I have an addiction, as dirty as they come, and I expect it will destroy me eventually. This addiction writhes at my left hand every day like a surly viper. It lurks behind my desktop computer, to the left of my secondary monitor, in the shadow of my laptop, and beneath my iPad. In that spot I keep a notebook. I mean the kind with dead trees in it. And, God forgive me, a pen. There’s nothing digital about the damn things. They are as analog as a rock.

This wouldn’t be so bad if I just kept them out of some misplaced sentimentality, like my mother keeps her wind-up Victrola phonograph. But I actually take them out and use them where people can see me. When I show up at a meeting, the others sit focused on their laptops, their faces drawing nearer and nearer as if they plan to French kiss the screen. I glance around holding my notebook thinking about all the emails I don’t currently have to answer. When the meeting starts, my buddies attend 10% of it and spend 90% answering emails, checking auctions, and flaming people on Facebook. I attend 50% of the meeting and spend 50% doodling. I’m five times as effective as those guys and a hell of a lot more relaxed. But I know it’s wrong.

Doodling is becoming a lost art, by the way. A person’s doodles reveal a lot about him, and it’s pretty therapeutic. I like cross-hatch doodling myself, but flower doodles, airplane doodles, and penguin doodles each have their charms. If you try to doodle on a laptop though, you just get smudges and odd looks.

I don’t hate technology. I love it. Around my workplace I’m the guy to go to when any of those Microsoft products is kicking your ass. I can make them sing like Beverly Sills. But I can’t get over one thing, despite my shame. Technology is really, really good at doing stuff with ideas once you get them into the document, or spreadsheet, or whatever. But technology sucks at helping you come up with ideas in the first place. I’m a little afraid to say that, in case Microsoft hears me and changes all the keyboard shortcuts just to make me throw myself off a bridge in despair.

I’ll try to explain what I mean. Last week I asked my assistant, Flex, to solve a hard, creative problem for me while I sat around thinking up ways to intimidate people who annoy me. Flex works hard and is a smart young guy, so I felt confident he’d knock this out in an hour or so. I strolled down the hall to see Flex after an hour and said, “Is your solution perfect yet?”

“Almost,” Flex said, although he was thinking so hard his face was wrinkled like a Shar Pei. “I just need to work out a couple of things…”

I leaned over his shoulder and saw a screen full of bullet points so disorganized that each might have come from a different country, or maybe a different reality.

Flex pushed his blond surfer hair out of his eyes and said, “I’m trying to get these dumb boxes to line up and be the same color, and the font looks worse than my prom date.” He squinted and flailed at the mouse like it was a live rodent. “Aw, man! That’s even crappier!”

I sat down beside Flex and leaned over to switch off his monitor’s power. He looked at me as if I’d just given him a lobotomy. I said, “Flex, swear not tell anybody I said this, but the software is in your way. Every time you start thinking about the problem, the software distracts you with details that only it gives a shit about. We don’t care whether the text is red or orange, or whether the font looks like it’s passed through a moose intestine. We just want a good, creative solution. We can address any moose intestine issues later.”

Flex narrowed his eyes and curled his lip at me as much as he could and still seem respectful. I knew what he needed. He needed a hit of the non-digital hard stuff. But I wasn’t sure Flex had ever touched a pen. He might recognize one from an old movie, but then again he might think it was a chopstick.

I stifled a sigh and said, “New assignment, Flex. Tomorrow is my anniversary. Yeah, I’ve been married longer than you’ve been alive, so just shut up. I want you to come up with a love letter for me to give my wife. If you do a good job, you can have the rest of the day off.”

“That’s pretty weird,” Flex said.

“Wait until you’re my age. It’ll seem as tame as ‘See Jane Run.’ Don’t make it sound too romantic. It’s got to sound like an old guy wrote it. You’ve got an hour.” I shoved down the feeling that maybe I’d done something wrong, and I walked back to the Cave of Vengeance and Woe, which is what people call my office.

One hour later Flex poked his head through my office door. He smiled the smile he normally uses when telling me about the latest girl he’d like to sleep with. “Here’s your letter!” he said, and he set his laptop on the corner of my desk. He tossed himself into a chair in that way only fit, young people who’ve never been to the chiropractor can do. The screen read:

  • Significant “I love you” challenge
    –   Previously sounded good
            >   Positive impact on self and others
            >   Extremely high ease of use
            >   Overall satisfaction at highest levels
  • Current “I love you” has diminished in quality
    –   Satisfaction dropping on several dimensions
    –   Root cause of quality problems identified
            >   Partial mitigation achieved, but quality still lacking
    –   “I love you” still operational
            >   Reduced functionality may be acceptable

I leaned back and looked at Flex’s eyes, which were full of mischievous glitter. “You know I like to start with positive feedback,” I said, and Flex nodded. “Well, this is appalling. This is probably the worst love letter in history. I’m sure chimpanzees do better all the time. It’s repugnant to anyone with a brain, and if I were to show it around I think every woman on Earth would want to murder you, and quite rightly so.”

Flex mumbled, “That’s the positive feedback?”

I nodded and said, “Yep. The constructive feedback is that this may be salvageable, and if you want to avoid spending the next three weekends revising labor projections, I’ll give you another chance. I’ll bet you used Powerpoint for this, right?”

Flex nodded.

“I can help you with that,” I said, standing and towering over Flex with the majesty of the Statue of Liberty, if the statue was a little more butch. “Shut off your god damn computer and use this!” I didn’t quite hurl the notebook and pen at Flex, but I think he did get a paper cut on his chin.

He looked like he wanted to question me, or maybe slap me. I stared from my vantage point of confidence and authority that was partly false. I knew I was right, but to the rest of the world I was just a near-extinct organism scratching on stone tablets in the primordial ooze. Then Flex’s shoulders dropped and he stood to drag himself back down the hall. “You have two hours!” I called after him.

Later that day Flex shuffled into my office, and he held out the notebook. He showed all the confidence of a schoolboy handing in a three-page assignment with big letters, lots of spaces, and liberal use of the phrase, “And then the next thing that happened was…” I accepted the notebook and read the page:

My “I love you” is not what it was. It once rang like a polished chime, and yours made a harmony. We split the air, and we laughed at how we sounded, and people smiled when they heard us. I poured myself into the way we sounded, and you held all that music with no strain. No one could convince me that we weren’t the biggest celebration, that I wasn’t the luckiest, that no sound could touch us.

Not what it was. I clash sometimes, and you make sour notes, on occasion. Where is that harmony that felt like the best holiday, that was the most fun, and the one that would last forever? We’ve made music that no one ever makes if they can avoid it, although everyone plays it before the end. It was hard, but at least it wasn’t silence. We held hands and said no to silence. My “I love you” is not what it was, but it’s my chime against the stillness. It rings if you listen hard, and you make a harmony sometimes. We laugh at how we sound, and once in a great while people smile when they hear us.

I looked hard at Flex and said, “Holy shit! This is just what I need. Good job, man!” Flex offered a crust of a smile. “Do you see what you can do when you think about the ideas instead of the software and all its formatting and bullet points and crap?”

He breathed, probably for the first time in two hours, and he gave me a bigger smile. “Yeah, that helped,” he said.

“This will work great,” I said. “Take Friday afternoon off, son. And by the way, where’d you find this? Some romance site? Google+? What? I want to tell my wife where it came from.”

Flex looked surprised and said, “You said write you a letter. Do you mean I could have just copied something off the internet?” Flex turned a little red under his tan. “Well, at least if you do this kind of junk at Christmas I know I can just rip off a song or the Bible or something.”

“You wrote this, Flex? Damn, you’re like the Muhammad Ali of romance.” He stared at me, and I realized he had no idea who Muhammad Ali is. “Take all day Friday off. Back to work for now though.”

Flex grinned at that, and he bounced out of his chair. That’s when I did it. I know it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I said, “Hey, keep writing love letters, and I bet every girl in town will want to sleep with you.”

Flex paused, and then he smiled as if I’d given him a chocolate Corvette full of bourbon and Superbowl tickets. He walked out of the Cave, swaggering a little, and I thought, “That’s right, son, it’s like crack. The first hit is free.”


These are times of identity crisis for vampires. Human beings envision us in so many ways that on occasion we become confused. The “tortured undead creature” identity has gained popularity. Vampires have long been considered romantic, but this entity is deemed a safe boyfriend even for troubled young girls. He may even bring corsages, or appear embarrassed by flecks of blood on his collar from a recent victim.

The “appalling fiend” vampire remains a popular identity. Through him, humans fantasize about inflicting wicked but non-specific pain upon employers, rude tradesmen, and annoying relations. This identity provides men a visceral image of the Undead Lord, without forcing upon them any awareness of the geysers of blood or internal organs hurled about during the murder and devouring of human prey.

The traditional “vicious, throat-tearing monster” has fallen out of favor in this diluted, watercolor world of people who tremble lest they violate a rule. This creature is a being of gore and terror, and humans fear to embrace him as once they did. One cannot expect better of a culture in which meat arrives in tidy, prepared packets, so that people may pretend the animal was not ripped apart so that they could eat it.

I, Baron Yörg, heap contempt upon all these images. I do not embrace an identity, for I am a vampire drenched in tradition. I am a faith-shattering rapist of the human soul, and I visit annihilation upon any creature that dares not recognize my full horrific being. Put starkly, I am a vampire of the ancient mark. And I really love movies.

Today I shall review one of the most beloved films of the past 50 years—Star Wars. I refer to the initial film, which has subsequently been recast as “Episode Four: A New Hope.” The filmmakers of course did not explain the movie’s episode number when it was released. Had they done so, I suspect it would have been, “Episode 4: I Hope to Christ Someone Pays to See This Retread of Every Hero Story Told Throughout History So That I Don’t Lose My Ass.”

Allow me to begin with the central character, Darth Vader. Some might object that one of the punier, insipid characters serves as protagonist, but such assertions merit nothing but scorn. Vader appears first in the film. Vader propels the entire story—without him Luke and the rest might as well remain in the cantina drinking and vomiting for the balance of eternity. Vader is the only one who dresses with a solitary shred of dignity. Of course he is the central character.

Vader carries with him an admirable presence, and one may readily identify with his motivations and goals. I myself once obliterated five thousand uncooperative and malodorous peasants. I thus understand Vader’s annoyance with an entire populace of rebels flitting about in spacecraft like flies around a heap of excrement. And I almost smiled when Vader choked that surly insect of an officer, though I did experience disappointment when the man’s head failed to fly off and roll about on the conference table.

Yet Darth Vader somehow falls short of truly visceral menace of the type that promises imponderable obliteration to all his enemies. I am convinced that the problem is the Force. It has a flavorless and pathetic name. It puts one in mind of names such as Norm and Abner. To say that Vader uses the “Dark Side” fails to resolve this. “The Dark Side of the Force” sounds no more threatening than “The Dark Side of Abner.” And in fact Vader’s powers seem rather lacking. Yes, he can choke an obsequious and obviously impotent soldier, and he can sense the presence of a geriatric Jedi, but how would Vader fare when attacked by 500 rabid bats with a wolf dangling from his manhood?

I shall now proceed to the other characters. While in themselves they seem somewhat pedestrian, they do provide effective foils against which Darth Vader may strive. As a group they mesh well, in the manner of a band of tawdry street performers that I observed juggling and dropping their breeches for  bread crusts in Prague two centuries ago. Princess Leia exhibits the greatest spirit. I shall not deign to address her hair. That has heretofore been done by thousands, even by reviewers capable of no more than uttering obscenities and sucking breakfast from their teeth. Leia exhibits rudimentary leadership qualities, and she might have led her cohorts to accomplish greater things had she better material with which to work.

Han Solo drips with the sort of arrogance I have seen hundreds of times, the type that invariably thrusts its owner into an untimely, shallow grave, thence to be exhumed and devoured by the unclean beasts of the forest. The fact that Solo survives until the end of the film provided the greatest assault upon my suspension of disbelief, more so even than otherworldly life and interplanetary travel. Should I ever meet Mr. Ford, I fear I must slay him forthwith merely to preserve my sense of order in the universe.

I find Obi-Wan Kenobi to be a tiresome character. The mountains and deserts of our world writhe with such wise hermits migrating about seeking gullible farm boys. They cultivate mysterious ways of speaking, grow beards that would embarrass a diseased yak-merchant, and adopt unpronounceable names to seduce the unwary into expeditions from which they rarely return. As it is on Earth, so it apparently is on Tattooine. When Vader vanquished Obi-Wan on the Death Star I grinned, and my henchman Nodwick chortled until he blew popcorn out his nose.

The wookie, Chewbacca, inspired sincere enjoyment in me. I found his impassioned groaning rather compelling, and reminiscent of a team of oxen as they are beaten by a drunken gypsy late for the Feast of Wine and Cheap Trinkets. For thirty years I pondered the concept of replacing my wolves with such creatures, but I ultimately dismissed the notion. There is simply no good way to groom them.

From a sense of obligation to the concept of completeness, I feel compelled to mention the “droids.” I find them profoundly disgusting. Could I erase them from the memory of man, surely I should do so. Not a drop of blood between them. Appalling.

This leads us to Luke Skywalker, whom some fools claim to be the prime figure in this tale. Luke whines. Luke is short and dresses like a dead Frenchman in a gutter. Luke listens to voices in his head and kisses his sister in a more than familial manner. I need say nothing further about this repellant toad of a farm hand.

The Star Wars special effects seem primitive when ranked beside today’s films. Yet when Star Wars was released, audiences had never seen anything like it. When Obi-Wan entered the cantina, Nodwick thought he saw three of his cousins. The star destroyers appeared staggeringly huge. The light sabers looked unbearably foolish, but they were so entertaining that one did not care. The area under Luke’s speeder on Tattooine looked as if it had been rendered by the eraser on a herculean pencil, but I concede that is a quibble. On the balance, anyone unmoved the Star Wars effects in 1977 should have returned to watching Petticoat Junction reruns and eating Cream of Wheat.

One cannot discuss Star Wars without mentioning the climactic battle around the Death Star. I could not wish for a lovelier array of carnage. Rebel pilots are smashed and incinerated on all hands, first by the Death Star itself and then by the ugly little Imperial fighters. When Luke and his fellow malcontents descend into the trench they are quite properly obliterated one after another. I found myself nodding with satisfaction, especially when Vader arrives and prepares to hurl a bolt of laser fire directly into Luke’s brain.

As an aside, Princess Leia and her cronies at this juncture are observing a technical display that shows how soon their own destruction shall arrive. That display appears a bit primitive. In fact, I have seen more sophisticated piles of gravel. The filmmakers exerted themselves to make the Death Star appear 500 miles across. One would think they might have spared an hour to make this display look better than something Howdy Doody might wear on his wrist.

I make no objection to Obi-Wan speaking to Luke from beyond death. In my experience, this sort of thing happens upon occasion. When he tells Luke to trust his feelings and turn off his targeting computer I do not feel surprise. This is precisely the sort of advice we should expect from charlatan of Obi-Wan’s ilk. But when Luke follows this laughable advice and still annihilates the Death Star, against every shred of reason that the human mind can encompass—well, let us say that I left the theater downcast, and that Nodwick had a rather bad time of it for the next few days.

When all things are brought to conclusion, how shall I assess this film? Despite the merest of limitations, Darth Vader earned my admiration as the prime mover of this tale. I feel he is one of my few fellow purveyors of evil whom I might not destroy out of hand should our paths coincide. His foes, the Circus of Fumbling Dimwits, collectively provide him a counterpoint and demonstrate how Vader is powerful in all the ways that they are inept. I cannot love them for it, but I can despise them marginally less. But ultimately we must admit that any film in which millions of voices suddenly cry out in terror and are suddenly silenced, is a film to be savored. I therefore am gratified to render unto Star Wars four unholy violations of the sacred heart of man, out of five.

The words of my people are no longer spoken. My people came to this country with nothing a century and a half ago. A century later they had little more than nothing. My people were country people, and they lived on farms. When farming became the same as suicide they moved their families to the cities, and they built roads and painted houses, but they never fully understood that they’d left the country behind.

I knew my people when I was a boy, and they felt pride, and they had no regrets. They raised big families, because that’s what farmers did. Their children raised small families, and their children’s children raised tiny families, or no families at all. The generation of my people who left their farms is now gone, and their children are nearly gone, and the children who remain are no different from the children of any other people. We are not adequate vessels to carry the spirit of my people.

The language of a people defines them. It’s difficult to think of something without naming it. Saying the words makes the thing real to us. The way you say the words declares where you stand in that reality. Many of my people’s words I have never heard elsewhere. They sound strange and crude and backward to modern ears. You may laugh at them, and I guarantee that my people would feel fine about that. My people liked to laugh.

From my earliest memories I recall the phrase Tear up a cast iron jackass. Most of the time it arrived as part of the sentence, “I swear to God, you kids would tear up a cast iron jackass!” You can imagine the kind of thing that prompted this, because I suspect you were a child once yourself. When this phrase appeared, a smart child ceased what he was doing and found a place to hide. My people harbored no doubts about the value of corporal punishment.

On rare occasions my people would say Ain’t been so happy since the pigs ate my little brother. These words appeared when something good happened, such as, “Sears fixed my refrigerator for free. I ain’t been so happy since the pigs ate my little brother.” Clearly this idiom sprang from growing up in large and contentious families. It wasn’t used seriously—all my people of those generations had brothers or sisters who died in childhood. This phrase does say a lot about their understanding of the nature of pigs though.

My people reserved this last phrase for dire situations. This idiom is Makes my ass want to take a dip of snuff. Only extremely unpleasant events warranted this phrase. For example, “I had kidney stones last week. Made my ass want to take a dip of snuff.” I lack even a decent guess about where this phrase came from. Somebody knew about snuff, and clearly they knew enough to say that sticking it in your behind would be unpleasant. But stating that your ass actually desires such a thing is remarkable. My people outdid themselves in this case.

We were a raucous clan, with our own history and way of looking at the world. We’ve become a few cousins who rarely cross paths. One of the last of my people lies dying tonight, and when he goes then one of the last chapters of my people’s story will go with him.

Makes my ass want to take a dip of snuff.

I am a connoisseur of failure. I appreciate failure all across its breadth and depth, from the most innocent gaffe to the catastrophe of shrieking magnificence. Success never tells me who I am. But when I’m crushed by an avalanche of failure, then I can see myself with frigid clarity.

Failure hurts like drinking molten lead. I don’t love it. You’d be crazy to love it. Some people may seek out failure, but nobody loves it. Success is a lot more laughs. You don’t get congratulatory cards for failing to graduate high school, for not making it to your wedding anniversary, or for not getting that big promotion. People tend not to appreciate failure just because it hurts, it’s unpopular, and it sucks.

I feel qualified to speak about failure because I’ve had a lot of it. I dropped out of college like a dope. I pursued a string of one-sided romantic relationships with women who couldn’t distinguish me from a mail box. I got married and then divorced in an impressive 18 months. I lost my business, went bankrupt, and lost my house along with nearly everything else. The year I turned 30 I made less money than I did the year I turned 17. I delivered stage performances that made the audience resemble lizards in a hard freeze. I failed in my efforts to help dozens of family and friends, resulting in everything from having to flush a radiator all the way up to death. Believe me, I know failure.

When people are asked how to fail, they often say something like, “You just screw up.” There’s a certain purity to this answer, but otherwise it’s stupid. In fact, I can fail in six ways. I can fail by setting my goals so obscenely low that even if I reach them I’m still considered a big failure. Or, I can set my goals so staggeringly high that God himself would have to come down and alter the laws of the universe for me to reach them. That guarantees failure for me.

Even if I get my goals right, I can still fail by not paying attention to the details. For example, my car may never reach its destination because it ran out of gas, due to me daydreaming about the Cherry Slushee I want to buy and never looking at the gauge. I can also fail by paying too much attention to the details and forgetting what I’m trying to accomplish. Maybe I drive flawlessly, but I end up at the fabric store, not a promising venue for iced cherry beverages.

Failure is scary, so it may seem odd when I promise you that being terrified of failure is a sure way to fail. Failure is kind of like a horse. If it senses you fear it, it will turn on you, buck you off, chase you, bite you on the arm, and shit on your rose bushes. If I fear failure, I won’t be able to think of anything except failing. Then failure becomes inevitable.

And the last way to fail is to embrace failure. That certainly sounds nuts. But embracing failure is when I try something that I think I can do—maybe—but that I’m not sure I can do. Sometimes I achieve things I didn’t expect. Sometimes I fall straight onto my ass from a moderately great height. But if I’m in the market for failure, I think this is the best buy.

Say that I have walked one of the six paths to failure, and now I have stumbled into a smelly, leech-infested thorn bush of non-success. Now I have the chance to see who I am and what I can learn. But a huge barrier squats between me and all this good knowledge. That barrier consists of four words, and when they come out of my mouth they sound like, “It wasn’t my fault.” Do not misunderstand me. I would adore it if none of my failures was my fault. I’d throw a party. I’ve often claimed that my failures were somebody else’s fault. I was dumb to do that, because when I claim that a failure was not my fault I’m also admitting that there’s not a damned thing I can do to prevent it from happening again. If I had no hand in it happening, then I can’t do anything to fix it. I’ve had to admit that my hideous failures were at least partly my fault, or else I could look forward to them happening again and again until I die.

I despise it when I fail, but I’ve learned to savor failure itself and the happy toys it brings to the failure party. Embracing failure can be particularly sweet, because I’m going out and doing it on purpose instead of stumbling into failure like a toddler in a room full of coffee tables. So I shoot for a little failure occasionally, because now and then it’s nice to see what I look like.

Vampires know three things. We know the best bars in which to meet young women with poor judgment. We know the pervasive boredom of eternal existence. And we know quality entertainment. I refer to entertainment that can ameliorate boredom even when you have just consumed your fifth girl named Ashley this month.

I, Baron Yörg, have patronized entertainment and the arts for more than 500 years. I feel qualified to express educated opinions, and have been asked to share my views on films, to which I have become devoted. I am pleased to select “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” for my first review.

My initial reaction to the film was, “My God, Gary Oldman makes the real Dracula look like an unshaven, sweaty gypsy at the Wine Festival.” Mr. Oldman is rather homely himself—no aspersions intended—so this says something about Dracula’s true lack of beauty. I believe this shows intelligent casting by the film makers, since an overly-pretty vampire lacks credibility. It is difficult to bend the forces of darkness to your will if they are wondering whether you are wearing eyeliner. Jack Palance portrayed Dracula in an earlier film, and he possessed the ideal look. He would have intimidated the armies of Hell even had he been a baker rather than a vampire.

Lest my praise become too effusive, I must take issue with the wardrobe. I understand artistic license. Indeed, I enjoyed Shakespeare’s libelous hatchet-job on Richard III. But if Victorian Englishwomen had slept in costumes such as those seen in this film, the nation would have been depopulated by pneumonia long since. In addition, some of Dracula’s costumes would present insurmountable challenges when one wished to slaughter and terrorize. Supernatural abilities mean nothing when one is burdened with a 20 foot long embroidered oriental robe that could easily clothe an entire family of Chinese peasants. Finally, I must express astonishment at Dracula’s double-beehive hair that caused him to resemble a demonic Dolly Parton. Should I ever meet the person responsible, I shall tear out his throat forthwith.

The supporting cast delivered lovely performances. Sir Anthony Hopkins portrayed Van Helsing with his customary verve. He showed us a Van Helsing who would be a pleasure to torture to death in shrieking agony.  Subsequent years have shown us what a treasure Sir Anthony is for film lovers, and I may choose to transform him into a howling undead fiend so that we may all enjoy his performances for many years to come.

The script adhered nicely to Mr. Stoker’s rather fanciful tale. I recall those actual events as involving rather fewer moaning girls and locomotive rides, and rather more mutilations and tedious waiting around for sunset. The portrayal of Renfield reeked of perfection, almost as if Renfield sat at the screenwriter’s left hand, which is a disturbing thought even to me.

Director Tim Burton crafted an appallingly dark vision of the story, for which he should be congratulated. He has produced some fine work in the years since this film, although after “Corpse Bride” the Diabolical Chamber of Malevolent Arts tripled his dues, placed a hex upon his home, and mislaid his invitation to the Christmas party.

At the end of all things, how do I assess this film? It comes down to this—Gary Oldman made me believe that he could defile the innocent, annihilate his enemies, and commit acts of soul-shattering evil. Sadly, the same may not be said of all vampire portrayals today. I bestow upon this film four horrific destructions of the human spirit, out of five.

I have decided that Santa Claus can kiss my ass. We once had a warm relationship. He gave me my first bicycle. I helped him build the deck over his back porch. We bitched about global warming together, which is truly creating havoc up at the North Pole. It was all good.

But I’ve realized that with the best of intentions he has helped create a world of “Suits”. I saw someone’s definition of a Suit a while back, and to paraphrase it: a Suit is a person who doesn’t understand that the universe doesn’t give a crap about their opinion on any subject whatsoever.

I am not against gifts and charity. I love generosity and mercy. But my buddy Nick has changed. Once he was fine being the personification of kindness (and a left-handed bribe to hold over kids’ heads). Now he’s a force of nature that fulfills the desires of the deserving.

Sure, he’s led some kids to feel entitled to iPods and computers and cars because they’ve been good, and they want them, and therefore the universe is obligated to provide them. (Not all kids—just the future Suits.) But ooh, the adult Suits! I do not want to get all political, but it seems everybody is concluding that the universe should just make things happen because they want a thing to happen and they’ve been good boys and girls.

You hate something and want it to stop? (Pick anything you care to name… war, high taxes, bad health care, illegal immigration. A Suit’s suit is just as likely to be tie dye as it is to be Armani.) For a Suit, all you need is a righteous stance and a proud ignorance of history, facts, and the forces at work. Really, NOT knowing the facts is a mark of pride for a Suit. The universe should just make it happen in the natural course of events because you’re right, in the same way Santa was supposed to bring you a teddy bear because you were good.

So Santa, you’re fired. I can’t have you hanging around my Christmas anymore. I’m taking over the gift giving for my friends and relatives, and my criterion is that they get presents because I love them, whether they’ve been good or bad, but with the clear understanding that I do not represent the universe in any fashion. I recognize that I do need a holiday icon, since as far as the embodiment of the season goes, I blow. I think I’ll offer the Thanksgiving Turkey the job. He expects everyone to buy their own yams.

Sorry Nick, but it had to be done.

I don’t have too much money, and as a result I’m quite fond of the money I do have. I haven’t named every $20 bill in my wallet. I’m not crazy. But I want my money to be happy, and to feel loved and useful. I like my money to think it’s worth important things like air conditioning and shampoo and ice cream sandwiches. If you let money think it’s only worth lottery tickets and cheap booze, then you end up with sad money.

These days everybody wants their money to take care of them after they retire. I’m no exception. But we probably won’t even find family members who’ll take care of us after we retire, so we’re really saying that we want money that loves us more than our family loves us. That’s a challenge, but then I’ve never punished money for obliterating a FedEx drop box with a car full of drunk 16 year olds at 1:00 a.m. In my car, by the way. Money and I do not have that kind of shared history, so we’re able to start fresh and build on mutual respect.

If my money wants to help set me up so I can eat something besides chicken necks and cardboard when I retire, it will have to grow into more money. It will have to grow into a hell of a lot more money. I admit that my money is ambitious, but damn—it has a huge journey ahead of it. So, like a lot of people I try to help out my money by looking for good ways it can grow.

My money and I have discovered something over the years. A pig has no friends in the sausage factory. Likewise, my money and I have no friends in the financial markets. I’m not saying the financial markets are particularly crooked. It’s just that a lot of people work there, and they like money too. The place they get their money from is, well, me. They don’t have much incentive to see my money get friendly with their money, unless my money goes over to play in their backyard.

Here’s an example. I was driving along with my money and heard a radio commercial for some folks who wanted to sell me gold. I thought that sounded pretty interesting. Gold just sounds cool, like a gold-plated pie server or something. I listened to these folks, and they said they expected gold might triple in value over the next couple of years. I thought to myself, damn, why do you want to sell me your gold then? If you just hang onto that gold you’ll triple your money. What can you invest in that’s going to give you a better return than that? Whatever it is, I want to buy some of that shit. Keep your gold.

Those gold guys are part of the gang that isn’t too interested in my money growing fatter. Otherwise, they would say stuff that makes more sense. But there are all kinds of folks in the markets who sound sensible even though they want to stab me in the armpit with a thousand dollar pen and lead my money into Biblical servitude. I read a while back that the stock market averages a 10% or 11% gain every year. My money and I got excited about that. But real people like me only average about a 2% or 3% gain each year. What the hell? Well, people sell when they’re scared and buy when they’re greedy, and they end up doing those things at lousy times.

There are these fellows in the markets called market makers. They sit in the middle of the trading like spiders dressed in Armani, and they make trades happen. They take a little money for their trouble on every trade. I’ve also got a broker who makes money every time I buy or sell some stock with an ignorant sounding name. So far, so good. These folks deserve to make a living. But if I buy stock in Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and hang onto it for five years, my broker isn’t earning dick, and the market makers aren’t doing any better. So they and their financial market friends regularly tell everybody about the catastrophes around the corner and the unbelievable deals to be had, so that I’ll be trading my ass off chasing them. My returns will drop to nothing, and these guys will gather up my money, even though I doubt they respect and appreciate money like I do. Meanwhile, my remaining money and I will sit drinking shitty tequila while we listen to Freddy Fender and weep.

By the way, you can’t buy stock in Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. It’s now owned by the Unilever corporation, makers of other fine products such as Axe Cologne for Men, and Vaseline.

So what are my money and I going to do? Mutual funds? Real estate? Insurance? Cash in a shoebox in the back of my freezer? Maybe throw myself in front of expensive cars and hope for good settlements? It’s a puzzle. I think we’ll have to address this in an off-site strategic planning session for the board of directors of My Money and Me and Screw Everybody Else, Ltd. I hear that Barbados is nice this time of year.

You can find my money and me here next week.

It’s necessary to understand arson on the Sabbath in order to understand my father.

My father took me to Pete’s Barbershop for my first haircut. Pete owned the largest barbershop in my hometown, with ten chairs, and with mirrors running the length of both walls so you could see yourself into infinity while getting your hair cut. Pete operated a gun store out of the back end of his shop, a logical side-business for any barbershop.

Pete’s entrepreneurial spirit soared above hair and guns. He also served as the town’s only arsonist in residence. If you had money troubles and needed your warehouse or your grain silo burned down for the insurance money, Pete would make that happen for an appropriate fee. He never left enough evidence behind for the fire department or insurance investigators to call it an intentional blaze—Pete was a professional.

At that time my Southern hometown enforced the Blue Laws. These laws prohibited hundreds of items from being sold on Sundays, because Sunday was holy and should be spent it in prayer and contemplation. The Blue Law rules about what couldn’t be sold made lots of sense. For example, you could by a hammer, but you couldn’t buy nails. In moral support of the Blue Laws, all of the barbershops closed on Sundays, except Pete’s. Pete remained open, cut hair, and sold guns on the Sabbath.

Eventually the leading citizens and businessmen worked up a fair amount of outrage about Pete’s improper behavior. They began throwing around talk about boycotts, city ordinances and fines. Then one Sunday night one of the town’s barbershops burned down. The next Sunday another barbershop burned. Local businessmen, especially the barbershop owners, stopped calling for Pete’s to be shut down on Sundays. No one else ever complained about Pete.

All of this happened before I was born, so my father had to tell me this story. I could see that he looked upon Pete’s strategy with approval, and even amusement. But I realized that I didn’t care about Pete. I cared about my father’s approval of Pete, which I recognize to be singular and not an attitude adopted by everyone.

Since the time my father told me about Pete, James Bradley published a popular book called “Flags of Our Fathers.” It concerns the famous photo of the US flag being raised at Iwo Jima, one of the most iconic photos of the last century. The author’s father was one of the six flag-raisers, and the book is about his father and the five Marines who raised the flag. I liked this book. Clint Eastwood even made a movie of it.

Some of my friends enjoyed the book, but they objected to it as well. They said it was sometimes inaccurate in terms of facts and numbers. They pointed out that it seemed unfairly biased against the Japanese. They criticized it for not treating some of the flag-raisers even handedly. These are poor qualities in a history book. I don’t disagree with these criticisms, but I disagree with the conclusion. “Flags of Our Fathers” isn’t a history book, it’s a book about a man’s search for the man his father used to be.

It could seem peculiar to want to know your father before you were born. It sounds like any one of a dozen bad movies. But I know I’ve changed since I was young. Now I have fewer hangovers and more back hair. I keep my mouth shut a lot more, so when I say something stupid the results are far more catastrophic. I know what my own youth looks like, but my father’s youth is an empty place, and there’s nothing a man likes to do more than fill an empty place.

I’ve seen my father work a lot of nights, outsmart executives who thought they were smooth, and design tools to handle strange, pain-in-the-ass problems. He nearly killed a clerk with shock once by giving back money he got by mistake. He crushed a fellow who admired him but who kept making mistakes, and when a stranger close by puked all over himself and the vicinity, my father cleaned the man up. He never told a joke, but he made people laugh. That’s how I’ve known him personally. But of course, it’s only through incidents I’ve been told about that I can know the man he was before I was born.

I do know a lot of the dates and places of my father’s life. But that doesn’t help me understand him, just like knowing the factory and manufacture date won’t help me understand a chainsaw. People do things, and that’s how we know them. My hometown was a rural place when my father was a small boy, but the roads were dangerous enough that his dog kept knocking him into the ditch whenever he tried to walk on the shoulder. His pet raccoon slept in the pocket of an old overcoat hanging on the porch. My five year old father got infuriated when he wasn’t allowed to do what his brothers did, but they were much older—in fact, old enough to fight in the war, and for one of them to die in it.

But the quintessential detail I have from my father’s childhood is of him standing in the kitchen with his dog, and his mother at the stove holding her baby girl. His mother had just refused to let my father do something he wanted to do, and he responded, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.” Obviously my father was a willful child and not to be trusted, so his parents gave him a .22 rifle and turned him loose in the local woods for the rest of his childhood.

Another war had begun in Korea when my father turned 19, and he thought joining the Marine Corps would be smart. He was a big, strong kid who could hit about anything he shot at, so the Corps slapped a uniform on him, gave him a rifle, and sent him to Korea. My father never told me many light-hearted stories about Korea. He served with the first helicopter unit ever used in combat. That’s less glamorous than it might sound, since his job was to climb down from helicopters on flapping ropes, use axes and explosives to clear a half acre of woods, and watch the damned Navy pilots land those helicopters.

On one occasion, my father’s platoon guarded a small valley, and the Chinese Army decided to send an outrageous number of soldiers through it. Over the next quarter hour the Chinese frothed through the valley killing Marines, who in return killed them in job lots. My father recalled having “the biggest gun that fired the fastest,” and he killed a lot of Chinese kids about his own age. Most were so close he could easily see their faces when he killed them. By the time the Chinese decided that this was a pointless exercise, my father and his sergeant were the only Marines alive. My father told me about this incident with no pride and no pleasure when I was a grown man. In fact, he had blotted out the memory of it and only recalled it 50 years after it happened.

After Korea, my father went to college and played football for a while. Later on one of his friends from college called him for advice. The friend had gotten a job as a P.E. teacher, and he wasn’t sure how to handle his upcoming duties. My father had never taught P.E., but his friend asked his advice anyway. My father told him to “go in the first day, pick out the two toughest guys in the class, and beat the shit out of both of them at the same time.” Then he wouldn’t have any problems the rest of the year.

My journey to understand who my father was before I knew him must necessarily end at the moment I become a nasty, bellowing newborn. So this last incident involves how my father and mother put themselves in a position to create such a repellent creature as the newly-minted me. When my father was 23, he noticed my mom and found he wanted her to be aware of his existence, and also to consider it a good thing. But my father suffered from incredible shyness, and he couldn’t think of anything to do that would make this happen.

My father’s younger sister was my mom’s best friend. He asked his sister if she could help him, and she said, “You bet!” His sister asked my mom to go out Saturday night, as they often did, and my mom said sure. On Saturday my father and his sister arrived at my mom’s house in his car. My mom thought it odd that my father was there, but she shrugged and got in the car. Then my father’s sister said, “Oh, I forgot I have something to do!” and she buggered off, leaving my father and mom alone on what had just become a date.

They went to the local establishment where everyone in town gathered on Saturday nights. My mom knew everybody, and she laughed, and danced, and had a great time with her friends. My father, rather less outgoing, sat in the corner all night drinking beer and said nothing to anyone—including my mom.

The evening ended, and the time to go home arrived. In the parking lot my parents found that someone had parked their car behind my father’s car, and he couldn’t get out. He solved this problem by picking up the back end of the offending car and dragging it out of the way so he could leave. My mom thought, “Huh.” That is exactly what she later told me she thought, word for word. During the ride back to my mom’s house, my father still said nothing. He let her out at the curb and drove away. My mom went into the house and thought that this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her.

On Sunday evening, with no planning or discussion, my father pulled up in front of my mom’s house. As my mom looked out the window, she felt perplexed and unsure of what to do. She didn’t see many options, so she went outside and got in my father’s car, and they drove away on their second date.

Six months later they were married.

Unfortunately, none of these incidents include anything about my father’s hangovers or his back hair. My picture of him as a young man remains a fuzzy sketch. But it’s a start. After all, any kid who threatens to throw a dog at his mom has to grow into a father to be proud of.

I don’t have many enemies, but I look upon the ones I have with venomous wrath. If I were allowed to select their eternal torments, my first choice would be drowning in a lake of boiling excrement while insane hornets hatch from their ear canals. If that’s unavailable, my second choice would be sitting in a hospital room, staring at a sick person in the bed, feeling stupid and helpless.

People don’t go to hospital rooms for amusement. They are neither fun nor funny. I don’t know of any jokes that begin, “A nurse, a man with no kidneys, and a bag of plasma walk into a bar…” Patients don’t go to these rooms voluntarily—they’re carted in on vans like veal delivered to an Italian restaurant. Their family and friends are dragged along by affection, obligation, sympathy, and terror.

When you’re sitting in a hospital room, you know almost nothing about what’s happening around you. The nurse could be injecting a pain killer, or she could be sucking the blood out of your mother’s heart for a satanic ritual. You’d never know the difference. Your ignorance is matched only by your inability to accomplish anything more useful than shifting pillows and moving flowers closer to the window. It’s not exactly busy work, but you know it has nothing to do with whether the patient will be breathing when she leaves the room.

When a person lies in a hospital bed, the room tightens with the pressure of uncertainty. I imagine it feels like the inside of a shaken soda can. That pressure erodes you, and you start begging nurses and doctors for slivers of information that might say what direction things are headed, and how long this whole experience has to last. You unobtrusively consider death, even if the patient is only suffering from a hernia. Death has been in this room, and it marked its territory like a bear. It can snatch anyone it wants in here.

You focus on the patient, which is the one thing you think you understand. If she doesn’t want to talk about her pain, you talk about what a bitch Aunt Lilly is when she calls for a half-hour chat. If she does want to talk about her pain, you nod and tell her that things will be better soon. If she doesn’t want to talk, you hold her hand. Fussy patients are the best, since they give you a lot to do. You bring blankets, adjust the bed, help them cheat on their hospital diet, and comb their hair. It relieves you more than it relieves them. If the patient wants socks and ice chips, then maybe she wants life, too.

After a ponderous length of time, you find out how this will end. If the patient is going home, you first want to know when, because you’ve got to get out of here before you’re reduced to paste. You tell the patient how great she looks, and you talk about having dinner next week, and you pack up vases of flowers that she’ll throw away tomorrow. And everyone talks, with sterling reverence, about how glad they will be to get out of this hospital room. The tension bleeds off a bit, but not much, because pain still hangs in the air, and if it attacks again you couldn’t do anything about it. At last you exit this room with its fake air and crappy TV and wall paint that’s trying a little too hard to be cheerful.

If the patient will never ride a wheelchair out of this room alive, the pressure intensifies—sort of as if the hospital room was now on the ocean floor beside the Titanic’s engine room. You knew earlier that you couldn’t do anything useful, but at least you hoped that someone else could. Now you know they can’t. You realize that there are not many good things to say to someone about to die. Maybe there aren’t any. So you let the patient say what she wants to say, and you hope your answers aren’t stupid and don’t upset her—as if anything you could say would upset her more. As the patient slides away, the air gets as tight as harp strings. Each time she closes her eyes, you feel a nick of panic that you’ve forgotten something important and now time’s run out. When she’s finally unconscious, nothing else can be said. Maybe you try anyway and tell her things you think you’d like to hear. Maybe you stare at her, trapped like a bird in the ugly hospital sheets that have carried dozens into death before her. Maybe you lean back in a plastic chair and pretend you won’t be relieved when it’s all over and you can get out of here. Maybe you sing to her, and she cries in her sleep. That has nothing to do with your singing, but no one around is a big enough jerk to tell you that.

When the patient leaves the room, it collapses on itself. Occupied, it had character. All of its character was lousy, but it had some. Now it droops like an empty balloon, as purposeless and generic as you could imagine. The patient carried every splinter of life away with her when she left. Then you leave too, perhaps with a happy rush, or perhaps wandering out like the victim of a train crash. But in any case, you leave with relief.

That relief is what helps you go through this and not smash clocks and chew on tires. And that relief is what I wish to deny my enemies. Or at least I thought I did. After a little reflection, maybe I’ll just poke my enemies in the eye and put a rat in their beer.