thousands of dollars to replace these stolen headlights. And while the thought of rich people parting with their “hard earned” money does provide me with a little pleasure, that alone is not enough for me to turn a blind eye to robbery.  But when you make it two blind eyes…then I start rooting for the bad guys.

Trying to drive with these cars coming at you is like welding without a hood, since the Xenon powered rays shine 3x brighter than standard halogen headlights.  I’m sure they must offer a wonderfully clear and bright view for the drivers behind the wheels of their Lexus’ and BMW’s, but for the rest of us who have to contend with driving blind through their oncoming blue blaze, they can be quite dangerous.  Sure, the streets are safer for them, for not only can they see better, but the road is probably clear of traffic as well, since most of us have either pulled over to let them pass, or steered sightless into a drainage ditch. 

Once again, the rich are ignoring our rules. No longer content with keeping us out of their communities and paying their way to the front of the line at theme parks, now they want to claim the highways as their own as well.  For years we all had to navigate through our notoriously dark highways and parkways by employing a constant combination of high- and low-beams.  We’d rely on the brighter high beams to light the way whenever possible, but would quickly dim them down to “low” out of courtesy to oncoming traffic or upcoming cars, knowing that the brighter lights coming through the windshield, or reflected in the rear-view mirror, made it difficult (and dangerous) for them to see and drive.  Sure, there was the occasional jerk who would keep their high-beams on full time, but they were few and far between.

Now, courtesy of the Xenon bulb, they are everywhere. But, thanks to some enterprising thieves and unscrupulous auto body shops, there may be less of them on the road and more in the garage. Again, I’m not one who normally sides with criminals, but until these lights are outlawed, I say let the outlaws have the lights.  Sooner or later the rich folk are bound to get tired of paying for their Xenon replacements and will go back to their plain old halogen headlights.  Then they can get back to simply (and safely) blinding us with their dazzling smiles and sparkling jewels. But until then, for safety’s sake, please refrain from engaging in any retaliatory high-beaming of the Xenon crowd. I know it’s tempting to try and duel it out with your dual headlight-sabers, but we all know that two wrongs do not make a right, and more importantly, two blind drivers are worse than one.  So take the high road (if you can see it) and show them that just because they are brighter than us doesn’t mean that they are smarter. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Get a Leg Up

It’s not often that I pat myself on the back (feel free to insert your own fat joke here) but I do take pride in the fact that I was one of the first people to own a Leg Lamp. Yes, that leg lamp, from "A Christmas Story" - which for the uninitiated, is not the Christmas story with Baby Jesus in the manger,  but the wonderfully retro tale of a young boy's quest for "an official Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time." Anyway, after buying our first house back in 2003, my next major purchase was a genuine Red Rider Leg Lamp, which I planned to display in the sunroom's full-length window for all the world to see. 

I waited for its arrival with the same anticipation Ralphie had for his Little Orphan Annie decoder pin. When it finally showed up, complete with a “frah gee lay” box, which I promptly threw out (more on that later) I tore it open, placed it on its predetermined place of honor, and plugged it in. It was beautiful! 

It blazed in glory all month. Cars slowed down as they passed. People stopped to take pictures. Neighbors told me how they used it as a landmark: "Turn left after you pass the house with the leg lamp..."

But then the inevitable happened. No, my wife did not "accidentally" smash it and use up all the glue on purpose. New Year's Day came. Time to put away all the holiday decorations. Only when I went to pack up the leg lamp, I realized that I no longer had the original box, You see, when it first arrived, I was still in unpacking mode from the move, so to me, an empty box was something to be thrown out. I didn't occur to me that half the fun of the lamp would be the yearly opening of the box with the straw packing material (excelsior) that protected the Major Award inside. I envisioned my family gathering 'round each year as I hauled the box out of the attic, gasping in awe as I opened it. So I did what any reasonble person would do: I emailed the company, explained my predicament, and they kindly shipped me an empty box (for $16.95!)

Now that we’re in our new house, the lamp no longer takes center stage in the sunroom, but it does have a new home in the window above our garage. Regrettably, the family has yet to gather 'round as I open the box, nor do they seem all that impressed with what's inside.  But it makes me smile to see the "FRAGILE" label on it. And even though the straw tends to get stuck in the fishnet stocking, I feel it was worth the aditional expense. Come to think of it, that straw is the probably the closest thing we have to a religious decoration, since it's usually found in a manger, so maybe my lamp is Christmassy after all!