For two days I have been a ghost. I saw the world through a veil, and the world could not see me at all. I think it was less fun than any essay test or surgical procedure or first date I’ve ever experienced. Don’t let anyone fool you about being a ghost and watching people shower or listening in on private conversations, because it’s not like that at all. It’s like being divorced from the spirit of humanity. It’s like being set on an ice flow by your family to freeze or be eaten by the beasts of the sea. It’s like leaving your laptop, iPhone, and iPad behind in Lubbock because you’re a moron.

I can’t blame anyone but myself. I chose to drive to Lubbock to celebrate my niece, Wendy’s seventeenth birthday. We had fun. We ate fried chicken and birthday cake, and we went out to hear her boyfriend’s band, which I’m told was pretty good although I thought they sounded like gears grinding on a ’76 Chevelle. I gave Wendy an iTunes gift card and some earrings she probably didn’t like, although she said she did. I left on Saturday and didn’t realize until I got home that I left my computer bag leaning against the pot of begonias on the front porch. I said quite a few bad words.

I couldn’t do much right away, since it takes about a week and a half to drive from Lubbock to Dallas. That’s an exaggeration. It takes less than a week and a half, but I can’t say for sure how long it does take since half-way home I always fall into a meditative trance fueled by Cheetos and Diet Coke. But I got home at midnight, which was far too late to call my kinfolk in Lubbock unless someone in the family has died. My wife was in Illinois for a brief family reunion, so I crawled into my empty bed, full of disquieting ignorance about what was happening in the world.

The next morning at 6:01 AM I called Lubbock. I don’t think they understood the razor blade of panic in my voice, but they promised to Fed-Ex my bag right away. I began breathing almost normally. I debated just buying a new iPhone. Since it was Sunday the stores would be open by noon, and I thought I could hold out that long. But my Lubbock trip had cost me as much as an electricity bill and a bag of groceries. My cats were out of food, and when I’d woken up they had all been hovering over me like I was a buffet. I decided that buying cat food and more Cheetos was the wisest course.

I needed to attend a rehearsal Sunday afternoon for a show that might be entertaining if we rehearsed a whole lot more. I walked into the theater, which was cold enough to freeze marshmallows solid. Really, Mr. Wizard could do science experiments in there. I looked at my bundled buddies while goose bumps the size of Chicklets rose on my arms, and one said, “The air conditioner’s stuck. Didn’t you get my text?” I felt myself begin to fade out of the chain of human discourse, which was good because it distracted me from my body’s spastic shaking as it battled hypothermia.

After rehearsal I emerged into the grateful 60 degree sunshine. I looked around for my car, which was gone. Well, it might not have been gone. Gnomes might have shrunk it to the size of a June bug, just for fun. Barring that possibility, it was gone. I looked at my buddies, and one said, “We have to park around back today. I posted it on the e-group. You probably got towed.” I borrowed his phone and called the towing company. They gave me their address and told me I could get my car back for approximately the cost of two iPhones. I asked one of my friends to drive me, and I thanked providence that he had a phone with mapping capabilities. I could see myself walking into a gas station to buy a city map, and the clerk looking at me as if I’d asked for a flint knife.

I rescued my poor Accord and drove home. The phone handset in the kitchen was blinking with fervor, and I checked five messages, one from the drug store and four from my wife wondering what the hell was wrong. I called her, and she explained her concerns. Had I been in an accident? Had I dropped my phone in the toilet? Had the refrigerator fallen on me? She’d left three voice mails and then texted five times. She had checked Facebook and sent me a Google chat. Nothing. What was wrong with me? I felt myself drop further out of existence as I explained abandoning my electronic links to the world in Lubbock, as if they were worn out tires. She said she understood, but I could tell that she’d been shaken.

I stayed home the rest of the evening, tethered to my land line as if it were my only link to reality. That security was of course illusionary. Why would anyone else but telemarketers ever think to call me on my home phone? It would be like looking for me under a stone in Thailand.

This morning I drove to work to find that I’d missed an unscheduled 7:00 AM meeting with a new customer. They wanted to give us $10 million to fix something that they’d paid someone else $20 million to screw up. “I sent you an email last night!” my boss said before turning away to find a responsible person to fix this mess. I felt myself falter and slide into complete insubstantiality. I no longer had any significance in the daily lives of other people. I drifted out of the office, not even making excuses, and I let my car bring me home by vague, meandering paths. I spent the rest of the day resisting full entropy by using my land line to call friends, but none of them recognized my home number so they didn’t pick up.

At twilight, as I sprawled on a chair in the lightless den, someone knocked on my front door. After floating uninterested to entryway, I scanned through the peephole and unsurprisingly found no one there. I opened the door anyway, and a shiny FedEx box squatted on the porch like a toad of mercy. Had I been a South Pacific castaway, I’d have watched that box as if it were a parachute bringing me water, SPAM, and M&Ms.

Two minutes later I held my iPhone in my hand. I was about to reenter the great river that is humanity, and I wanted to make it meaningful. With shaking hands (which is easy, because my hands shake anyway), I sent my wife a message, since she was the most important person to tell about my return. I sent, “I text, therefore I am!”

Forty-five seconds later she replied, “Did you scoop the cat litter?”

I have rejoined the human race.

You should have tweeted more, Casper.

Casper the Friendly Ghost owned by Classic Media ( It sounds kind of like ghost slavery, but I think it’s a lot nicer than that.

I can testify with certainty that life exists beyond death. I died 500 years ago, and I am still receiving bills for water and property taxes. That seems compelling evidence that I, the vampire Baron Yörg, still live. And though I gladly ravage and obliterate all that is pure, tender and sacrosanct in this world, I still cannot get the tax appraisal district to cease annoying me. No matter how many of them I slaughter, more arise like grubs from beneath a slimy stone. This aggravates me enough to consider falling upon a sharply pruned dwarf holly tree and ending my existence, but one pleasure sustains me. I adore films, and I cherish the opportunity to share my observations about them.

Today I shall discuss The Princess Bride, a modest film released a generation ago that somehow has sustained a cult following. The film is not without charms, I admit. Yet does it merit the ongoing acclaim awarded it by romantics and people who perhaps believe in unicorns and chivalry?

To begin, I am refreshed to find that the story’s hero, The Dread Pirate Roberts, has ordered the murder of dozens of helpless prisoners, and himself has likely killed a good number of unarmed men begging for their lives. He rises above the mass of insipid protagonists who save maidens, fight evil sheriffs, or perhaps fail to kill anyone at all. Though Roberts does not delve into any significant wickedness, he obviously enjoys the pain of others, and the film profits by that in my estimation. Roberts fails to impress when he allows the whining Spaniard and the unintelligible giant to live, but he excels in his lack of emotion. Indeed, though he declares the princess to be his true love, he never shows any greater emotion towards her than he would towards a bowl of tasty mutton stew.

Lest my praise become overblown, I must complain that most of the actors cast in this film are far too pretty. Florin and Guilder appear to be medieval kingdoms, so the main characters should have less than two dozen teeth between them. This shook my suspension of disbelief, as did the general cleanliness and the absence of warts. Just a few pox-ridden wretches in the gutters would have suggested misery and filth, but the filmmakers could not be bothered with even that effort.

That disappointment is compounded by the so-called villains in this film. Prince Humperdinck is nothing but a pathetic string-puller. He does not deserve to be called a villain, and indeed hardly deserves to be called a sentient being. Count Rugen fares no better. He dresses like a Florentine haberdasher on his way to the opera, and no number of extra fingers can overcome so much brocade when it comes to unleashing bowel-loosening terror. And of course the man allows himself to be slain by a melancholy Spaniard, which removes all doubt that he is nothing but a sack of table scraps with a goatee.

Allow me to move on to one of the film’s shining aspects. I of course refer to the Fire Swamp. When Roberts and the princess explore this charming locale, they infuse the middle of the film with energy and a profound sense of fun. When the fire spout set the princess ablaze I felt a satisfying glow, and when the sand smothered her I almost smiled. By the time the last Rodent of Unusual Size had been slain, my henchman Nodwick had prostrated himself to beg for a renovation to his quarters. That dank, leech-infested cupboard was no longer his ideal domicile. In an act of mercy I am ashamed to relate, I granted his request by tossing a diseased rat and a shovelful of sand on him one night as he slept.  

The Princess Bride includes only three deaths, and one of them does not count since Roberts pops right back to life a few minutes later. That is a paltry number of deaths by anyone ’s standards. If no more people than that are to be slain, one might as well watch Pride and Prejudice. Rugen’s death almost fails to signify as a death at all, since he is so lacking in consequence. Yet Vizzini’s death produces odd satisfaction. He is an annoying, petty toad of a man, and would in fact make an ideal bug-eater. Something about his tone of voice inspires thoughts of ripping off his feet and making him wear them like earrings. Thus I feel that Vizzini’s death equates to five or six killings for entertainment purposes, and I am inclined to judge the film a bit more leniently.

Other aspects of the film contest with one another, some disappointing and others charming. Rugen’s torture device is laughable. No villain with any imagination would name a torture device The Machine. What an insipid name. Strap a man to a device called The Water-Powered Testicle Crusher, and then you will see him talk. Contrariwise, any film that includes a blazing, levitating giant who bellows in what might or might not be some human language is a film to be reckoned with.

The Princess Bride’s many charms offset its failures, but it’s greatest flaw is its artistic vision. The filmmakers chose True Love as their theme, and the story whirls inconsequentially around that concept. They ignored many weightier messages already in the film and begging for exploration: The Blind Cruelty of Revenge, The Uncaring Greed of Kidnapping, and The Nether-Tingling Nastiness of Torture. These are the issues that will enlighten, educate, and entertain. Even the filmmakers must have known this on some level, since they chose a pale dimwit with a speech impediment to extol True Love’s fine qualities during the wedding scene.

At the end, when all things are measured out and damnation is visited upon the deserving, how do I assess this film? It entertained me, but it missed so many opportunities to accomplish so much more. I give The Princess Bride two horrific depredations visited upon the innocent, out of five.

Off to another charming day of murdering innocent sailors. Don't wait up, darling!

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My first girlfriend threatened to break up with me if I didn’t go to church with her. I almost felt sick. I was in the 17-year-old equivalent of love with her. I thought my brain would explode if I didn’t see her every day, I was addicted to our naïve and frankly pathetic hanky-panky, and I always had a date without thinking about it too hard. Enduring two hours a week of hellfire and ladies’ fellowship bake sales didn’t seem like that big a price.

And yet the ultimatum tore at me. It wasn’t that I disliked church so much. I just disliked my girlfriend using love like a club to chase me into the pews. I didn’t know what to do. So I didn’t do anything, and in the end my sweet little flower of femininity broke up with me in a spectacular brush-off, in the school auditorium with all our friends watching. That was my reward for being unable to deal with an ultimatum.

I wandered through the next several years in befuddled incompetence where ultimatums were concerned. I mismanaged girlfriend ultimatums, which landed me in places like the Flower Show and theaters playing Annie Hall. I botched some friend ultimatums that led to all the fixtures torn off my bathroom walls and a singularly unwise loan to purchase a tenor saxophone. I made disasters out of ultimatums at work and at school. I don’t even want to talk about ultimatums that take place in bars.

This misery continued for six years. Then my nephew turned five years old and began educating me in the ways of ultimatums. He learned to master them because he was always in the middle of one. Most of us try to avoid the things, but he courted them. If he wanted a thing to be true, then some triviality like the opinion of the rest of the human race could not deter him. And he handled ultimatums with a tactical brilliance that would have sent Hannibal fleeing back to Carthage to live out his days as a turnip farmer.

As an example, say my nephew wants to play with his grandmother’s antique cigarette box shaped like an elephant, and he picks it up. His mother, knowing that within two minutes he will annihilate the thing like Hiroshima, takes it away from him and tells him no. He considers her opinion on the subject to be without merit, so he picks it up again. She once more takes it away from him and then issues her ultimatum: “Leave the elephant alone, or you’ll be punished.”

I recall seeing my nephew assess such situations as carefully as Tiger Woods on the 17th green. In those days we had no such thing as “time out.” We did have “sitting in the corner,” which was the same thing except for the beating you got on the way from the cigarette box to the corner. So he knew the stakes. He could avoid punishment and forever be denied playing with, and possibly destroying, that cool elephant cigarette box. I would probably have done something stupid like waiting until mom was in the kitchen before playing with the cigarette box. Then when I smashed it into splinters I’d receive punishment that was worse by an order of magnitude. My five-year-old nephew was fortunately smarter than me.

Let us return to my example. My nephew now stands there gazing at the cigarette box, while his mom hovers above him, a thundercloud of menace. He knows that the ultimatum game is a war, not a battle. If he gives in now, he turns himself into a slave, owned by the threat of being sent to the corner. He’ll never get to play with that elephant cigarette box. And his mom may try the same ultimatum trick to keep him away from the grandfather clock, the tacky ceramic lamp in the hall, and the M&Ms in the top of the pantry that he can reach by using a kitchen chair and a broom handle. That’s nothing but the crassest sort of defeatism.

By once more laying his sticky fingers on that elephant he gets a trip to the corner, augmented by some frustrated whacks from his mom. But he’s also declaring that punishment will not deter him, and that he will poke any ultimatum in the eye. Maybe he can’t play with the elephant cigarette box today, but at least he can accept punishment on his terms. And he may be punished tomorrow. But this is war, and tomorrow is another battle over that stupid elephant. He’ll probably lose that one too, but after a dozen or a hundred ultimatums his exhausted mom will lose the will to fight. She may only send him to the corner for a minute with a half-hearted swat. A few dozen more ultimatums later his mom will be completely broken and not care about the damned cigarette box as long as he doesn’t burn the house down.

That’s what my five-year-old nephew taught me. When they give you an ultimatum, poke the bastards in the eye, take the punishment on your terms, and outlast the sons of bitches. You do anything else at the risk of becoming their chattel. And at the risk of skulking out of the school auditorium with a stupid look on your face.

"Ho Chi Minh has nothing on me."

Photo from Bluebird of Bitterness, which is damn funny.

Every morning I drink coffee with The Unyielding Claw of the Universe. She’s also known as Mrs. Shoffner. For the past couple of years we’ve bought caffeinated beverages at the same Starbucks and chatted as we drank them. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I learn about the things she’s learned in her 35 years as a junior high English teacher, and she gives me shit about my caramel frappucino.

This morning I mentioned to her that my ancient car had just destroyed itself in a storm of black smoke and Japanese plastic. I complained about how expensive cars are now and about all my other financial burdens. And I described how in particular my student loan debt was crushing me—a staggering amount that I could never pay off, in return for a degree that hadn’t enabled me to earn the kind of money I’d expected. In fact, I told her that I thought all student loan debt should be forgiven for the good of the country.

Mrs. Shoffner laid her trifocal gaze upon me, and I felt as if I might have just done something bad with a dangling participle. She said, “Young man, did you freely assume this obligation? Was a hooded fellow wielding a red hot iron standing behind you when you signed the loan agreement?”

I smirked at her. “I did, and no, there wasn’t anybody like that behind me.”

“So you agreed to the loan, and then the rapacious lender altered the terms, perhaps increasing the interest to usurious levels. Is that the case?”

“No, but that’s not the point.”

“What then is the point?”

I told myself that she was from another generation and didn’t understand how unfair the current system had become. I resolved to be gentle. “You can’t get anywhere without a college degree these days. That’s just a fact. And college tuition is outrageously expensive. There’s no way to get that degree without borrowing a huge amount of money.”

I gave Mrs. Shoffner a polite smile and waited for her to acknowledge my explanation. She returned my polite smile and waited, offering the impression that I had incompletely conjugated a verb. I toyed with my frappuccino’s straw until my discomfort at last forced me to say something else. “I did the thing I was told to do in order to succeed. I got the education. But the game is rigged. I can’t get a job that pays enough, and now there’s no way to pay off the loan.”

“I see,” she said, and she sipped her black coffee with a double espresso shot. “Who told you to do this thing?”

After blinking twice I said, “Everybody.”

“Then everybody promised to employ you at a sufficient wage to repay your loan. Correct?”

When I frowned at her, she continued, “Or perhaps those who loaned you the money promised to employ you in so lucrative a position?”

“That’s ridiculous! You’re oversimplifying a complex—“

Mrs. Shoffner lifted her arthritic hand in a gracious motion, displaying her palm as if it were the Wall of Troy. I stopped speaking.

“In fact, no one made a binding promise to provide you anything, other than money that you must repay. Perhaps you heeded certain nonspecific advice, but it was you who chose to borrow money, and you invested in an education.”

“It was a bait and switch!” I said.

“Your education has intrinsic worth, but perhaps you fail to value Steinbeck and the Pythagorean Theorem. I myself find Pythagoras as nauseating as a rancid codfish. But you nonetheless made an investment, and you may have invested unwisely. If you purchase a house anticipating it will appreciate in value, and it then does not so appreciate, do you expect the loan to be forgiven?”

I cherished a fleeting image of ramming a cranberry scone up Mrs. Shoffner’s nose. Instead I said, “No, of course not.”

“Then how is this different?” She sat there, straight-backed in her navy blue polka dot dress like Socrates’ cruel maiden aunt.

I didn’t even have to think. “This involves people’s livelihoods. It’s about their jobs. It’s more basic.”

“Then perhaps you should have considered your livelihood before you borrowed this astounding sum. For example, if a man intends to become a poet, he might not choose to borrow $50,000 to finance the endeavor, unless he intends to repay the debt over 200 years.”

I leaned back and sighed. “Fine. Maybe I should have thought about all of that back then. Maybe. But this is where I am now, and I’ll never get out of it.”

Mrs. Shoffner looked around the coffee bar while pursing her rose-pink lips. “Perhaps this establishment is hiring. With a second salary I am sure you could pay off your loan in a few years.”

I gaped at her. With my mouth open that wide I’m sure she could see my tongue, and maybe my tonsils. Maybe even my stomach clenching at the idea of a second job.

“Why not?” Mrs. Shoffner grinned. “That is how I paid for college.”

Instead of answering, I just smiled at the old lady and lifted my cheap plastic cup in a toast. I knew I’d never convince her, so I’d pretend to capitulate and never mention it again.

She touched her cup to mine and said, “I know that you are not convinced, young man, but carry away with you this one idea. Nothing is ever fair, and the game is always rigged. Acknowledge that, and you shall be far more successful.” She winked. “Besides, what else do you have to do with your time? Sit around with vindictive old bitches and drink coffee?”

My recollection of the day I signed up for my student loan. (Photo from

Before a reader can cherish a book with all his heart, the book must get its ass kicked quite a lot. Any decision along the way can crush the book into a gritty paste. The author must decide to write the damn thing, and to not quit before the story’s done. He has to decide to stop compulsively revising the story and show it to other humans, exposing his soul to annihilation should someone say that he chose an adverb poorly.

At some point an author has to decide to toss the story’s fate into the hands of other people. If he doesn’t, it will be appreciated only by his mother, his college roommate, and his basset hound. This is a risky proposition, since those people might be mean, and they might know more about the book business than he does. Agents, editors, publishers, bookstore owners, and people who want to read books will all judge his cherished creation. Sticking the story in a snappy-looking binder and dropping it into a desk drawer for all eternity can seem a lot more desirable.

I’m struggling with that decision today. I intend to expose my manuscript to the uncaring scrutiny and possible condemnation of agents in the next few days. And I’m preparing a proposal that I hope will cause them to decide that my story is just what’s needed to lift the spirit of humanity in desolate times. Or at least that a fair number of people will buy it, read it, and smile.

I will include something called a “pitch” in this proposal. It’s sort of like the description you’d find on the back of a paperback book. It should sell the book. After a person reads the pitch, whenever he thinks about the book he should feel like he’s just shot up heroin. The pitch is really important. The first pitch I wrote for my story was:

When five young mice of Briarcliff Manor venture into the harrowing barnyard, they want only three things: to find enough food to eat, to avoid becoming something else’s food, and to create as many little mice as possible. They don’t want to get involved in the travails of young Cinderella and her cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a carriage from one pointless place to another pointless place. But the world doesn’t seem to care what mice want. The tiniest mouse, Abernathy, along with his siblings and his friends, must employ recklessness, subterfuge and sarcasm in their struggle to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.

When I read over the pitch, I realized there was a chance that it might not be perfect. Since I hoped that other people would be mesmerized by its brilliance, I decided to use the brains of other people to help me improve the pitch. I sent it to a passel of my smarter friends and asked for their help. Some of them had even read the manuscript before. My friends delivered all the help I could have desired. In fact, here’s a selection of the guidance they provided to me:


Friend 1 – “I don’t like the sentence in the middle. It doesn’t fit with the rest of it.”
Me – “Wow. That’s my favorite sentence in the whole thing.”
Friend 1 – “Get used to working with editors.”


Friend 2 – “Saying ‘Cinderella’ straight out is giving everything away. And saying ‘tiniest mouse’ makes it sound like a children’s book. And I know it’s not a children’s book. You must have said damn a thousand times in that book, and you mention some really frisky mouse behavior.”
Me – “I wasn’t sure agents would spend more than four seconds looking at this, so I didn’t want to make them try to figure out it’s Cinderella. But I guess I should give them more credit. Good point about the children’s book. Maybe I could say ‘horniest mouse’ or something?”


Friend 3 – “Saying ‘pointless place’ twice is kind of awkward.”
Me – “Yeah. I guess you’re not telling me that saying it three times would be better, are you?”


Friend 4 – “Why should we care about these mice?”
Me – “Great question. I care about them because I’ve lived with them for months. They’re like penniless relatives I can’t get rid of. I don’t know—maybe you’d care about them if you spent eight bucks for the book? Okay, I’ll work on it.”


Friend 5 – “Even though it’s a ‘sales’ paragraph, it sounds too ‘salesy.’”
Me – “Ouch. If it sounds too much like a sales pitch then I’ve screwed up. I need to go more for, ‘Would you care to see my etchings?’ and less for, ‘Hey baby, you lookin’ for a date?’”


Friend 6 – “I stumbled over ‘becoming something else’s food.’”
Me – “Yeah, that whole sequence is crap. I need something more like, ‘Veni, vidi, vici,’ or, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’”


Friend 7 – “There needs to be something between the part about the world not caring what mice think and the part about the tiniest mouse and his friends. It seems disconnected.”
Me – “But Friend 1 told me to take out that sentence! Crap. It sucks when you write just 125 words, and the first part’s disconnected from the second part.”


Thanks to my smart, generous, and extremely honest friends, I have created a newer, more irresistible pitch:

The mice of Briarcliff Manor want only three things: to find enough to eat, to escape being eaten, and to have as much sex as possible. They don’t want to get involved with some stupid girl and her two cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a damned carriage from one pointless place to another. Faced with these threats to their dignity and lives, the audacious mouse Abernathy and his friends must employ subterfuge, bold stupidity, and strategic cowering in order to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.

Now I shall finish up the proposal and deliver it into the hands of as many harsh, bitterly practical agents as possible. Let the annihilation of my soul begin.