Musings

Book Review: Kings of the Wyld

Last week, I posted about my nascent querying process. I made reference to Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames as one of my two “comp titles,” because every proper query must include two titles that your book is exactly the same as, but different from. It’s The Cat in the Hat mixed with Debbie Does Dallas.

Sorry, that wasn’t a very good comp. They have to be modern titles, you see. Other than that, the pairing works perfectly. Like Bordeaux and Kraft Dinner.

I struggled with my comp titles throughout most of the first two drafts of my work-in-progress. Part Star Wars, part Game of Thrones. Except it’s neither sci-fi nor epic fantasy. Oh, and set in the real world.

Can’t imagine why it took three drafts to figure out what the hell I was doing. 

I always had an idea for what I wanted to do with it, but when the words hit the page, I couldn’t make them go that way. 

Then I read Kings of the Wyld. Wow.

Forget comp title. This bad boy opened up my world as to what was possible in genre writing. I finally figured out how to fix that major ho-hum in my WIP. Turns out it was what I always wanted to do with it, but Kings of the Wyld finally gave me permission. 

Wait, is that why we’re supposed to find current books to comp? 

So consider this my book review, my book report a year or two late. And a desperate attempt to milk one more post outta that damned Work-In-Process.

Anything to avoid querying, amirite?

Kings of the Wyld and its sequel start with a simple premise that deconstructs an underlying trope of epic fantasy. You know that rough-and-tumble group of adventurers who put their differences aside and origins together to “band together” and save the princess/town/kingdom from the wizard/dragon/demon? Well, they’re basically rock stars. What if they were actually rock stars?

That’s the premise of the series: adventurers act like your standard classic rock band. The front man tunes his axe while the wizard in the background twirls his twin daggers a la drumsticks. The “band” at the core of this book, named Saga, goes through bards like Spinal Tap does drummers. They don’t even remember how certain ones died.

The trios and quartets and quintets go on tours, traveling from city to city to defeat the monsters, then sticking around long enough for the sex and booze before moving on to the next town booked by their agent. 

At least that’s how it used to be. But like our real rock gods, the members of Saga have aged. Retired, even. Nowadays, from their perspective, these glam-rock noobs stage arena shows predicated on flash instead of substance. They even use makeup! Imagine Duane Allmann showing up at a Twisted Sister concert. Or even better, Backstreet Boys.

Except there are manticores and walking trees and shit. 

The inciting incident occurs when one of the old dudes’ daughter joined a band of her own and now needs help. What more do you want from your epic fantasy than an opening salvo of, “Let’s get the band back together.”

So part swords and sorcerers, part music appreciation, with a healthy dose of us old farts adjusting to the fact that we can’t do what we once could. Of course, we have wisdom now, but is the increase in that attribute enough to counteract the loss of strength, dexterity, and constitution all at once?

Ugh, my constitution used to be so strong. The worst part about my school reopening is retraining my bladder and bowels. Ninetyminutes between pees, six hours without pooping.

Sorry, TMI? Well the good news is you probably won’t see that being discussed in Kings of the Wyld. It often toed the line, it often hinted it might go full camp, but it never does. Every time I thought they were going to abandon the fantasy element for the rock motif, it always steered back. 

One part that stuck out was a battle of the bands with one of these newfangled boy bands. The lead up felt about 70% Led Zeppelin vs. NKOTB” and maybe 30% “Roll a d20.” They went to a bar the night before, met fans of the new band, heard all the rumors of their own demise. Some of the patrons didn’t remember Saga, while others told rumors about the old band a la Ozzy Osborne. Pretty much nobody believes they are who they say they are until they damn near burn the place down. 

Do you think David Lee Roth has similar stories from, say, the mid-nineties?

When they show up at the arena for the Battle of the Bands, however, a griffin breaks free from its chain and almost kills everyone. All of a sudden, it’s standard sword-and-sorcery, battle-the-monster type stuff. The band works together like an experienced group of adventurers and save the day, all the while creating a new generation of fans. Even those young whippersnapper adventurers learned a thing or two about how shit was dealt with back in the day, when the circumstance presaged the pomp.

That’s what I meant by always choosing the straight path when given the option. Eames constantly approached the line between campy and serious, but he never crossed it. In fact, as the book went on, once the premise was laid, he didn’t lean into it as much. The second half of the book was maybe eighty to ninety percent something you’d read from Brandon Sanderson or Geroge R.R. Martin, although not quite as wordy. He’d established the premise, he’d hooked us onto the characters, now he was telling their story.

Aas I was reading it, I was continuously surprised at how dense it was. A lot of the fantasy I’ve read the last few years are in the vein of Critical Failures or NPCs, two series that don’t take themselves seriously enough to notice there was supposed to be a line between comedy and prose. They’re quick, fun reads. I kept expecting Kings of the Wyld to take on that pacing, but it didn’t. Two equally gratifying “fixes” to the glut of epic fantasy out there.

So how does this all play into my work-in-progress? I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s intended to be part alternative history, part low fantasy. It was intended to be more of the fomer than the latter, but as I wrote it, it felt more fantasy than history. Writing a “Middle Ages that never ended” lends itself to e Olde Tyme Language. I wanted to sprinkle in a bunch of modern references. The flash fiction from which it was born featured Zip-Lock bags, and while there were a handful of real-life people, as all proper alternative histories must, they were buried in the background. I was afraid to feature them.

As I was writing, the naive POV character trying to make sense of the world took over. When he’s knee deep in profound questions about the nature of feudalism and “the world is not what it seems” seems like a bad time to drop in a “Where’s the Beef?” 

Or maybe that’s the PERFECT time to drop in a “Where’s the Beef!” That’s what Kings of the Wyld taught me. Instead of toning down the tongue-in-cheek, I could lean into it and still not let it take over the narrative.

These toungue-in-cheek moments were always part of the plan, rarely in the execution. Among the first “scenes” that popped into my head, in fact one of the phrases in the original flash fiction, was turning the Prince lyric into olde tyme speeche: “Let us feast, frivol. Let us party like ’tis nineteen hundred ninety-and-nine.” 

But every time it came to dropping one of those into the writing, I got scared. The book must take itself seriously!

Except maybe it doesn’t.

I dabbed my foot into this Brave New World with a campy Spice Girls reference that I’d planned but shied away from. When I sent the first batch to a couple of beta readers, out of 10,000 words of introduction, with at least three bona fide characters to connect with and a myriad of worldbuilding mysteries, what was the one response that everyone had? “I really liked the Spice Girls part.”

Great. The only part they glommed onto was the throw-in that had little to do with the plot. Why should I bother writing the other 90,000 words if I could’ve just gone Spice Girls for 500 pages.

Except, of course, the Spice Girls only works as an accoutrement. Christmas ornaments only work if they’ve got a tree to hang on. 

Nicholas Eames did a great job of toeing that line. I knew when he was being funny and when he was being serious. At least, by the end I did. Early on, I thought there must be some jokes I was missing, and that feeling continued as he phased away from the rock references. In the second half, they became rarer as the conflict and the characters we’ve come to care about took over the plot. I find myself following a similar pattern. The first few drop-ins are lengthier, more developed. They need to hook the reader. In the later chapters they’re only there as a reminder. By then, the reader needs to care about the characters.

That’s what brought me to Kings of the Wyld. If it was reviewed as “old adventurers are forced to fight again when a daughter is in trouble,” I wouldn’t have sought it out. But “In a world where they are treated like rock gods, four retired adventurers decide it’s time to ‘get the band back together!’? Hell yeah! So if my book becomes known for the Spice Girls and nothing else… shit, I’d LOVE for my book to be known for something. Anything.

To be fair, I still worry when I drop in 1990s vernacular. Will the agent/editor/publisher/reader realize that a wee peasant lass dropping an, “As if!” is intentional, and not just the markings of a writer who doesn’t understand that modern parlances shall not grace Medieval literature. Not that “as if” is modern parlance, but you know what I mean. I’ve read far too many “period pieces” only to find myself diving for a dictionary to verify my assumption that that word didn’t exist until 100 years later. Sorry, your Civil War soldier isn’t worried that his life is going into a “tailspin” forty years before the first airplane.

But you gotta take some risks if you want to stick out of the slush pile, to say nothing of the thousands of published works that also found their own way out of it. 

The good news is I now know it can be done.

But it must be done well.

Shit. 

#amquerying (almost)

On this Easter Monday, perhaps I should chat about the Book Eternal.

No, I’m not talking about the bible. I’m talking about my Work-in-Progess that started somewhere in the Obama administration, and is still sitting in about twelve different files, four different versions, on my laptop.

Kinda feels like it’s been around since Roman times. All it’s missing is some divine inspiration.

When I first referenced this work-in-progress, it was a flash fiction I wrote that started a black hole of my brain. The following week, I posted the first draft of the scene in the book that correlated to that initial idea nugget. It was still in EXTREMELY first-draft mode. Not that I understood the difference between first and later drafts back then. I still don’t.

If I ever get an agent, and that agent okays me posting some of my content for free, maybe I’ll pair those with the “final draft.”

Is there such a thing as a final draft?

I’m currently on chapter five of my third work-in-progress (fourth, if you count my first aborted attempt at “autobiographical fiction”). I know it’s a normal reaction, opining how shitty it is compared to the one that’s on its third draft. When left brain takes over, I remember how often that first WIP felt like a smoking pile of dung-heap. All the characters were boring, but especially the main one. The action was plodding and predictable, the writing full of clichés and prone to use five words when two will do. 

Even worse, I think to myself, is that this new book is horribly dry compared to my lightning-in-the-bottle first book, and that first book hasn’t even been accepted by a literary agent, much less sold to a publisher.

Of course, I haven’t actually shopped it to any agents. I’ve heard that helps?

Damn you, publishing world! Why can’t you crawl into my computer whilst I sleep and see the brilliance that I’ve written? Maybe I should ask the dude I send a bitcoin to every month for the alleged pictures he took of me doing certain things on a webcam also get me place my book into a “to be published” folder at Simon & Schuster. Or Simon & Garfunkel. I’m not too particular.

Am I the only one who does this? One time, a writing podcast was reviewing ways to make progressions feel earned, character-driven instead of plot-derived. I’m looking at you, “How I Met Your Mother” finale. Yes, I’m still bitter.

While listening to the podcast, I thought to myself, might’ve even spoken aloud to the empty car, “I fucking did that! Why the hell aren’t I published yet?” Then I remembered I hadn’t actually finished writing the novel. It was still sitting at 60,000 words where I left it when I gave up on it six months earlier. Because it was boring and predictable and full of cliches. 

Damn you, publishing world! Why can’t you crawl into my computer whilst I sleep and finish my manuscript. Maybe I should get my friendly neighborhood hacker on that. Google keeps telling me all my passwords are hacked. All I have to do is make my passwords 100,000 words long and…

Anything to avoid working on that query letter.

I just spent a weekend delving into the querying process, and let me just say that rabbit hole is deeeeeeeeep! I’m talking Fantastic Mr. Fox level, needing a tractor to sift through all the bullshit that rabbit holed through.

My first foray came via Pitch Wars, a made-for-Twitter event where you condense your life’s work, your magnum opus, down to two-hundred-forty characters. Well, you need to throw a bunch of hashtags in, so it’s really more like two-hundred. I thought I had it down pat, at least until I saw it on my phone screen. Yikes! So I re-wrote it, and again, and again. You’re allowed to tweet your pitch three times in a day. My three pitches were as distant from each other as can be while describing the same book. Unfortunately, none garnered a like from agents, so I can’t figure out which one “worked.”

Next up: the query letter. The good news  could use more than thirty words. The bad news was I now had to introduce myself as well as the book. I had to greet the agent like she’s a real-live human being and not a simulacrum, a Twitter bot searching for a specific keyword.

And don’t forget that hook. Like my students do, with a rhetorical question. 

“Have you ever been king of France?” they often inquire. “Looking for a way to control the nobles, all the while owning a plot of land precisely twelve miles from the center of Paris?”

“Why no,” I respond, cursing English teachers for providing only one rhetorical crutch. “What an oddly specific question to ask of a position that hasn’t existed for a hundred and fifty years. Does one often respond yes to such a quandary?”

But what the hell. If a history teacher reading thirty essays gets tired of that hook, I doubt literary agents who get thousands of unsolicited drivel will mind.

“Dear agent,
Have you ever poured five fucking years into a hot pile of garbage and have finally whittled that steaming feces into something your mom describes as ‘better than what you wrote in third grade’?”

Hold on, I need to go check all those manuscript requests flooding my inbox.

I read plenty of how-tos and don’t-dos over the years, so I knew what to expect. I subscribe to Query Shark where we all laugh at atrocious query letters. I follow writers at varying stages of their career, listen to podcasts. I figured I had it dialed.

Until I sat down to write it, at which point I promptly became a third-grader learning to write for the first time. 

In a foreign language.

Seriously, I’ve written over a million words and now all of a sudden, I’ve lost all ability to communicate via written word. Stephen King says that once I pass a million, I’m a real writer. Do I have to write an extra million in business-letter format?

It shouldn’t be this difficult. All you have to do is be sincere, but not drab. Stick out from the slush pile, but don’t say anything outlandish. Follow the formula, but don’t be formulaic. Opaque much?

It doesn’t help that most of the “sample” query letters start with phrases like, “I’ve written seven previous best-sellers” or “I have 25,000 social media followers” or “You asked me for my manuscript at that one writing conference.” If I’d written a bunch of best-sellers, I probably wouldn’t be looking for an agent. And writing conferences haven’t existed for a year.

Ironically, I did write up a little “elevator pitch” for my book back when I was about halfway done. On its own, it kinda pops. Intrigue, a basic establishment of plot and character, a couple of non-rhetorical questions to whet one’s appetite. Yet when I drop it into the second paragraph of a query letter, I’m all of a sudden second-guessing myself. It’s too focused on the worldbuilding, the MacGuffin that sets my 90k words apart from all those other batches of 90k words. 

The query gods say I should focus more on the character, less on the setting. Also, it should read like the back of a book. But most of the book covers I’ve read focus more on inciting incident than on character. The characters are what keeps us in the book, but isn’t the setting what draws us in the first place? Star Wars starts with an imperial cruiser, not whiney Luke.

So let’s see if I got this straight. Introduce the character and the setting and the MacGuffin and the inciting incident. Plus the major plot progressions and other conflicts and themes. Maybe throw in the character’s social security number and mother’s date of birth. All in a sentence and a half. Got it!

With that out of the way, it’s time to find what lucky agent gets my speed dating salvo.

Holy shit! There are quite a few of them thar agents.

Time to pare this down. They suggest looking up the agents of books you liked. Or the books you’re going to use as comp titles. Because we all must have comp titles, published in the last five minutes because after you get your agent, it’ll still be seven decades before the book finds an editor and another three centuries before the traditional publishing houses will put it on the shelf. So you need to prove your book has a market right now. 

Fine. Kings of the Wyld is one of the books I’m comping. It came out in 2017, two years after I started writing my book, and its sequel came out last year. Zeitgeisty enough. Unfortunately, Nicholas Eames is Canadian, as is his agent and agency. Plus they’re not taking submissions. Maybe not the best place to start.

So I went to the “Manuscript Wish List” website to search for agents who liked Kings of the Wyld. Found two. Unfortunately, one of them cited the multi-character viewpoint as her main takeaway. Well shit, that’s not why I’m comping it. Come back next week to see why I’m comping Kings of the Wyld. My first book review in a while and yet another post milked out of the WIP That Will Not Die.

My other comp title is Ready Player One. It shouldn’t surprise that most agents who liked that book are looking for Sci-Fi, not alternative history. Strike two.

What about the agent that actually represented Ready Player One? She’s unavailable, unattainable. She left her old agency to start her own agency, but is taking no new clients. In addition to Ernest Cline, who got a seven-figure advance for his second book to say nothing of movie rights, she has one other huge client, which I imagine is enough for both workload and income.

That’s the problem with querying comp titles and “authors I like.” Those who come to mind are successful, and many an agent retire upon capturing their white whales. Let’s do a rundown of authors who’ve inspired me.

Check Wendig and Delilah Dawson have the same agent. She’s closed to queries.

Kevin Hearne has a private, part-timish agent who only represents him.

I’m not gonna bother looking at Stephen King’s agent. If I were his agent, I would spend all my time updating the lock on the safe that contains my four-leaf-clover-embossed, golden-rabbit-foot horseshoe. Except for the one day a month I get another 2,000-page best-seller from my one and only client.

Harry Turtledove is a prolific alternative history writer, and his agent is, at least in theory, taking queries. But after a gander at his rep list, ain’t no fucking way. There are like fifty names on there, some of which are whipper-snapper upstarts like Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Terry Goodkind, and Johnnie Cohcran. Yes, that Johnnie Cochran. 

On a positive, half those guys are dead, so I won’t have to worry about a huge influx of new material from this guy’s other clients. But sheesh. I doubt he’s devoting his time to explain publishing nuances to some wide-eyed noob.

I guess what I’m looking for is the sweet spot in the middle. A magical agent who has some, but not too many, successful clients. Whose authors I admire, but who I can write as well as. 

Once I find that agent, all I need to do is come up with a pithy sentence that tells him or her that I’m the perfect reincarnation of their best clients, totally worth the time they’d spend reading through my drivel, and that fits perfectly into the publishing world of today, being exactly like countless other books on the bestseller list no more than three weeks ago. But it’s also completely original!

Or I could spend the next few hours adding more agents to my spreadsheet and wait for the hackers to do their work.

Maybe Shakespeare’s agent is available.

March Madness at Covid Casino

For years, I’ve thought about posting a real-time account of March Madness. The highs, the lows. The buzzer beaters. The “why the fuck are you trying to win the game if you already covered the spread”s.

You see, I usually spend March Madness in Nevada. You’ve never truly experienced a basketball game until you’ve been in a room full of three hundred people absolutely losing their shit at a team dribbling out the remaining seconds of a twelve-point game, the winner of whom was obvious by halftime. 

Shoot the ball, motherfucker!

Or, if I’ve bet the underdog, don’t! 

For the uninitiated, March Madness is the college basketball championship, wherein 68 teams vie for the title. Those 68 (or at least 64 of them) play all their intro games in two days. Thirty-two games, spread out over 36 hours or so. And you can bet on every single one!

I had this grand plan. I would precede the Madness with a general post about gambling, then, as with Camptathalon, I’d tabulate all the craziness. The fifteen-seed Davids beating the two-seed Goliath that nobody cares about because they covered the spread by halftime. Or the meaningless eight-versus-nine-seed game, the winner of whom will most likely be destroyed against a number-one seed in the next round, that has the entire sports book on pins and needles because a two-and-a-half point spread brings all the boys to the yard.

But don’t worry. This post isn’t about college basketball. It’s only tangentially related to sports.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a degenerate gambler, but when the casinos closed, I started playing the stock market. One of the stocks I bought was Draft Kings, meaning I’m now gambling on gambling becoming more prevalent. 

Whenever my friends and I find one of those “signs you are a problem gambler,” we make bets about how many of the checklist items we’ll mark. Even if those lists are bogus. One checkmark is getting upset about losing a bet. Doesn’t that mean we don’t have a problem? You become a problem gambler when you shrug off one loss because you’ve made ten others.

I have the same issue with the alcoholic checklist. Do any of my stories start with, “I was drinking one time and…”? Um, yeah. Do you want good stories? I can start out my stories with “One time I was sitting on my couch rewatching a Marvel movie,” but it’s not gonna get much more exciting than that.

The reason I never got around to that projected March Madness post is how ephemeral it is. When it takes me six months to transcribe my Camptathalon journal, the hilarity still stands. Whether it’s June or January, fart and dick jokes work. But reminiscing about the eighteen-year-old who shanks a free throw and now will never realize his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA has got a shelf life.

So unless I plan on carrying a notebook throughout the casino (which I assume they would frown upon), then transcribing that shit while still blowing a .12, a March Madness post is gonna be tough.

But if I can combine a little bit of sports gambling with my first trip to a casino in the COVID-era? Make my observations more  observational than transactional? Just maybe…

But seriously, University of California at Santa Barbara, how the fuck do you lose by one point when I bet you on the money line? Wide open layup to win the game and you brick?

Okay, with that off my chest, how bout them COVID-restrictions?

As with every other stripe of life, Nevada seems more concerned with appearance than efficacy. Like the TSA guy who pulls me aside for a ham sandwich in my backpack while three terrorists walk through. It’s to make me feel better.

We’re supposed to wear masks, except for when we’re eating or drinking or smoking. Not sure if you’ve ever been in a Nevada casino, but the amount of time you’re not doing one of those three activities is maybe ten percent. I don’t even smoke, but I think it’s state law that we have a cigarette in our mouth fifty percent of the time. Just ask every numbnut sitting next to me at every fucking table, going through a pack an hour. And those new partitions aren’t as good at blocking cigarette smoke as they are (hopefully) at blocking viruses.

Hey, speaking of the numbnuts always at my blackjack tables, one sticks out as the worst of the worst, and that’s saying something. The numbest of the nuts. 

It was at the Tropicana in Vegas, not where one expects to run into high rollers. He was making stupid moves as soon as he sat down, like doubling down on a thirteen and splitting face cards. It was shortly after the book and movie about the MIT card counters, so numbnuts the world over thought they’d figured out how to beat the system. What’s worse is he was sitting in the last spot before the dealer, where a bad move can fuck over the entire table. To wit:

Dealer was showing a five. Fuck Face gets two sixes. The book says you stay on your twelve and wait for the dealer to bust. This guy splits. He hits his first six, gets a ten. Now he’s got a sixteen and he’s hmming and huhing. He finally decides to stay, then hits the other six and, wouldn’t you know it, another ten! 

“Two sixteens!” he exclaims. “What are the odds?”

Umm… those are the exact fucking odds! Literally the entire blackjack playbook is based on one rule: always assume the next card is a ten. 

What made it worse was that after Mr. Fucknozzle takes two bust cards away from the dealer, who now turns over the fifteen we all assumed he had, then hits a five (instead of either of the two tens Einstein took) and takes all our money. 

Casinos don’t discourage you from card counting, because most people make a phenomenal mess of it. Now if you care count well, then they’re taking you out to the desert.  

At least if that jackwagon were still at that table today, he’d have this nice visual of how one drinks or smokes while wearing a mask. 

Whew. Glad they laid that out. As if that weren’t enough Idiocracy, this sign was posted multiple times in each bathroom:

To quote Whitney Houston, I believe the children are our future. Cause if it’s up to us adults, we are well and truly fucked.

Oh, and did I mention that Florida State was favored by 10.5, meaning they had to win by 11 for me to win my bet? Guess how much they won by: Ten. Which matched the number of seconds left in the game when they got the ball back for the final time. And what did they do? Just dribble it around, never even looking at the basket. Come on, people, don’t you know what the spread is? There are people out there who had confidence in you, and you’re rewarding us by standing there for ten seconds instead of piling on two meaningless points that are anything but meaningless.

Why bother winning the game if you aren’t going to cover the spread?

So how are the casinos adjusting to the pandemic, aside from instructions on how to smoke cigarettes and what not to flush down the toilet?

They’ve put up Plexiglass barriers everywhere. Just in case you weren’t feeling lonely playing slot machines before, you’ve now got a three-sided cone of silence. No high-fiving each other after getting that big cherry combo that pays out a thousand credits before remembering thata thousand pennies is less than your initial twenty-dollar deposit. 

Not that there are legitimate penny slots anymore. They say they’re penny slots, but then it costs a minimum of 60 or 80 or 125 credits for one spin. What’s worse is they don’t pay out in those increments. So you bet 60, you win back 17. Then there reaches a point where you’ve got, say, 58 cents left in the machine but you can’t do anything with it. So you cash out and now you’ve got a slip of paper “worth” 58 cents. One machine had the last four “victims” left behind, four printouts of various small denominations. I added my fifth. Perhaps someday in the distant future, someone will be able to combine enough to make one spin, get twelve cents back, and begin the stack anew.

I understand the way inflation works in the casinos. They can’t make legitimate penny slots anymore, because pennies aren’t worth shit, It’s not so much the sixty cent minimum that piss me off so much as the partial payoffs. I’m a completionist. If I’ve blown the twenty I put in then, dammit, I want to be down twenty bucks, not down nineteen dollars and change. And they’re not fooling anyone. Is there anybody who bets sixty, wins back ten and thinks, “Huzzah! Finally able to retire!”

You know who’s really been screwed by inflation? The cocktail waitresses. Back in the nineties, I sat down at a two-dollar blackjack table and, when my “free drink” came around, I tipped the cocktail server a dollar. Nowadays, I sit down at a ten-dollar blackjack table and, when my “free drink” comes around, I tip the cocktail server a dollar. I went from tipping her fifty percent of a hand’s value to ten percent. But it would feel somehow wrong to tip five dollars for a free drink. That’s almost as much as the drink might cost if I paid for it.

Are strippers experiencing the same diminishing returns?

The cocktail servers can’t be hurting too much, though. I see the same ones year after year at March Madness. There are a couple of them who have worked the same portion of the sportsbook at the same time of the day as they were a decade ago. They must not be hurting, even if they do seem a tad slower than they once were, not turning in their orders until they have pre-orders filling every centimeter of their tray. 

Maybe I should up the tip to two bucks, as awkward as that would feel. Although in my defense, I still tip more than some of the people I’m at the table with. I tip my dealer, too. If I was an asshole like the Maker’s Mark fucktards, I might not walk away down forty bucks all the time. Damn my service industry background!

In addition to the partitions up at the slots and tables, you’re not allowed to touch your cards. That took some getting used to. My hand was slapped away three or four times before I adjusted to the new normal. Even after I figured it out, it was friggin hard to keep my hands to myself as my two cards sat there screaming at me. 

I’ve played at blackjack tables where everybody is dealt face up, but this wasn’t that. Your cards are dealt face down, then the dealer comes around to turn up one set of cards at a time. That player then decides what to do and it’s on to the next. It leads to shorter decision times. Not like it’s difficult to add two single digit numbers, but it goes beyond that. If the dealer’s showing an eight, I have to think ahead of time what I’m going to do if it’s a twelve or a fourteen or a sixteen. Normally I can think about those permutations ahead of time. 

The weirdest action was when asking for/buying insurance. If the dealer is showing an ace, they try to take more money in the suckerest of all sucker bets. If you “win” an insurance bet, that means the dealer has a blackjack and you’re getting your money back instead of losing your bet. Still not winning anything, though. And if the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack, you “lose” the insurance bet, but then play the hand normally, which means you can still lose and now you’re out 150% of your initial bet. Even if you win, you’ve lost 50% of the win because you lost it to “insure” the hand. 

Obviously, the insurance bet isn’t going away, just like the extended warranty on cars. But they have to show us our cards to see if we want to insure it. Who would insure a sixteen, after all? Heck, who would insure a nineteen? So when the dealer has an ace showing, she goes one by one, holding up our cards to the plexiglass at eye level like Jim Carrey at the jailhouse in Cable Guy. You nod or shake your head, then she puts your cards back on the table, face down. At least then I get a few extra seconds to decide what I’m going to do with those cards. Just in time for her to reveal she did, in fact, have that blackjack, so maybe I should’ve insured my sixteen?

But as with the TSA, the “what you can touch and what you can’t touch” rule seems arbitrary. For instance, after the dealer shuffles the cards, one of the players still cuts the deck. The dealer hands a plastic divider card to the player doing the cut. First it’s my turn, then with the next shuffling, it’s the guy next to me’s turn. This being single-deck, it’s only a few minutes between my grubby hands and the next guy’s. Not saying he’s going to get any viruses I’m carrying. Didn’t we determine many moons ago that it’s not traveling via touched surfaces, but water globules? Hence the masks and partitions. I mean, maybe if I spit in my hand before cutting the deck, he’d be in trouble. I’ve seen a lot of strange superstitions at blackjack tables over the years, but none have involved bodily fluids.

Then I went to the pai gow table. In pai gow, you’re given seven cards that you divide into two hands: a standard 5-card poker “high hand” and a 2-card “low hand”. The dealer doesn’t turn over his cards until everybody has made their hands. In fact, most beginning pai gow players ask the dealer or other players for advice as they learn. For instance, if you have two pair, do you put one pair in the high hand and one in the low, or do you make the high hand a much stronger two pair, leaving the low hand crappy and all but insuring a push?

So it can totally be done the same way as COVID blackjack. The dealer could turn over my cards, I could instruct him to put the jack of hearts and seven of diamonds into the low hand, then on to the next player. There might also be some difficulties of communication, but pointing works fine, and again, I’ve seen plenty of conversations between player and dealer about which cards should go where and never noticed a communication problem. The real issue is the amount of time it would take. If there are five players at the table and each one takes thirty seconds, you’re looking at five minutes gone by the time the dealer’s done his own and paid out winnings and collected losings. Even worse is that pai gow is a game where the casino doesn’t make money every hand. There are a lot of pushes. I often play it when I need my money to last longer. So if they don’t accumulate money as quickly as possible, and then they add to that the time it takes to play each of the six hands one-by-one, those drinks ain’t gonna be free much longer. But if we all use our thirty seconds simultaneously…

So it should come as little surprise that, in pai gow, we’re allowed to pick up our cards. They’re the exact same cards being used at the table next door. Technically, they go through a shuffling machine, but I’m almost certain they aren’t sanitized inside there. They don’t come out dripping with antibacterial residue or anything like that. They feel like regular cards. Or at least what I remember regular cards feeling like. I couldn’t confirm on the blackjack table. 

Because the casino might say they’re concerned about our safety, but in reality they’re really just “interested in” our safety. What they’re “concerned with” is making profit. And if the two of those can go hand-in-hand, then so much the better. Partitions help remind us we’re all making sacrifices. No blackjack touchie for you!

Just don’t let those sacrifices go too far. 

Losing My Sight

I’m losing my eyesight.

It doesn’t really bother me in the classic sense. I’m in my mid-forties, after all, a full decade or more past when most start losing their senses. I’m not some Baby Boomer freaking out every time they subtract nineteen sixty-eight from the current year. We no longer must abide by Al Bundy trying to hold onto glory days. I’m overweight, I’ve got gout, and I’m either defined as diabetic or pre-diabetic depending on how overweight and/or gouty I’m feeling that particular day. I’ve had allergies my whole life and it’s grown to full-blown asthma in the past decade.

When I got my COVID vaccine (huzzah!), one of the questions asked if I’ve had an anaphylactic reaction to medication. Had to tell them that I had. They asked if I brought my epi pen with me and I responded, like an old pro at getting shots, that as long as there was no cat hair in the vaccine, I’d be fine. 

I’m not really upset about losing my eyesight. I guess I’m surprised at how it happened? Things just got a little blurrier each day. At the beginning, I swore it was only when I was staring at screens all day. And smartphones coming out the same time I turned forty is just coincidence. It’s the social scientist’s creed: correlation is not causation.

One of my best friends is legally blind. He can’t see anything out of one eye and his other eye is a train-wreck. When he’s getting his license renewed, he has to memorize the eye chart for when they make him cover his “good” eye. Fortunately it’s only five lines and it’s the same five letters, only in a different order. They also give you a few hours of lead-time.

But when he says he’s legally blind, I think of him as Daredevil or something. A stormy night in the middle of the desert. But I can still see fine. It’s just the details that are missing. Come to think of it, I’ve seen my friend drive. So hopefully he’s not in Stevie Wonder territory.

My hearing went the same way. It started with a “come again?” and ended with everybody talking like Charlie Brown’s teacher.  I probably shouldn’t keep listening to podcasts and audiobooks on earbuds, but it’s not like my hearing was gangbusters before. Or was it? I can’t really remember a time when listening was an afterthought.

The same thing happened with my sight. Maybe that’s why it’s rough coming to terms with the fact that I can’t see for fuck anymore.  Like when my daughter grows every day, but when her friend visited the other day, it’s like, “Holy crap, how’d she get so big?” even though Daughter’s still an inch taller.

It started innocently enough. I was in for one of my “diabetic but not diabetic” tests where they shoot lasers into the back of your eyeball to see if your eyes have been slurping down non-diet soda while you weren’t looking. I’d done it before. They make you stare into a camera then flash a bright light at you. I wonder if that has anything to do with my loss of vision? Regardless, it’s easy, peasey. In, out, done.

Only this time they wanted me to stick around and give me an eye test. What the fuck?

“What does that entail?” I asked, which is a much more kosher way to ask the above question.

“Blah blah blah look at stuff blah blah dilating.”

There was my opening!

“I drove myself here. Wouldn’t want to be stuck here after your work hours are over waiting for my eyes to sober up.”

“No problem. You can drive with dilated eyes nowadays.”

That seemed like a bad idea, although maybe it accounts for half the drivers I see on the road who don’t seem to be certain if they’re British or American. Although it doesn’t account for assholes backing into parking spaces.

“Well, I’m leaving here to sign legal documents,” I tried next. “Will I be able to see them?”

They conferred and decide, nah, maybe I should forego this whole pupil-fuck for a later date. But did I maybe want to take the ol’ “read some letters” test?

“Sure, but my vision’s fine,” I responded, knowing it wouldn’t be boring for technicians used to blind-as-a-bat ilk. No hilarious side-bets about whether the next guy can read 40 font. 

“Are you sure?” she asked mirthfully.

It turns out my eyesight ain’t what I thought it was. If I was, in fact, Al Bundy trying to relive a football game, my wide receiver needed to be less than five yards away.

They hooked me up to a machine where they can adjust the distance and effects of glasses. They started with a couple of easy ones, then made some adjustments. It wasn’t long before those little fuckers started messing with me. And by those little fuckers, I mean the letters, not the medical assistants.

“E, S,” I’d start out. ” The next letter’s either an H or a B, I think. No wait, it just turned into an R.”

No, the letter’s weren’t changing, they were just moving in and out of focus. The next batch was even smaller. I could barely hazard a guess.

“I’m not sure,” I continued. “It could be a P or the number six. Did you throw an infinity symbol in there just to mess with me?”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the things, they were just indistinct and distant. Like the sports score on a tv way up in the corner of a restaurant.

Wait, you’re supposed to be able to read the score?

Then they pulled the ultimate fuck-you move, the “oh, you wanted to skip the eye test” drop-the-mic moment. After a bunch of whirring and oscillating of screens and sheens, the letters disappeared, replaced by some smudges, a row of ants in the end zone while I’m standing at the fifty-yard line.

“This is twenty-twenty vision,” the technician smugged. 

Really? Too bad for JFK I wasn’t the guy in the book depository. Or on the grassy knoll. Hell, I could’ve been sitting in Jackie’s seat and missed the shot. 

Whatever. I guess my eyesight wasn’t as perfect as it had once been. I could still make do.

Except now that it had been brought up, pointed out that maybe I couldn’t see as pristinely as once upon a time, I started noticing it more. When I was looking at digital screens or reading street signs. Is it just me, or are the bright digital freeway billboards less clear than their old-fashioned, printed brethren? 

And that rub-the-eyes blurriness after waking up seemed to be lasting longer than in the past. Was I able to see the raisins in the bran in college? Wait a second. I don’t think I had morning blurriness at all. Is that just something I’ve made up now that I can’t see for shit? Incremental change can be a bitch. Just ask climate change.

It still took me another year to do a legitimate eye test. I randomly picked an optometrist from the vision insurance  I’ve been forced to pay into for twenty years. No way in hell was I going back to my primary care facility, admitting defeat to the schedulers and technicians who had the audacity to suggest I was anything less than perfect!

Not that I would have recognized them. Those bastards all had blurry, indistinct features.

I scheduled it late in the afternoon and walked there so Wife could pick me up after the dilation. I didn’t need to. Evidently my understanding of what happens during eye tests hadn’t progressed past the 1980s sitcom era. They now just puff some air into your eyeballs or take a picture of your brainwaves or put nanobots into your bloodstream. Who the fuck knows, but I totally could’ve signed legal documents when I was done. 

They asked if I brought in my current glasses, and I told them I didn’t have any. Each person, in turn, blinked in lack of comprehension, looking down at my chart. The receptionist, the technician, the doctor all seemed flabbergasted that someone might be taking their first eye test. We’ve all gotta start somewhere, right? Eyesight is supposed to deteriorate. If I went to the ear doctor, would it seem incomprehensible that I had no hearing aid?

Then again, when I see the requirements for COVID testing, I maybe understand. It seems like you can’t get a COVID test unless you can prove unequivocally that you have it. Well gosh, Doc, the guy that sits in the desk right next to me tested positive after hocking loogies into our shared percolator. What’s that? No, he didn’t crawl inside my esophagus. Was he supposed to?

Okay, ya caught me. I really just want to fly to Hawaii.

Oddly enough, the entire diagnosis seemed to come from the subjective “Which looks better, this or this?” than the scientific eyeball inspections.  I’m not suggesting I would lie or anything, but there’s a distinct chance I don’t precisely remember what things are supposed to look like. At one point, I called out, “Oh wow, yeah. That.” But I actually think the font changed on that one. It wasn’t that it got less blurry, but that it was all of a sudden written in bold. For all I knew, she hit ctrl-b instead of asterisk and now I’m going to be driving into walls waiting for italics to appear.

In the end, the doctor determined my eyesight is leaving me in the exact opposite manner it’s supposed to. Way to be difficult, body. The gout wasn’t enough?

Most people my age lose their up-close vision, which can be fixed via cheap, non-prescription reading glasses that’ll cost you five bucks at CVS. My up-close vision is fine, though. It’s distance that I’m losing.

My near-sightedness (not the first result to call me myopic!) isn’t helped by the cheaters. I need a prescription. But if I wear glasses to see the movie screen or, I don’t know, that car in front of me, then I can’t read a book or grade papers or see what I’m eating. So if I’m going the glasses route, I’m gonna be that guy who’s constantly putting on and taking off his glasses.

“You’ll still do fine when you get your driver’s license renewed,” my doctor told me. “But you might want to get a pair of glasses for night-time driving.”

Sure. Just for night driving. And day driving. And curling. And watching TV. And grocery shopping. Because that was over a year ago and it sure as shit hasn’t stabilized.

That first look through the glasses was shocking, though. Wow! On my way home from picking them up, while at a stop light, I focused on a tree across the intersection, then put on my glasses. I expected maybe a ten percent increase in clarity, but holy crap! Unbeknownst to me, that tree I’d been looking at had leaves! And branches! To say nothing of the sky beyond. 

Obviously, I was aware of the sky. You’d have to be pretty damned blind to not see the sky. But behind the glasses, it became so crisp. Is it possible for the blue to brighten up?

My whole world had gone from standard-def to high-def. It had been a Bob Ross painting, and I kinda like Bob Ross paintings, so I never really thought it was supposed to be more. But I guess the world ISN’T supposed to be impressionistic? 

And once again I’m second-guessing myself. Did I really used to be able to see this well? Certainly, I must have, because I remember my real transition from SD to HD. How did I not notice that my television had regressed in the past five year? Probably because I was watching crappy children’s television.

But I can’t wear those glasses too much or else my eyesight will get even worse, right? It’s crazy, I know, but I feel like it’s a drug, man. My body’s telling me that, before it knew of this magical panacea, it was gonna do its damnedest to offset the pain. But holy shit, man, we’ve had this clear plastic heroin to numb the blurry pain all this time? Body’s gonna take the weekend off. 

Of course, I know this can’t be the case. My eyesight was already growing worse, hence the glasses in the first place. It makes sense it would continue to slide. That’s why they ask me to bring in my old prescription for the new eye test. But when I first got my glasses, I could see the labels at the grocery store without squinting. Now, not so much.

In addition to not wanting to make my sight worse, I still face that near-sight/far-sight conundrum. If I’m watching a sporting event on the tv eight feet away from the couch, I can barely tell if the pass was completed or not. But if I put on my glasses, I won’t be able to check my phone or laptop during stops in action.

After a couple weeks, and a few new pairs of glasses (thankfully some of those blind friends told me how to buy them online for ten percent cost), I finally opted for bifocals. How do ya like that? Make it forty years without glasses, have to go straight to the oldest man of old-man glasses. Who the fuck am I, Benjamin Franklin now? Only instead of magnification on the bottom half, I went with a straight 1.00x. So I can shift between the TV and my laptop. And somehow my laptop looks clearer, even though the glass has no modification. Is that crazy?

Speaking of watching tv, since my hearing is going, I have to turn the closed-captioning, too. “You don’t really watch tv,” Daughter says. “You read it.”

Bifocals and closed-captioning. Good thing I’m married, cause I don’t think gramps would be picking up floosies at the bar. But at least I’m not doing what every Baby Boomer I know does, which is turn the volume up to 70 or something. Maybe that’s why this Gen Xer lost my hearing.

I’m starting to worry that the only way for me to pass my next driver’s test, still a year-and-a-half away, is to avoid using my glasses between now and then. Sure, I’ll probably cause seventy-five accidents in that time, to say nothing of the curling shots I’ll miss, but it’ll totally be worth it to not get the little “needs corrective lenses” on my drivers license. 

“Sir, have you been drinking?”

“No, officer. I just didn’t see the child in the middle of the road.”

“Are you supposed to be wearing glasses?”

“Totally, but I don’t want my drivers license to know that. It still thinks I’m a hundred eighty pounds with brown hair.”

And then we’ll both laugh as he’s cuffing me. At least I won’t tell him I took off my glasses to read a text.

I don’t think I’m alone in my conspiracy theory about glasses fucking up my sight. When one of my students found out I recently got glasses, the first thing she said was to not wear them too often or they’d make my eyesight worse. 

I mean, it’s no “Ulysses S. Grant turned the country into a corporation,” but if Linus can sit in the pumpkin patch all night, then ya gotta give me this one.

I’d be able to see perfectly fine if it weren’t for Big Eyeglass.

Sounds totally logical. You never seem them coming.

The State of Children’s Television

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the garbaged landscape of children’s television programming. When last I delved into the realm, my then four-year-old was suffering through the snottiness of Peppa Pig and the learned helplessness of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. She’s now six years old, and while her tastes have refined, she now has the horrific tendency to watch the same damn thing over and over and over again. She doesn’t just binge a particular show, though. She binges the same damned episode. Back to back sometimes! Add in a nascent quarantine Stockholm Syndrome, complete with a distance-learning first-grade teacher who thinks twenty minutes of content per day is plenty, and my kid can damn near recite half the dialogue.

This is allegedly a developmental thing. There’s comfort in familiarity. They’re learning story structure. But I call bullshit, because they also want mac & cheese for every meal. Including at restaurants that are literally just selling blue Kraft box shit. Yet somehow when I’m shilling out eight bucks for something I’ve got a 50-cent box of back home (even worse when its takeout), nobody’s ascribing it to some deep-seeded desire to learn subtle foreshadowing. 

Anyway, if I’ve gotta sit through it, then you’ve gotta hear me bitch about it. 

Gravity Falls. A shit-ton of caveats with this one. It’s far from “new,” having aired for only two seasons from 2014-2016. Plus it shouldn’t really be classified as a kids show. It’s geared more toward the pre-teen crowd, although at least fifty percent of the humor is aimed smack-dab at the parents. The D & D episode references when “it tried to be hip,” then cut to a “commercial” of two kids clad somewhere between MC Hammer and Fresh Prince spray painting a wall. A wizard starts rapping at them. Cue the tagline, “Diggity Dungeons an’ all Dat.” Then Dipper, the kid in the show, shudders and says, “The nineties must’ve been terrible.” That joke certainly flew over my daughter’s head, but I’m guessing it would also fly over half my high school students, too. After all, I actually remember the version two rules!

But we heard about the show from not one, but two of Daughter’s friends, albeit both with older siblings. So one afternoon I sat down with her and we watched the first episode together. At first, we were both skeptical. The plot revolves around pre-teen Mabel, voiced by Kristen Schaal, desperate to get a date. When she finally tricks a guy into dating her, her brother Dipper, voiced by Jason Rittter, thinks the guy’s a zombie. Daughter and I were both skeptical. She was unsure about the zombie content, and I didn’t really want to get into discussions about “practicing kissing” and not throwing yourself at guys that are obviously uninterested.

It turned out the zombie was actually a bunch of gnomes on each other’s shoulders wearing a trenchcoat. She was a little more on board. I was a little less on board since these gnomes clearly weren’t taking no for an answer. A guy throwing himself at an uninterested girl is so, so much worse, and will lead to much longer discussions.

But then one of the gnomes got hit in the “stomach” (nuts, really) and spews out rainbow vomit. We both gave it a thumbs up and proceeded to watch all forty episodes over the next month. Then she watched the entire series a second time. Followed by her “greatest hits,” ten or so episodes that must have been watched ten times each. 

And again, when I say we watched the “Sev’ral Times” episode several times, I don’t mean we skipped around en route through the series each time. She would literally watch the episode, then rewatch the exact same episode, then a third time. The following day, it’d be right back to the beginning. Sev’ral Times was a boy band, and I can still sing you all of their songs. 

In the end, she watched so much, she grew tired of it. Of course she did, because I’d just ordered some of the merch for Christmas. That’ll teach me to plan for a holiday more than a week in advance. 

She’s gone through a few other “binge and purge” watch-throughs. All five seasons of a Madagascar spinofffeaturing King Julien, the lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the movies, but voiced by someone else in the TV show. Plus Puss in Boots from Shrek, which again didn’t feature Antonio Banderas, the movie actor. Although props to the voice actor, who plays both Puss in Boots and Fozzie Bear on Muppet Babies. That’s quite a range!

But as far as kids shows on constant loop, I could do a lot worse than a pandemic filled with any of these fun shows. 

To wit…

Abby Hatcher. One day, I randomly decided to have Daughter check out a show on Nick Junior instead of Disney Junior. Like when I branch out and try a new beer, some Hazy Juicy Deep Dank Double Red Brown Black Purple Sour from a brewery that just opened last weekend and will be closed by this time tomorrow. I usually kick myself and go back to the tried-and-true Sierra Nevada or Red Trolley, and so it was with Daughter’s forays into the nether regions of children’s programming. They leave Daddy with a mean hangover.

She had been on a mini-Vampirina kick around Halloween. I think I covered Vampirina in the last review. It’s a solid, if predictable, show. In general, I approve of shows Daughter feels comfortable with WITHOUT having to watch the same episode seventeen times. But alas, if she only watches each new episode twice, the phase only lasts a week or two. Then it was on to Abby Hatcher

The plot involves the titular character whose parents own a hotel that has mystical creatures in it. Unlike almost every other kids show, everyone else is fully aware of these magical creatures. I know Snuffleupagus is out and about now. There’s been an understandable push away from encouraging kids to keep secrets. But maybe if the plot of Abby Hatcher kept the damn creatures in the background, they’d be less annoying. 

They’re called Buzzleys, and they basically look like sentient Koosh balls who sing in eight-part harmony, about an octave above Alvin and the Chipmunks. They’re really freaking annoying and they sing multiple times per episode. It’s always the same song, the Roto Rooter commercial jingle. They change the words based on whatever problem they’re trying to solve, but my hearing ain’t great and I’m usually not paying attention, so all I hear in the background is Alvin, Simon, and Theodore sucking in some helium and then singing “And away go troubles, down the drain.”

In one episode, the Buzzleys were sad and Abby Hatcher had to cheer them up. The song in that episode was the classic five-note blues riff most notably from “Bad to the Bone.” But instead of “From the day I was born,” they sing, “Oh we’re so sad…. And we’re so blue…. We just don’t know… What toooo dooo.”

(And yes, it’s made worse by the last batch only having three syllables)

And if you think childish is bad, wait till they add cat meows in…

Gabby’s Dollhouse. I don’t get this show at all. It’s fine, I’m probably not supposed to. Although kids shows should occasionally keep in mind the parents who sometimes have to tolerate them (see above and below).

Gabby’s Dollhouse starts with a real-life little girl. But unlike the Ryan Kaji, the kid who made 22 fucking million dollars on YouTube before getting a Nick Jr show and shan’t be getting a review from me here (or hopefully ever, as Daughter has blessedly not glommed onto him), “Gabby” isn’t really a Gabby. Ryan, as annoying as he is, is a genuine kid that just started making YouTube videos. Gaby is an actress named Laila. She also plays “Young Bo” on Black-ish, so hopefully she doesn’t need the Dollhouse show and can pull the plug on it soon.

Gabby, or “Gabby,” starts the show by talking to the camera a la Mister Rodgers or the Bubble Guppies or any other variant of pre-school show, during which she establishes the theme of the episode. I kept pointing out to Daughter that this show is clearly designed for kids younger than her. But whatever, it’s got cats. Cats that meow in the middle of every song. Ugh.

After a convoluted, three to five minute “check-in” with the theme of the day (hiccups or school or pirates), “Gabby” stands up next to a giant dollhouse, sings, then pinches some cat ears on her headband and turns into a cartoon. The rest of the episode is her certoon self interacting with the cartoon dolls in her cartoon dollhouse. Or real clubhouse? I can’t tell.

And cats, of course.

She still talks to the audience while in cartoon form. At the end of each episode, instead of turning back into her human self, she makes the cat dolls fight against each other in a death-match from which only one can survive. At least that’s what I wish would happen. Instead she randomly spins a wheel and lets one of them sing. 

Thank God there’ve only been ten episodes of this snoozer. Here’s hoping it’s a one-and-done.

How hard is it to please kids while entertaining adults? After all, the Aussies can do it…

Bluey. Sorry, did that sound harsh toward Australia? They have some wonderful cultural milestones. I call myself the Wombat, after all. But short of their fancy opera house, one normally doesn’t think of pop culture from the Land Down Under unless they’re singing a forty-year-old pop song. 

Plus Kylie Minogue.

But they have a fun kids show called Bluey. It features a family of dogs, one of which is named, oddly enough, Bluey. Guess what color she is!

The titular character is a six-year-old blue dog, but she’s far from the “main” character. Bluey has a younger sister named Bingo. Also with a fair amount of screen time, rare for a kids show, are her parents, who actually have names. Their mom’s name is Chilli. Get it? Chilli Dog? Ha ha! And dad’s name is Bandit, just like… uh, I don’t get this one. Must be an Aussie thing, cause I ain’t never heard John Cougar singing about sucking a Bandit Dog outside a Tastee Freeze.

It’s quite the ensemble cast, despite the entire ensemble being cartoon dogs. Speaking of which, they toe the line between dog behavior and human behavior quite well. When I said Bluey was six years old, I meant in human years. Her parents seem to have been around since the nineties. But just when you are about to forget they’re dogs, Dad talks about the time he had “bum worms.”

I was worried about this show when Daughter first discovered it. It’s only nine-minutes long and named after a child animal who speaks with an accent. Sounded like prime Peppa Pig territory. Maybe that’s on me for not distinguishing between an English and Australian accent, but when I was in England once, they thought my accent was Australian, so I guess it’s fair game. Although honestly, I live in the same state as Hollywood, so California accents should be pretty easy to spot. How can that Brit not distinguish between Crocodile Dundee and American actors like Mel Gibson… or Russel Crowe… or Kylie Minogue? Aussies, y’all need to throw a “crikey” in there every few sentences so we can tell you from the other former colonies. Kinda like I just did with that “y’all.”

So let’s see. Nine minutes long, titular animal character, not great animation, and they drive on the wrong side of the car. Can I be forgiven for fearing Peppa Pig Part Poo? And there is no show Daughter has ever watched that I would trade for Peppa Pig. If you put a gun to my head and made me choose between Peppa Pig and Teletubbies, I’d probably choose the gun.

But Bluey is no Peppa Pig. Unlike the swine, when the character Bluey is being a bratty little diva, they call her on that shit. In fact, a fair amount of the show revolves around the horribleness of childhood narcissism. In one episode, the girls argue over whether grandparents know how to floss dance. Bingo, the younger one, thinks they can, but obviously she’s wrong. After they video call their grandparents and Bluey is proven right, she gloats and Bingo runs off crying. The parents ask Bluey if she’d rather have a sister to play with or if she’d rather be right. After looking down in deep thought while the commensurate “I’ve learned something today” music swells, Bluey looks up and says, “Can it be both?” Both parents yell “no” before the words are even out of her mouth, because they know what’s coming.

That true child behavior is what Bluey gets that most of the other shows don’t. In another episode, they’re sitting at a table outside a Thai takeout restaurant, waiting for the spring rolls, which weren’t included in their original order. They try to play “waiter” with the menus, they play pirates, they play something else while Dad really just wants to check his phone or read the paper or something. Bluey has to pee. While he’s holding her behind a bush, Bingo tries some of the spicy food and starts freaking out. He tells Bluey to hold it while he runs over to turn on a faucet so Bingo can drink. When he returns to Bluey, she’s held it too long and can’t go now. Bingo freaks out and knocks over the food they already got, all while the faucet floods the sidewalk. Bluey finally starts going when the waiter comes out to announce that their spring rolls aren’t quite ready yet. 

If this were a Peppa Pig episode, Peppa would say something stupid and snort, then they’d all fall over laughing. If it were Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, they would’ve sat on their ass and whined for Tootles to microwave the spring rolls and never gotten any comedy out of it. 

There’s one major drawback to watching Bluey, which is feeling like a failure as a parent. Both of the parents play fully vested in their kids’ make-believe. When the kids come up with a magic freeze button or a game where the parents have to dance embarrassingly in public, they play along. They never tell their kids they’re busy or that the game has gone on long enough. Never once has Bandit nor Chilli told Bluey to go watch a few episodes of Bluey while they finish editing this blog post. 

How could they? The damn show’s only nine minutes long. But evidently nine minutes is long enough to make me feel like a failure of a parent. But at least they’re entertaining about it.

WandaVision. This is a late addition to the write-up. Didn’t expect it to be here.

I told Wife that I wanted to watch this show as it came out. Tonight we’re gonna [watch tv] like it’s nineteen ninety-nine.

The problem in our household is keeping both parents awake longer than Daughter. If she wants “snuggles,” then the snuglee is usually down for the count. That’ll be fine when Falcon & Winter Soldier starts, as it’s supposed to be violent, so I can watch it by myself on the nights that Wife is playing good parent. Usually after a bout of Bluey.

But Wife and I both wanted to check out WandaVision, so I came up with a brilliant. Friday night, so let’s let the kid fall asleep on the couch while we’re watching grown-up TV. Nothing put me to sleep quicker when I was her age than five minutes of Hill Street Blues. And that was even in color, whereas the first two episodes of WandaVision were going to be in black and white.

But what the fuck? She actually liked it! And it’s not like she’s seen any of the Marvel movies, beyond Ant-Man, which bored her. But something about the Bewitched-esque magic and jokes that haven’t been funny since 1958 and the kid was WIRED!

Since then, every Friday has been WandaVision night in our household, and it’s the six-year-old who’s reminding us. To be fair, I think she’s been going more on inertia the last few weeks. She claims it’s just the “outside” stuff she isn’t a fan of, but I think even when it’s in the fake sit-com portion, she’s lukewarm. She would’ve been happy with nine straight Leave it to Beaver rip-offs. 

But honestly, if she’s okay watching WandaVision, might there be a light at the end of the children’s programming tunnel? Can I get her to watch some Star Wars? The original movie is a wee too much 1970s pacing, but I’ve heard the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons are worthwhile? Is it possible to put Schitt’s Creek on before 9:00 PM so we might finally finish it?

Or should we should double down on the tryptophan. Play Bosch, and she’ll be down for the count. I call it the ol’ “Hill Street Blues one-two.”

Camptathalon 2020

Seeing as I posted about our aborted attempt at snow camping, now seems a good time to finally post the journal from last year’s oft-canceled, nearly-aborted Camptathalon trip. After a number of false starts and offside penalties, four of the five regulars were able to escape the shitshow of 2020 long enough to make an abbreviated attempt at a bona fide Camptathalon. So sorry if it’s a little light this year. 

As per usual, we logged what occurred. Everything here is 100% accurate. 

Taken 90% out of context. 

Friday.

3:10 Stop at Snowshoe Brewery in Arnold, CA to fill growlers, might as well stay for a pint. They don’t even require food to purchase booze in this county. It’s the wild west!
3:15 “Is it too early to put my mouth on your beer cup?”
3:40 “Sucking Daniel Craig’s dick would be just like kissing Rachel Weisz”
4:20 First two arrivals at campsite.
4:35 Last two arrivals at campsite. That was quick.
4:37 Chris opens first beer. Rick follows.
4:46 Oops. Packed tent but not poles. Fucking 2020.
4:55 “Why is there a tea bag in my tent?”

5:11 “I’ve decided to make a Camptathalon T-shirt contest. Since none of you knew, I win this year.”

5:37 “How spicy do you like your chili?”
   “Like my women. Hot, brown, and full of meat.”
5:44 Sparky is all-time leader in Loser Libations, the shitty alcohol the first person out of poker is required to drink.

5:57 Official Opening Toast

5:59 First baseball card of Camptathalon 2020 – Chet Lemon

6:27 Hey, has anyone seen Rick?

6:35 Is it proper chili without beans?
   (Grabbing Crotch) “I got your proper beans right here and if you give me five minutes, I’ll make some sour cream for you.”
   “Dude, you need five minutes?”
6:46 Sparky recalls being invited to a loose girl’s house in high school, watching Kent Mercker’s no-hitter on her TV. “So she pitched a no-hitter, too?”
7:10 First party foul. Spilled beer while grabbing cookies.
7:21 First Event: Friday Night Poker
7:41 Loser Libation Preview: It hasn’t been iced.
7:51 “It’s from that movie called… What the fuck is that movie called? It’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer making out some other chick.”
    “Oh, that’s Cruel Intentions!”
7:52 Wait, who the hell dealt this hand? Check, check, check.
7:56 Put your dick on the table. One red chip dick.

8:17 With the first all-in, Loser Libation is revealed as Franzia Sunset Blush

8:19 All-in won. Live to see another day.
8:23 Can we please put that on ice now?
8:25 “No. Fuck you guys. Tell the story. Tell the story right now.”
8:34 Chris out on a double full house.

8:38 [redacted]

8:42 “I have a 4.”
8:50 “Loser Lube-ation.”
8:53 Sparky keeps dropping cards. Tony invokes Jon Lovitz as Dukakis. “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!”
8:58 Two growlers down.
9:00 “Are you taking this stick or do I need to wrap up these sticks?”
9:11 Loser Libation is finito.
9:17 Another card dropped through the table crack by the crack whore.
9:23 “As happy as I am that you can do math, I cordially invite you to suck my cock.”
9:33 “Gunslinger Rick puts out his second opponent of the night.”
    “I put out all the time.”
9:34 “It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a pok’er.”
9:43 “How is this guy still in it? He was up against it twice and I had to fucking drink the hole fucking Franzia all in one night.”
9:49 Sparky down for the count
9:58 Standings after one event: Rick 5, Tony 3, Sparky 1, Chris 0
10:01 I think we can leave the baseball cards out. I’m not worried about bears eating cards.
10:37 Savory in your mouth
10:57 Rick retires
11:11 Tony & Chris out.

Saturday

6:57 Upon further reflection, those last two beers, and the entire bottle of Makers Mark, might not have been entirely necessary last night.
6:59 “I evacuated the Loser Libation last night.”
7:24 “Where the hell did you find Franzia?”
    “You can find it behind the tree over there right now.”
7:57 Guess it’s time to go read the constitution

8:07 Butter removed from ice

8:23 Chipmunk jumps in the fire

9:10 Same stupid chipmunk jumps in the bocce ball box.

9:25 Trip to store unsuccessful in locating Miller Genuine Draft. Thank God.
9:27 First beer of the morning.
10:00 Cribbage.
10:42 “I’m ready for some cornholing.”
   “That’s all you, buddy.”
10:47 It’s probably too early to start drinking heavily
10:59 Rick cornholes Tony in Round 1 with a score of 21-2
11:02 “I need to get better. I’m going to ask my wife for a cornhole for Christmas.”
11:09 Another cornholing as Sparky beats Chris 21-8
11:40 Lunch: A couple of hot Hawaiians
12:10 Round two of cornhole
12:19 Chris wins third place.
12:22 “What’s a devil’s three-way?”
   “Do you need me to draw you a diagram?”
12:31 “You keep tickling the cornhole, but not going in.”
12:39 Sparky powers back from 15-3, wins 21-20.
  Cornhole results: Sparky 5, Rick 3, Chris 1, Tony 0
  After two events: Rick 8, Mark 6, Tony 3, Chris 1

12:51 Too close to call, Rick and Sparky must toss-off to make the final round against Chris.
12:53 Butter Toss results: Chris 5, Rick 3, Sparky 1, Tony 0
    After three events: Rick 11, Sparky 7, Chris 6, Tony 3
12:57 Homerun Derby
1:07 Round 1: Chris 8, Sparky 4, Rick 3* (7 outs left), Tony 2
1:13 Round 2: Chris 2 (8 outs left), Rick 2 (7 outs left), Sparky 1
1:18 Rick and Chris headed to a 5-out jack-off, tied 7-7 in finals.
1:24 Rick 2, Chris hits 3rd with four outs left, flips bat, runs around gimpy and pumping arms like Kirk Gibson
   After four events: Rick 14, Chris 11, Sparky 8, Tony 3
2:00 Chipmunk in bear locker. Bear’s going to be pissed.
3:16 “I’m going to take a leak. Then change clothes. And then I’m going to have a beer. Not that you all needed the play-by-play.”
3:40 Exhibition event. Welcome to… New Las Vegas “board” game.

5:43 Adventure Bocce results: Chris 5, Sparky 3, Tony 1, Rick 0
   With one event left: Chris 16, Rick 14, Sparky 11, Tony 4
6:01 Tri-tip sammiches
6:25 Rick putting cooler back in car. Quitters never prosper!
  “Fuck you. I’m out of beer in that cooler!”

6:31 “Like a 14-year-old groping around on prom night.”

6:47 Final event: Cards Against Humanity
7:17 Rick wins on “A romantic candlelit dinner would be incomplete without… calculating every mannerism so as not to suggest homosexuality.” If Chris comes in second, we’ll have a tie atop the standings.
7:26 Tony finishes second with “What helps Obama unwind? Out of this world bazongas.”

7:32 Final Camptathalon standings: Rick 19, Chris 16, Sparky 12, Tony 7

7:37 Draft: Action Movies
Order: Sparky, Chris, Rick, Tony
Rd. 1: The Rock, Terminator, Die Hard, Missing in Action
Rd. 2: Top Gun, Red Dawn, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Red
Rd. 3: The Fast & the Furious, First Blood, Aliens, Gone in 60 Seconds
Rd. 4: Bourne Identity, Tango & Cash, 300, The Goonies
(Ed. Note: Drafts are snake-style, so Tony took Missing in Action with pick 4, then Red with pick 5)

8:09 Draft: Holidays
Chris, Rick, Tony, Sparky
Rd. 1: Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Independence Day
Rd. 2: Father’s Day, New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day
Rd. 3: Constitution Day, Veteran’s Day, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day
Rd. 4: Easter, Super Bowl Sunday, Opening Day, MLK Day
Rd. 5: Fishmas, Cesar Chavez Day, Canada Day, 21st Amendment Day

8:31 “Now that the sun is down, I can pee openly.”

8:35 Draft: Candy
Rick, Tony, Sparky, Chris
Rd. 1: Pay Day, Peanut M&Ms, Twix, Whatchamacallit
Rd. 2 Snickers, Reese’s Pieces, Peese’s PB Cup, Hershey w/ Almond
Rd. 3: Mr. Goodbar, Almond Joy, Gummy Bears, Kit Kat
Rd. 4: Butterfinger, 100 Grand, Caramels, Nestle Crunch
Rd. 5: Twizzler, Goobers, Starburst, Swedish Fish
Rd. 6: Lifesavers, Bueno Bar, Orange Slices, Black Licorice
Honorable mentions: Junior Mints, Heath/Skor, Hershey’s Kisses w/ almonds

8:47 Ladies across the way already went to sleep. Fuck them. Quiet hours aren’t until 10:00
8:58 “Is it 9:00 yet?”
  “You must stay up until 10:00. First person who falls asleep, we’re dipping your hand in warm water and shaving your eyebrows.”
  “Without warm water or a razor?”
9:32 “I can blow well.”
9:44 “On that note…”
“It’s not 10:00 yet, bitch.”
10:01 “And on that note…”

Sunday
6:34 Shushed by karens next door for packing up too loud.
6:37 Every time that flag’s refurled…
6:52 That smoke in the sky is new. And ash on the cars. Looks like we barely beat the fire this year.
7:43 Westbound and down.

Another COVID Cancellation

Some of my normal camping guys came up with a crazy idea last year, which was to go camping again.

Normally, this wouldn’t seem totally asinine, but in this, the International Year of the Covid, all bets are off.

The wrinkle to this particular camping trip was the date it was to take place. Late January. Snow camping! 

I’ve never done it before. Nor has the other guy who was gung ho about the idea. The third guy grew up on the western bank of the Sierra Nevadas, where it snows a bit but nothing major. It should be noted that the two other Camptathalon mainstays, who grew up in Idaho and Wisconsin, couldn’t say no fast enough. A wise man might note the discrepancies. But fuck it, I’m sure I can get gassy enough to keep that tent as humid as a summer’s eve.

We opted for Yosemite. For one thing, I don’t really know how many campsites are even open this time of year. Our usual haunts don’t open until six to eight weeks after the last snow. In the midwest, there’s snow everywhere, so you can pretty much camp anywhere. In California, to get to snow, you’ve got to go up to 4,000 feet elevation or so, and the roads to those spots are a wee bit pesky. But the roads to Yosemite are plowed regularly. Commerce, as Teddy Roosevelt intended. 

Our second reason for choosing Yosemite was that it’s about as far from “roughing it” as you can get while camping. They’ve got two well-stocked stores and a half-a-billion rangers per square mile. Shit, they’ve got 4G reception and an ice cream stand. Guessing we could get pizza delivered if necessary. Not exactly a spot I’d need to worry about getting lost in a blizzard and wandering off a cliff.

Speaking of which, the valley floor is only about 4,000 feet, so the Wisconsoner and Idahoan really didn’t need to whine about traveling uphill in the snow both directions. It wasn’t supposed to drop below the mid-twenties at any point during our visit. The high was scheduled to be above forty on Saturday.

But alas, my first sojourn into the camping where you don’t need to purchase ice each day did not happen. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow would shut Yosemite down. COVID, on the other hand…

Yep, Yosemite is closed to overnight reservations as part of California’s on-again, off-again flirtation with pretending we’re taking it seriously.

Because, you know, there’s no chance for us to socially distance when we’re camping in the fucking snow. Why, it’s got to be like Disneyland, right? I imagine thousands of people are all ass-to-elbow, because if we know one thing about Californians, it’s that they LOVE being out in the snow in the middle of the night.

To be sure, it’s ONLY the overnight stuff that’s closed in Yosemite. Visiting the park in the daytime is still totally legit. It’s only the campers who can’t be trusted to social distance. Is there some sort of midnight orgy I was unaware of? Maybe it’s a good thing they won’t let me in, as you never want to be the guy who shows up for the orgy wearing snow-camping gear.

When I first made the reservations, I already had to deal with a weird COVID restriction. They were only booking fifty-percent capacity. Fine. Whatever. Except either I didn’t read the fine print or it wasn’t clearly spelled out, because if I were to ask you how to ensure fifty-percent capacity in a campsite, how would you go about doing it? Close every other campsite, right? 

Nope! They booked the entire campground for a week, then went an entire week without accepting reservations. I guess so they could… sanitize the dirt. Besides, who wants to go to a half-filled orgy. 

Just remember this when you go into a restaurant that’s cordoned off every other table to allow for maximum spacing. Tell them they’re doing it wrong. It’s much better to go standing-room only on Tuesday and Thursday, while taking Wednesday off.

This missing week became an issue while reserving, because Yosemite releases an entire month’s worth of reservations at the exact same time. I wasn’t sure what the demand would be for winter camping, but in the summer, if you log in five minutes late, the entire month is taken. So at 7:00 am, I started refreshing like I was loading a pornographic picture back in the dial-up days. 

7:01, 7:02, and I’m still not seeing the dates in question available. I noticed that the previous weekend was available, but I thought maybe they were residuals from the previous month’s availability. At 7:04, I decided to see if the FOLLOWING weekend. The campsite was available. It’s at this point I realize their asinine definition of “fifty percent capacity.” Good news is by that time, there were still campsites available. Bad news was I had to drop down to our third choice.

As an aside, the weekend we originally wanted to go was this weekend, the one in between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl. What better time to go camping than when there are no sports? But Yosemite only made the weekends of major football games available for camping. Maybe this was to further depress demand. Make sure no casual fans come up for the non-socially-distanced camping that is somehow less safe than day visitors.

Too bad I’ll never find out. At least not until next year.

And really, I don’t know why, ten months into the pandemic, I should expect anything less than arbitrary rules that have as much effect on containing the spread of COVID as taking off our shoes prevents terrorism. Remember back when they said we’d have regular testing by the end of May? 

Back then, Hawaii told everybody to stay the fuck away on pain of execution. Now Hawaii’s begging people to come work remotely, but only if you’ve been tested in the past seven days. Unfortunately, desire to go to Hawaii isn’t one of the prerequisites for getting a test. Tests, like vaccines, can only be doled out piecemeal, to those deemed worthy of saving. You need to have licked the bunghole of somebody with all three strains of the virus who is currently in ICU. 

Or you can be friends with the Governor. I have a funny feeling that everybody who was at Herr Kommandant Newsom’s French Laundry soiree has already received their vaccine. And snow orgies.

Speaking of which, sorry if my forthcoming rants are a tad California-specific. But a) that’s where I live, and b) we are the poster child for FUBARing the whole COVID thing. If you live in a place that’s got its collective head out of its ass, then maybe this’ll only serve to make you feel fortunate.

It’s interesting how most of the media say we’re no longer following the rules because of “COVID Fatigue.” Instead, most of us are making constant judgement calls, weighing the trade-offs between having a life or being dead. There’s a sliding scale. Even if we all strictly followed the rules, we have to grocery shop at some point. And I don’t think that I’m out of line that camping in the snow, with the closest human being fifty feet away, is probably safer than going to the grocery store. I’m not being ignorant. I’m trying to follow the rules and guidelines that the government established.

Not that those rules and guidelines mean jack shit. We’re told to meet certain goalposts, then we’re told that, sorry, that’s not the goal we’ve been looking for. Or sometimes we DON’T meet that goal, and Herr Kommandant’s like, “Yeah, you know what? It’s cool. We didn’t really need those ICU beds anyway.”

Over the Christmas holiday, Canada set up space heaters at outdoor parks. The message was clear: You want to be able to see your family and friends, so please be safe about it. In the United States, we opted for the tried-and-true “You want to be able to see your family, so we will tsk-tsk and shame you and not help you do that safely. Abstinence only has worked so well over the decades in this country. Just ask the millions of Americans who had premarital sex or smoked pot.

The ironic thing is we simultaneously tell people to social distance while also banning them from it. I’m on the Board of Directors for my curling club, and we perused the sports rules for hours. They have all sorts of rules for how to do our sports. Limited capacity? We’ve accounted for that. Social distancing and masks? We’ve changed our rules to implement those. But then, at the tail end of the document, they give a list of which sports can operate in which tier. It’s like telling us how we’re supposed to shop safely, but then closing the stores anyway. 

In California, we’ve had at least three different classification systems over the past year. First it was a convoluted “phased reopening.” That was tied more to which companies could open, and as far as I could tell, it wasn’t tied to any sort of caseload count. It was basically “Starbucks can open its drive-thrus, and if the shit doesn’t hit the fan, they can sell a couple Bacon Goudas, but not the bagel store in the same parking lot because Starbucks contributes a lot of money to politicians and fuck you, small businesses.”

Then we went to the color-coded, county-by-county system. Some people whine that the colors make no sense, but I think they’re fine. Yellow, orange, red, purple. It’s pretty standard “danger” stuff. The problem I have is that they set the classifications such that everyone will always be in purple. 

If you have more than 7 positive cases per 100,000 residents, you’re in purple. Seven! Currently, 54 of the 58 counties are in purple, which kinda makes the whole “purple” designation pointless. Sacramento County was at 55, while San Francisco County is at 38, and Los Angeles County was at 150. 

The red tier is set at 4 to 7 per 100,000. Orange at 1 to 4. Again, Los Angeles County is currently at 150, which is the same as 10. But 4 and 7 are hugely different numbers that drastically change what can open.

It seems to me that 150 cases per 100,000 residents is substantially worse than 38 per 100,000. But according to the state, they’re EXACTLY the same. It would be like maxing out the Richter Scale at 4. Or the hurricane classification at 2. “Boy, I wonder how big that natural disaster was?” “Exactly the same as every other natural disaster.”

So again, if they’re going to make their classification for the purposes of scolding us, then we’re going to try to make sense of it ourselves. At one of my staff meetings, my principal was running through the numbers and, at 93 per 100,000, referred to us being in “Deep Purple.” He talked about what preparations we might make if we get into “light purple,” but it was too late. I was already humming, “Smoke on the Water.”

At my curling club, we’re talking about reassessing opening when we get down in the 20 per 100,000 range. Although truthfully, I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad number, because it’s all arbitrary. If there’s no difference between 20 and 150, then is there really a difference between 7 and 20?

Then again, the numbers I’ve been quoting aren’t the real numbers, they’re adjusted for the number of tests. I have no idea what that means, but earlier this week, the New York Times showed Sacramento County with a rate of 23 per 100,000, while the California website claimed Sacramento County was still at 42. That’s a pretty large discrepancy and, unfortunately, the New York Times ain’t the ones who get to put us into red. 

And don’t get me started on the ethnic breakdown of the positive cases.

Yes, the state that claims to “follow the science” says that they get to make up the numbers. Counties aren’t allowed out of purple tier unless all of the ethnicities in the county are catching COVID at the same rate. And before you get started, yes, I know that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to catch it. But most of that discrepancy stems from issues of poverty.

Blacks and Latinos are more likely to work in the service and retail industries, which have remained open. Maybe if we want fewer Blacks and Latinos to catch the virus we could, I don’t know, try to make those activities safer. Like Canada did at the holidays, focus on HOW we do these activities instead of just telling people not to do them. I remember being a sexually-active teenager who had difficulties getting condoms.

Or we could look at fixing poverty and the reasons minorities are stuck in it, but ha ha, just kidding. Why would we try to fix poverty when we can just condescend people from behind the French Laundry barricade. “If you were taking this we were taking this more seriously, you would avoid the grocery store. Honestly, who has to buy fruits and vegetables more than once a year, anyway?”

So after the phases and the tiers failed to not only curb the surge, but actually seemed to make things worse, Herr Kommandant came up with a new metric, which was ICU capacity. So now if you’re in purple, everything is closed, but if you’re in purple and your ICU capacity drops, then… everything is still closed. But maybe they chain up the door now?

A recent article I read posited that closing everything down might’ve actually driven the latest surge. Before the shut down, people could eat outdoors. After the shutdown, they had to go indoors, where they’re much more likely to catch it.

Don’t get me wrong. ICU capacity is hugely important. It might even be something we should’ve been tracking all along. But we weren’t, and because the state couldn’t distinguish between nine sick people and two hundred sick people, they decided to change the playbook again. 

But once again, the ICU capacity numbers appear to be a heaping pile of bovine excrement. The Sacramento region (not county this time) sunk below the 15% availability in early December. We were put on Saint Gavin’s naughty list for a minimum of three weeks, after which it would be reassessed. I kept checking the ICU capacity over that three week span, and it usually oscillated between 14-17%. So I was shocked when Jan. 2 rolled around, and our region was suddenly at 4% capacity!

Four percent? How the fuck did we drop ten percent in two fucking days?

Well, you see, that 4% number wasn’t our actual ICU capacity. It was Herr Kommondant’s PREDICTION about what he thought our ICU capacity WOULD BE four weeks later. So, you know, sorry y’all worked so hard to reach that milestone I told you would get you off probation, but now I’m making up a new milestone that is literally impossible to reach.

Of course, the reason they were predicting our ICU rates would plummet was because they didn’t think we were following their rules over the holidays. In other words, “we don’t think you’re following our rules, so we’re going to keep the same rules.” Wonderful.

Then he reversed gear. A week later, he claimed that the ICU rates weren’t spiking as expected and he was going to reopen Sacramento only, because now his magical eight ball says that four weeks later, we’d be at 17%. I’m sure this decision had nothing to do with the fact Herr Kommandant currently lives and works in the Sacramento region.

And no, if you’re wondering, the French Laundry is not in the Sacramento region.

The irony of the naughty-list/nice-list switcheroo was the actual numbers. When we were told we couldn’t reopen because we hadn’t cupped his balls correctly, the actual ICU availability was around 14%, but when we got the all-clear, we were just under 10%. So why exactly did we set the 15% threshold?

Then a few days ago, he waved his magic wand and reopened the entire state. Poof. Our long, national ICU crisis is over! Even though not a single region (aside from Northern California, where nobody lives) had even come close to sniffing 15%. But now the magical four-week prediction says all is honkey-dorey. The outlook was almost comical. Sacramento is still predicting 17%, the exact number that was predicted two weeks ago, so I guess not a damn thing has changed. But all of the other regions, who were below Sacramento, are predicted to be higher. Bay Area is supposed to be well over 20% ICU availability, but the true kicker is Southern California, which is predicted as having 33% of their ICU beds free in just four weeks! This is the same Southern California that has had 0% capacity for six straight weeks! What the fuck? Are there only three ICU beds in Southern California and Bob is starting to look a little ripe?

I teach social science, so I’m totally comfortable with trends and projected statistics. For instance, Gamestop’s stock is predicted to drop by ten percent, but instead it increased by… what the holy hell? Okay, maybe ICU beds can jump from 0 to 33%. Gavin just needs to get reddit dorks on board.

The latest completely arbitrary shift came with the vaccines. They very clearly laid out the first five groups, confusingly named Tier 1A, phases 1, 2, and 3, followed by Tier 1B, phases 1 and 2. Not sure why they couldn’t just name them one through five, but I guess everybody’s gotta feel special. In the end it really doesn’t matter, because they changed up the order. The first two groups were an amalgamation of front-line workers. Then it was supposed to by those 75 and over in that third group. I know this because I was in the next group, 1B part 1, along with those between 65 to 75. Not sure how teachers and baby boomers were included together, but whatever. How many 75 year olds can there be? I assume teachers will be up any day now.

Except then they decided that those 65-year-olds get to jump ahead of teachers. No real reason. Just because. And I don’t know if you’re aware of age demographics, but there’s a lot of fucking baby boomers. So when it was teachers and boomers together, I was looking at a late March vaccination. Now that it’s boomers, THEN teachers, I just got pushed back to July. JULY! And I’m still in a “special” category. There’s still going to be a group behind me, which I think includes a large swath of retail workers, before getting anywhere close to the general population. So if you’re 50 years old and work a normal office job, you’re probably waiting till 2022.

Remember back in November when people were saying there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and this might be our final lockdown? And Biden promised 100 million vaccinations in 100 days? Well, I hope his math wasn’t dependent on the most populous state in the nation getting its head out of its ass.

I’m pretty sure the real number Lord High Protector Gavin was looking at had nothing to do with positivity rates or hospital beds or millions of vaccines he has in his own personal batcave. It’s the number of signatures on the recall petition. Here’s how I think this went down. The president of the California Restaurant Workers Association called him up and said if he didn’t open the entire state, she was going to tell every restaurant employee to sign the petition. And voila!, state is open. 

I should note that the reason I know that person is a she is because it was her, not the governor, who announced the reopening. He followed a few hours later. Ironic, considering many of the legislators and health officials were angry at Newsom not telling them when big announcements were coming, so they weren’t prepared for the slew of phone calls, making Newsom look large and in charge. But if he outranks them, we now know who outranks him. Be sure to tip your server.

So huzzah! Restaurants are open! Hair salons are open! Swimming pools are open! Unvaccinated teacher coming soon to a recently-opened ICU near you! Just in time for a newly-mutated strain that requires two masks!

But don’t worry, we’re all still safe.

Snow camping is still closed.

Thoughts on that Mandalorian Finale

Everybody’s been gushing about the second season finale for The Mandalorian.  After all, it’s got CGI! Behold, a tick to make Hollywood actors more attractive than they are in real life! What more could one want as a going-away present to get us through the long, dark offseason that before it is filled with WandaVision and seven other temporary fulfillments of the vacant holes in our souls. Character agency? Pshaw.

So, y’know, spoiler warnings and whatnot. But you clicked through on something that clearly referenced what I was reviewing. If you didn’t want to know about the menage-a-trois between Mando and Captain Kirk and Harry Potter, it’s kinda your own fault now.

And honestly, I’m at least a year behind the times on this, but Mando the Mandalorian? Really? Maybe it’s a good thing they waited a year and a half to name Baby Yoda. It gave us time to name it Baby Yoda instead of, I don’t know, Bob, which is probably the name they would’ve given it if they’d been forced to come up with one. Fighting alongside Humo the Human.

And yeah, I know Baby Yoda has a real name now. But sorry, producers, ya done waited too long and he’s forever gonna be Baby Yoda now.

I’m probably not the best person to review the second season finale of The Mandalorian, considering I’ve been a whole lotta meh on the series as a whole. One of the reasons this is coming a month after the series ended is because I wasn’t planning to watch season two at all, until I heard about the ending. 

Some of my friends incessantly gush about the show. They’ll note that the red hat in the background of one scene was an homage to an outtake from Episode II wherein Jar Jar Binks shoved a red hat up his hoo-ha only to find out that he was color blind. Meanwhile I fixated on asinine things like there’s no way the little kid Boba Fett in Episode II could grow up to be the old dude Bob Fett in this show. I feel like he switched ethnicities. Maybe being pooped out by the Sarlacc changes your accent. Or maybe he’s a character that never shoulda taken the helmet off. Or, you know, returned at all. 

Cue Poe Dameron. Somehow, Boba Fett returned. If the answers disappoint you, perhaps you should stop asking questions. About anything.

“It’s like a Western,” my friends say. “Like Kung Fu.”

People called the Han Solo movie a western, too. Amazing how many westerns take place in space. Ironically, I really liked the Han Solo movie. I don’t know if it was because of any Outlaw Josie Wales motifs. The best part of the movie was Donald Glover doing a spot-on impression of Billy Dee Williams, circa 1979.

I’m not a huge Western fan, but I’ve seen my fair share of Bonanza episodes. I even visited the Ponderosa up at Lake Tahoe when it was a kinda, sorta amusement park/homage to the show. You could get there early and have a pancake – sorry “flapjack” – breakfast, complete with whiskey in your coffee and I was only 22 and shit, howdy, while I loved me some Baileys and coffee, I don’t know that I was quite ready for whatever rotgut they were throwing in there.

Regardless, I never once say the Mandalorian call for Hop Sing, nor ride his horse into Carson City, so I don’t quite think it’s a western.

But fine, let’s pretend that both Solo and The Mandalorian are westerns. Let’s pretend they’re both Kung Fu. You know what was great about Kung Fu? You didn’t have to watch every episode.

Back in the 1970s, we didn’t have every Disney movie and show, except for Song of the South, available whenever we wanted. Your options for “children’s programming” were Saturday mornings or afternoon syndications or PBS mid-mornings. 

And if you wanted Star Wars content on TV, good fucking luck. Far too valuable of a commodity to sell TV rights for. Your only option was the now infamous Holiday Special with Bea Arthur, who played a hideous tentacled alien species who reside with their Sicilian mothers in Miami retirement communities.

What’s that? Bea Arthur’s character was a human bartender? If you say so. 

But we can all agree that Golden Girls was thinly-veiled tentacle porn, right?

We also didn’t have Netflix dropping an entire season of a new tv show all at once in the 1970s. “Binge Watching” meant not getting our asses off the couch to change to one of the other five channels. Because we had no remote control, so might as well keep the TV tuned to this station and see what’s on next. The Jeffersons? Sold!

Heck, most homes didn’t even have VCRs until well into the 1980s. So if you weren’t going to be home for your favorite show, you were more or less fucked. There was a chance said episode might rerun during the summer, but not every episode did. A typical season might have 20-some episodes, but only about ten weeks of reruns. And really, who wants to be inside during summer evenings? Nobody. That’s why TV networks ran reruns.

The first serials, like Dynasty and Dallas, didn’t hit the market until after VCRs were around. So if, say, wife was going into labor, they didn’t have to decide between calling in a midwife or never finding out who shot J.R.

Then again, waiting till your wife is in labor to figure out how to set the clock on the VCR was a really bad idea.

Obviously, TV has come a long way since then. Most shows are designed to be watched back-to-back. Season-long storylines are now the norm. There’s no reason to ever “miss” an episode. Even more so with subscription services. 

So I was a little disappointed with the utter lack of continuity in the first season of The Mandalorian. I spent the first few episodes trying to follow every little plot thread, keeping track of all of the hints at what had happened in the five years between Return of the Jedi and the start of this show. But I was hard pressed to find any through-lines. 

After a few episodes, I saw someone refer to The Mandalorian as a video game. Each episode was a different level, with a boss fight at the end, after which he leveled up with a fancy new weapon. That explanation crystalized my nagging, unfulfilled feeling while watching it. 

During season two, I saw a much funnier explanation of the same thing.

Again, it wasn’t that I thought The Mandalorian was bad. It was fine. It just didn’t give me a reason to want to tune in. It’s Kung Fu and I’ve got a whole slew of Falcon Crests on my plate. I’m talking The Boys  and Witcher. WandaVision was on the horizon and I still hadn’t finished Daredevil. Hell, even sitcoms like The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek have continuing plotlines now. How can a Star Wars property be so episodic?

I resolved not to watch season two. Maybe “resolved” is a bad word. It wasn’t a boycott. It was asking myself if I cared enough to tune in. and answering with a resounding. “meh.”

I heard about Boba Fett. I shrugged. Never cared too much for a character with a whopping ten minutes of screen time in the first trilogy. The Mos Eisley saxophone player showing up wouldn’t have me running either.

Then came the announcement about the finale.

God damn it. 

Fine.

So again, if you haven’t heard about the ending now, approach with caution.

A de-aged Mark Hamill shows up.

Which ruined everything.

Let me back up.

I’m not opposed to the idea. We were all hoodwinked into thinking there was no way any of the original characters would show up, other than those in masks, although we probably shoulda seen it coming. After all, they had already done that with Carrie Fisher in Rogue One. Then, to one up themselves, they put her in Rise of Skywalker after she was dead. 

My problem with the Luke Skywalker cameo wasn’t the obvious “gotcha” quality of it, nor that I was duped into watching the entire second season for it. And yeah, it was dramatic as hell. Impressive. Even knowing what to expect, my heart raced when that lone X-Wing came out of hyperspace to board the ship.

But from a storytelling motif, it’s totally bullshit. Deus ex machina, anyone?

The second half of season two was actually fixing a lot of the problems I had with season one. There was a cohesive plot, a through-line of getting Baby Yoda to “the jedi.” And after Baby Yoda got kidnapped by Gus the Los Pollos Hermanos dude, there was actually momentum building toward the finale. Even a wee bit of character development, if I dare say.

Seriously though, Giancarlo Esposito has been sorely underused in this show. Anybody who can steal scenes in a show like Breaking Bad should be running circles around an MMA fighter and a dude in a mask. Dude can play cold-blooded sociopath, and y’all got him playing Dr. Evil.

Unfortunately, Gus the Chicke Dude and the MMA fighter and the dude in a mask who the fucking show is named after, those characters I finally got to know over the episodes leading up to the finale, were thrown to the sideline  in the culminating scenes, so Luke could come in with his fancy lightsaber. Like whoever the old Tampa Bay quarterback was when Tom Brady decided he wanted to move south for the winter. Maybe they need to change the title of The Mandalorian to include the character we’re actually supposed to care about. Season three’s working title: Hey maybe they can get a Han Solo cameo, too.

Okay, so they set the scene in the finale by showing us the Terminator. They called them Dark Troopers or Storm Shadows or something, but they were basically the Terminator. Or Ultron. Basically, half storm trooper, half robot, so we shouldn’t worry about the moral qualms about murdering them. Not that we’ve ever had any issue of mass slaughter of bad guys before. Weren’t the stormtroopers understood to be clones, anyway? Although, let’s be honest, that wasn’t established until the fifth movie. We went at least the entire original trilogy assuming those were real people.

Speaking of which, why did they clone a guy that was such a shitty shot with a blaster?

In typical superhero stuff, they show us that one fight with one of these fuckers was almost too much for the hero. Mando the Madalorian used up all of his weapons to no avail. He was finally able to defeat dude using a one-time weapon that he wouldn’t be able to use again. And now they’re showing Mando and his friemds, trapped in the bridge of an imperial cruiser, about to face twenty of them. How ever shall our hero make it out of this quandary?

It’s a standard motif in the fantasy/sci-fi/superhero genres. Our hero is shown being totally outmatched by his opponent only to finally discover the way to beat them later. Sometimes said hero discovers a weakness and exploits it. The James Bond route. Other times, a la Rocky III, the hero realizes he wasn’t taking the fight seriously the first time. More often, it’s done lazily. I guess all Superman had to do to beat Zod was level half of Metropolis. Too bad he didn’t try that the first time.

Even when it’s done poorly, though, there’s still some payoff. Some conclusion. Ultron could beat all of the Avengers with barely a thought, but once you’ve got a city flying in the air and the Avengers are simultaneously saving civilians AND fighting Ultron, well then, that’s how they win. Divided attention always makes us stronger. 

So how did Mando and his pals finally overcome this threat? One took everything he had, and now he’s facing an army! Perhaps the three episodes they’ve been together will culminate into working together as a team, each member intuiting the others movements. Perhaps the imminent threat on his only father figure will finally push Baby Yoda beyond the threshold, resulting in a focused blast of force power he’s never manifested before. Perhaps Mando goes all MacGyver and creates twenty of those spear things he used earlier.

Or maybe they’ll all just stand there and watch it play out on a fucking screen.

Really?

Look, I know Jon Favreau is a better plotter than I’ll ever be. He’s as much to credit as Robert Downey, Jr. for the entire MCU existing. But that was utter bullshit. Would we have been happy if, in the final battle against Obediah Stane in the first Iron Man movie, the Hulk randomly showed up and beat the shit out of the bad guy, with Tony Stark unconscious on the sidelines? 

But if it’s Luke Skywalker instead of Bruce Banner, all bets are off. As the “debate” over The Last Jedi proved, Skywalkers are the only beings in the entire Star Wars universe who are EVER allowed to resolve ANY conflict. Or maybe the Emperor.

There were ways to bring Luke back without being the deus ex machina, without stealing all agency from the main character. They could’ve gotten out of the situation then delivered Baby Yoda to Luke, similar to the Rogue One Princess Leia scene. I even would’ve been fine with Luke showing up to help Mando, who was already fighting back on his own. But the title fucking character should not be a fucking bystander for the ultimate battle. 

How’s season three gonna go? Is he just going to stop trying to get out of situations? I mean, the more dire the situation, the more likely Zeus will fly in to save the day, right? Just tell Baby Yoda (who we all know will still be prominently featured in season 3 despite “leaving” with Luke) to call for Papa. 

Or maybe they’ll just wait for Han Solo this time.

Man Grooming as Nature Intended

Despite being a lifelong suburbanite, my wife has a few granola-crunchy tendencies. Her uncle isn’t quite aware the 1960s ever ended and splits his time between espousing the benefits of a government-based economy and deriding said government for controlling our minds through chemtrails or flouride or blah, blah, blah, because by this time I’m on my seventh glass of wine at Thanksgiving dinner (Thank you, 2020!). He also thinks cats are spying on us and reporting back to aliens keeping tabs on us. And I’m dead serious on that last one.

Wife doesn’t go that far. She’s way too consumerist. But for somebody who thinks camping is an abomination, you can certainly grab her attention by calling your product all-natural or organic or hormone free. So if you want her to buy your bacon, you might put on the packaging that it comes from pigs not treated with vaginal testosterone.  Even though there’s no such thing, so technically every pig in existence. But if you wanna get sold at Whole Foods, you gotta say every madeup bullshit thing isn’t in it.

I’m looking in your direction, rBST.

Occasionally, Wife gets stuck on conference calls at work and orders me some all-natural self-grooming shit. It’ll show up on our doorstep one day and she’ll kinda, sorta remember seeing something, like a Vietnam Vet trying to recall the fogs of war. Amazon told her that people who ordered Tom’s Toothpaste might also like toilet paper with the consistency of poison oak. 

But whatever. As long as she isn’t going paleo or anything, I guess I can splash some essential oils on my nether regions. It turns out I actually like some of them. Others are nothing more than snake oil.

So here are my reviews of products you might be pondering at the next Ren Faire.

Dr. Squatch Soap. 

Of the three products she bought me, this is the only one I’d heard of beforehand. It would seem to be a product custom made for me. Its name alludes to Bigfoot and they cuss in the commercials that my robot overlords at Google and Facebook show me. 

Maybe you’ve seen the ads. They tell guys that the soap you’ve been washing with is bullshit. Okay, you’ve got my attention. The commercials also imply that our junk, which smells horrific, yet is dainty, ain’t never gonna be cleaned by some industrial soap that’s half comprised of something pussy like, I don’t know, lotion or aloe or smurf handjobs.

Personally, my soap of choice is Irish Spring. The dude in the Dr. Squatch commercial calls it mass-produced and docile and bovine excrementy. But I’m assured by its mid-1980s advertisements that Irish Spring is made beside a bucolic river outside of Kilkenny, and if I use it, I’ll be whistled at by the comely lass also seen dancing in that Men Without Hats music video. 

“Manly, yes, but I like it, too!”

But Dr. Squatch Dude has a well-groomed beard, ergo I must pay attention. And they sell such manly flavors of soap, like Grapefruit IPA and Pine Tar and… Aloe. I guess ya can’t make a rub-over-skin product without the base aloe model. 

Come to think of it, pine tar? Isn’t that the stuff they put on baseball bats to make them sticky? I don’t know if I want that on my giblets. Is the ghost of Billy Martin going to come measure my cock to make sure I didn’t add too much pine tar? The last thing I need is a scruffy looking, powder-blue wearing George Brett screaming out of the dugout like a whirling dervish.

The first one I tried was the aloe bar. Baby steps, people. I’ve been trained by years of consumer culture and if it ain’t green, it shouldn’t even call itself soap. The Dr. Squatch was fine, I guess. Nothing really to write home about. Other than its clunky square shape, the clarion call of all “natural” products, it pretty much felt like soap. It didn’t quite get the lather up that I like. Wouldn’t want to shave with it, that’s for sure. 

That square shape also makes it hard to get into some of my nooks and crannies. In fact, it feels a little like being bludgeoned. I didn’t know I was supposed to be in pain while showering. And that was before I tried their second “flavor,” Chinese Water Torture.

No, it’s not named Chinese Water Torture soap, but it might as well be. It’s called Cold Brew Coffee soap. Should be perfect for me. I already smell like coffee all day. Or at least until 2:00, after which I smell like a distillery. 

What’s that? Dr. Squatch has a rum soap, too? Maybe I’ll have to investigate. 

Or I can just have some rum. Because if the rum is anything like the cold brew, I’ll pass. 

Sure, the coffee bar smelled nice, even if I had to adjust to the unnatural brownness of it. 

The problem came in its consistency. I’m not sure if Bigfoot’s ever had coffee, but when I get an iced coffee from Starbucks, I don’t have to take the coffee grounds out of my mouth. At home, I occasionally have a filter catastrophe that results in a crunchy cup o’ joe, but that’s not supposed to be the norm. And I know the hipster in the commercials doesn’t brew his own.

The coffee soap, however, is inundated with scratchy coffee grounds. And not the Folgers or Maxwell House ground coffee variety. More like whole beans thrown for ten seconds into a hand grinder cranked by an arthritic octogenarian. 

The first time I used it, I thought maybe it was just an outer layer authenticity thing that would go away as I used it. I once splurged on an Irish Spring “Sport” bar that had little bubble things on the bottom, but they only lasted a couple of washes. Surely, once I got past the outer layer of this cold brew, it would work like normal soap. Or like fancy, all-natural, doesn’t-really-wash-you soap.

But no! That shit stayed through the whole bar. I get the whole “exfoliating” concept, but this wasn’t some John Cougar “Hurt So Good.” It was just straight-up jagged-ass scratching. I suppose I could’ve used a wash cloth, but c’mon, Bigfoot. Your commercials talk about being a manly-man and now you want me to use a wash cloth?

Eventually, I found that it worked best if I lathered up in my hand, then went to the body. 

That felt more like a little bit of gritty exfoliating, similar to the little grains inside some of those soft soaps. Speaking of which, did you know that Bath & Body Works has “manly man” soaps, too? They’re usually hidden amongst the cinnamons and lilacs and Lakeside Estrogens. You can usually tell which ones they are because they’re blue. My favorite also had a fox wearing a blue sweater on the front and had a smell named “musk.” That’s the manly triumvirate right there.

But the blocky coffee soap wasn’t the same as a granulated soft soap. Like its aloe brethren, the cold brew block couldn’t lather worth a shit. So lots and lots and of scrubbing the hands meant the bar didn’t last longer than a week or so. At seven bucks a pop, I feel like the soap should last, I don’t know, a year or so. It’s kinda like paying for a single beer at the ballgame that costs more than a 12-pack of that same beer at home.

And for seven bucks, you get the added benefit of doing a twice over before exiting the shower to make sure you don’t look like a damned leper when you step out. The soap’s supposed to clean me, not leave me looking like I missed the trash can when dumping the coffee filter. Took me so long to shower, I was late to work. Good thing we live in a patriarchy and I can just ask for a raise to make up for the time lost.

Ha ha, just kidding. I’m a teacher. We don’t get raises.

Still, maybe I should stick with the rum bar. Although maybe not on the day I ask my principal for a raise.

Somerset English Shaving Oil.

What the hell is an essential oil anyway? Are there non-essential oils? Do the essential oils tease them? Like the Catholics who say Protestants go to Purgatory, which they think is heaven, but isn’t really heaven. I assume the Catholics spend all of eternity mocking those Protestants in their fake heaven. Something to look forward to.

Although if this is English shaving oil, it probably isn’t Catholic. They leave that for the Irish Spring next door.

Come to think of it, I don’t know if English is really the operative adjective for olde tyme rituals. Sure, compared to us young pups in America, England’s been around forever. But if I really want to be shaving like I’m some grizzly middle ager, how about some Saxon Shaving Oil. Or Mercian. Although that’s too close to ‘Merican. And we all know ‘Merican shaving oil would be buffalo chicken sauce with ranch.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or behind myself. Where the fuck was I? Oh right, shaving.

I’m fortunate enough to not have much facial hair. It takes me a month to go from clean-shaven to something approximating a goatee or beard. 

It’s the perfect amount of hair growth, because I don’t have to shave every day. If I shave Monday and Wednesday mornings, nobody will be any the wiser. If I then let it go the rest of the week, I might get some comments around closing time Friday afternoon that I’ve got a couple gristles. Not a five o’clock shadow yet, just some noticeable follicles. Actually, I never get a five o’clock shadow. Even if I let it go a week, it comes in scraggly and splotchy like I sent my cheek through chemotherapy. 

So when it comes to the best options for shaving, I never really established a consistent ritual. Through most of my thirties, I gravitated toward the gel that magically turns into foam on your skin. Unfortunately, anything that defies the laws of nature that much wreaks havoc on your pipes. 

And no, that’s not a reference to either my penis or my asshole. There’s a first time for everything.

It was literally my pipes. That gel ends up sticking to everything and clogging the shit out of my drain. It certainly wasn’t the millimetres of follicles going down there. So I switched to shaving in the shower, but the gel doesn’t do well in the wet steam. 

Enter Somerset’s Essential Whatnot and So-forth. You massage it into your skin at the beginning of the shower, then let it work its way in. It starts tingling, feels  like a zesty aftershave, except it’s a slick pre-shave. When the time comes, you lather up a little soap, just not the Dr. Squatch type. I said lather, not leather.

What can I say? The shit works. It’s a weird feeling for someone who thought shaving required a force-field of white goop. It also helps that soap lather is more see through. Who woulda thunk that it would be beneficial to actually see the face while shaving? 

Again, your mileage may vary, especially if you actually grow hair between your neck and ear. But the Somerset’s worked even after No-Shave November when I had an unruly weed-patch growing there, so long as I trim it first.

It doesn’t seem to help after No-Nut November. Although if I needed help with that, I’d feel safer using this than Dr. Squatch’s pine tar. Plus, it tingles!

Lume Deodorant.

Before even trying this product, I was predisposed to hate it.

First of all, it’s named Lume with a fancy little accent on the e. That means it’s either made by a French person or someone who thinks adding random accents to a product make it sound fancier. Like whatever asshole threw that “olde tyme” into his description of shaving oil.

Even worse than its name, this deodorant is goopy, a viscosity reminiscent of snot. When it smudges through three little slivers on top like vomit through your fingers as that last-second dash toward the toilet comes up woefully short. And they expect me to put that on my underarms? Gross. I’m trying to make that area LESS moist, why the fuck would I rub a used handkerchief there.

Handkerchiefs don’t seem to exist anymore, and that’s a good thing. My grandpa always used one. I’ve never understood why we should want to deposit our snots into our pocket for removal later. I’m sure it’s better for the environment than Kleenex, but if I promise to recycle my beer bottles, can I keep the Kleenex? Do earth-hugging communes allow tissue paper? What about toilet paper? I know way too much of our modern society is disposable, but I hope we never have to debate the trade-offs of those two paper products.

Anyway, for ninety percent of my life, I’ve liked precisely one style of substance under my arms: Bone-ass dry. Don’t give me those sprays. Don’t give me those roll-ons. If the process of applying deodorant doesn’t remove some hairs and skin, it’s probably not doing its work.

I also can’t abide by deodorants with smells. I don’t want fresh scent or forest morning or scorched earth. Not even “evergreen musk,” which was the magical manly smell that Bath and Body Works put into my sweater-wearing fox soap. Again, the purpose of deodorant is to remove smell. Replacing it with a different smell doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not fooled by the taxicab air freshener, either.

In fact, most of those scented ones give me a rash before long. Maybe I’ve got sensitive skin. Maybe I’m allergic. For a good portion of my teens and twenties, I used Ladies’ Speed Stick. It’s okay, you can judge. But maybe that’s where my hatred of smells come from, because trust me, the types of scents assigned to most of the Ladies’ Speed Stick varietals aren’t smells a nineteen-year-old dude wants wafting out of his pores. What the fuck is a Pampered Lilac, anyway? Does that mean the flower’s living a cush life? Or is it wearing diapers?

In my adult years, I settled on Arm n’ Hammer. It fits my desire for both lack of smell and dryness. If I could rub actual baking soda on my armpits and be done with it, I would. Preferably with a sweater-clad fox on the front.

Then along came Lume.

“It’s organic,” my wife told me. “It’s hypoallergenically designed by medical professionals.”

“Did they design it to have all the comfort of the Sahara desert?”

“No, but it’s professional OB-GYNs.”

Ummm…. What?

Look, I’m not the manliest man ever. The closest I ever come to standard toxic masculinity is when we’re drafting fantasy football. I prefer mini golf to real golf. When I visited Minneapolis, I took my picture throwing my hat into the air right next to the Mary Tyler Moore statue. I like my beer more nutty than hoppy. I can’t figure out whose ass was more impressive in Demolition Man– Sandra Bullock’s or Sylvester Stallone’s.

Seriously, in those tight-fitting pants, that movie is a monument to two of the best-sculpted asses on the planet. 

With all those facts in her corner, maybe Wife didn’t think I’d blink an eye at a deodorant developed by a gynecologist. The left side of my brain gets it. There are a lot of similarities between the armpit and the crotch. Dank. Moist. Hair for no damned reason. A man’s taint is the only body part that smells worse than his armpit. 

And yet…

There’s a reason things it’s called feminine hygiene. I don’t think I need to give my armpit a morning-after pill.

Although, in all honesty, I’m only showering three times a week during the quarantine. So maybe my armpit DOES need a morning-after pill.

Let’s see, goopy substance with the consistency of snot, designed for vaginas, in my armpits? Sorry, Wife. I tried your all-natural soap with poor results. I tried your olde tyme shaving oil with mixed results. But I think I have to draw the line at…

Whoa, what’s that comfortable tingle? And that pleasant smell? Why are my pits feeling so fresh? And… dry?

Holy crap, y’all. This Lume shit is as pleasant as… okay, maybe not pie, because that wouldn’t really be appetizing. But the goop rubs in as simply as my Arm n’ Hammer, especially if I’ve just gotten out of the shower. Even on day two, it rubs in seamlessly. Sure, in these COVID times, you also might wonder what happens on showerless days three and four? Truthfully, I hit a limit around day three, when I switch back to the baking soda. Lume works great at preventing the funk from happening. When it’s already there, it’s not quite as effective. Sure, I could shower more often, but this is Quarantine Time, baby!

So I guess I stand corrected. The KY works great on my manly-man armpits. But the manly-man soap was unfulfilling. Meanwhile the nonessential but quintessentially British oils are workable and don’t clog my drains. 

Snotty lube is a good deodorant, but coffee grounds should keep their asses in the kitchen. Bare foot and pregnant, yo!

While I’m at it, I’d like to admit one other earlier mistake. 

Sly’s ass is far better than Sandra Bullock’s. 

2020 Virtual Concert Review

Last week I wrote about the two aborted concerts that I hoped to attend in 2020. One was from Billy Joel, a tried-and-true entertainer I saw once before when I was in college. The other was Vampire Weekend, a band I wasn’t even aware of a year ago. For obvious reasons, neither concert happened.

But 2020 wasn’t completely devoid of live music. As long as you were willing to watch it on a screen.

So although I didn’t see the two concerts I intended to see, I did manage to watch two concerts in their entirety. Again, one featured old performers that I’ve already been throwing money at for decades, while the other came from a newish band that I’ve always been curious about seeing live.

Preservation Hall. 

I couldn’t make it to New Orleans to watch Vampire Weekend, but at least I could watch a streamed version of a concert for the New Orleans Jazz Preservation Hall. Or maybe it was on PBS. I can’t remember.

Seeing as New Orleans is one of my favorite cities to visit, I’ve watched a few concerts at Preservation Hall. It’s fun to stop in on an afternoon jaunt down Bourbon Street to hear jazz combos similar to my high school jazz band That’s not knock. My high school jazz band was pretty kick-ass. I love me some saxophone, trumpet, and trombone combos. Play me a simplified arrangement of a Count Basie tune, and I’ll happily put off my next hand grenade for twenty minutes or so.

At least I thought it was Preservation Hall I’d frequented on those trips down Bourbon. But now that I looked it up on Google Maps, it might actually be Maison Bourbon, a half-block away from the actual Preservation Hall. Oops.

Regardless, I was happy when they had a benefit concert online, with some really big names. I’m talking Dave Matthews, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney. Unfortunately, it was in typical telethon fashion, where they wasted twenty minutes in between each song with interviews and “call in now” and shit. At least I could pause and skip ahead, something my grandparents could’ve only dreamed of back in the Jerry Lewis Labor Day snoozefests. 

Those big-name benefit songs had a very, very pre-recorded feel to them. There were a few, like Dave Grohl and Nathaniel Rateliff, who seemed to take it more seriously, picking their jazzier numbers and talking about the importance of either live music or of preserving olde tyme music. Others seemed to send in whatever promo song they had recorded for charity write-offs. I was looking forward to Elvis Costello and was disappointed when he just played some “songs off his newest album,” aka the part of the concert containing the Great Restroom Exodus.

Everybody on the comment box was pining away for McCartney. Where’s Paul? When will Paul be here? Clearly they haven’t sat through proper telethons. It was obvious he was going to be last, and it was obvious to be as non-specifically for Preservation Hall as it gets. He might’ve done “Hey, Jude.” I don’t remember. And he might or might not have looked two decades younger. At least Elvis had the decency to half-ass a newer song so we knew it was recorded this decade. 

I ended up liking the actual jazz band, who played an occasional song in between the big acts, better than the names that brought me there in the first place. Even so, I didn’t donate. 

I’ll drop some money at Maison Bourbon next time I’m in NOLA and we’ll call it good.

Nathaniel Rateliff. 

Later in the pandemic, Red Rocks in Colorado did an online fundraising concert, as well. Again, a place I’ve been to and enjoyed. And a band I like, as well. Tune me in.

And this was legitimately live. They were literally playing on the stage in front of an empty Red Rocks Amphitheater. You could switch cameras to watch the rocks instead, something I found myself doing when I went there, too. Although I didn’t have to switch cams then, I only had to pivot my neck.

Nathaniel Rateliff has been on my short list for some time. He wasn’t some unknown to top ten skyrocket like those Vampire Weekend upstarts. 

Of course, my first introduction to him was “S.O.B.,” the best drinking song this side of “Tubthumping.” Although neither of those songs should be considered happy drinking song. Maybe thinking enough about booze to want to write a song about it predicates a certain bipolar dependency. But then just when you’re about to commiserate with the artist, right there on the precipice of singing the blues, they bang the door down with a grandiose “fuck it, let’s get blotto.”

With a first song like that, one could understand my hesitation against full-throated bandwagon-jumping. If your initial hit is reminiscent of “Tubthumping,” you’ve gotta worry about being the next Chumbawumba. And how many other Chumbawumba songs have you ever heard? Unfortunately, I’ve heard others, and they need a drink. Holy crap, that’s a bad album.

At least Rateliff seemed to have some musical talent going for him, which was always missing from even the acceptable Chumbawumba song. Something similar could be said about Fun., which you must properly pronounce as “Fun period,” another band with a song that, at first, sounds like a fun (period) song about hanging out with your friends at the bar, something I did the majority of my twenties (and thirties). But on closer listen, it’s closer to a creepy “Every Breath You Take,” with the dude hoping to swoop in on an ex (whom he beat) when she’s drunk at the end of the night. At least Fun. had some good musical talent, but it was all based on something approaching ten-part harmony. Rateliff gets there by himself. With apologies to the Night Sweats.

But still, if you take one look at him, you don’t think rockstar. Or at least not young, eager, carpe-diem rock star. In his first music video, he looked like someone who’s been touring for forty years. Tore up from the floor up. Rode hard and put away wet. Whatever phrase you wanna use, he was no Justin Timberlake.

So somewhat gimmicky song about drinking and looking like he might be dead by the end of the week. I spent most of the last decade on the fringes of fandom. Perhaps appreciation would be the best descriptor. I heard some of his other songs and they all showed promise. What I was waiting for was the staying power. It’s so much easier when the band already has four full albums before I discover them.

Similar to Vampire Weekend, Nathaniel Rateliff’s most recent album (actually his third album, not his second as I originally believed) came out shortly before the pandemic, so I was able to hear the songs as they received copious amounts of radio play. I enjoyed “Baby It’s Alright.” Very bluesy. A ballad. Some vibrato in the voice. Polar opposite of “SOB,” although not really, because you’ve still got the mournful voice, the hurt. There’s a lot lying there underneath the surface. This was no Chumbawumba. This wasn’t even a repeat of Fun. (Am I supposed to put another period if Fun. is at the end of a sentence?).

The final hurdle I needed to pass (aside from buying his albums because that’s what YouTube is for) was to see him live. He definitely seemed to have the vibe of a good live act. I tend to like the acts whose songs are equal parts emotion and talent. Those tend to make the best shows as opposed to, say, a band that’s more concerned with choreography or pyrotechnics. In all honesty, I’m a little worried my current fascination with Vampire Weekend might wane after seeing them live. They seem a wee bit aloof, a sconce “we wrote good songs, so we don’t need to put any emphasis into it. Sing along if you must.”

So the last thing I needed to become a proper Nathaniel Rateliff fan, to finally determine if he’s talent or hack, was to see him live. And if I can see him for free, all the better. 

Oops, was I supposed to donate to Red Rocks while watching the free concert?

And yeah, the dude is solid. He feels every song. He emotes. And he’s no slouch on the guitar, either. I could see him being the kind of guy who would play for three or four hours if the crowd and venue allowed it. With “S.O.B.” it’s clear he’s got some inner demons. It feels like the stage is where he exorcizes them, and he’s all too aware of it.

One oddity was that he appeared to be playing through his entire new album, track by track. I tuned in late, so I don’t know if this was explained or if the first half of the concert was some old stuff. So he never played “S.O.B.”

I bet a lot of artists wish they could do that. After all, the new songs are the ones that mean the most to them. It’s our fault that they keep having to bust out “Freebird.” If we aren’t in the crowd then we can go fuck ourselves if we’re only tuning in for his one hit six years ago.

The weirdest part of the whole concert was that he DIDN’T come out for an encore. What the fuck? Were we not cheering loudly enough at our homes thousands of miles away? What do you want us to do? Pay to get you to…

Oh…

Oh, I think I get it now.

My bad.