They May Take Our Lives, But They’ll Never Take Our Freebird

Today on Popdose I published a piece making fun of people who yell “Freebird” at concerts. (I know, I know. Tomorrow I’m going to write a piece making fun of airline food.) I don’t usually post links to stuff I write on other websites, but I wanted an excuse to use the above graphic. I created it to go with the story but ended up using another one, and didn’t want this one to go to waste. It kind of freaks me out, truthfully. Don’t look at it too long.

Check out the piece here.

A Groupon Copywriter Issues His Ransom Demands

Save a Dozen Lives in Three Easy Steps
Chicago

The word “kidnapping” actually comes from the court of pre-Revolutionary France, when marauding noblemen would don kid gloves and nab commoners right off the streets, scooping them into their carriages and force-feeding them croissants and heavy cream. As for the poor bastards lying here in the Groupon offices, they’re probably thinking a croissant wouldn’t be so bad right about now, that anything would be an improvement over being trussed up like a hog by an obviously disturbed person with a neckbeard, a sawed-off shotgun and a MacBook Air, a person who I want to assure you is quite willing to shoot the face clean off any or all of these hostages unless the following demands are met:

1. Like cigarettes in prison, the size of your yacht and those bead strings they hang over pool tables, money is a handy way to keep track of who’s winning and losing in life’s ongoing Darwinian struggle. It can also be used to buy accordion repair training, stuff an extremely expensive scarecrow or perhaps save the lives of a dozen quietly sobbing office workers, their hands slowly turning purple as the ropes binding their wrists cut off their circulation and placate the otherwise vengeful and jealous hemp gods. So go ahead and deliver one million dollars in used twenty, fifty and one hundred dollar bills, financing my new life on the lam and depriving a pica-stricken bank employee of an illicit snack.

2. Before the invention of the automobile, loose wheels careened freely through the streets, bowling over helpless pedestrians and making horses rear up in fright. Help to avert bouncing, circular chaos by providing a brand-new, fully fueled automobile with four securely fixed wheels, as well as a police scanner and dark tinted windows. Said auto should also have sufficient room to accommodate two bound and gagged abductees, who will be released only when I’m certain I’m not being followed by law enforcement, TV news crews or hostage fetishists.

3. In addition to providing a valuable way to rid the world of old tin cans, firearms can bring families together over a mutual loathing of clay pigeons or a shared passion for earmuffs and tinted safety glasses. They can also, when delivered to the foyer of the Groupon offices in sufficient quantities, aid in the escape of a copywriter who once had dreams of being the next Thomas Pynchon but who now has written so many absurd come-ons for restaurants, hair salons and health spas that he is all but incapable of expressing a thought without resorting to nonsensical metaphors or made-up history or some other labored exercise in smirking hipster bullshit. Do you know I keep a notebook under my pillow just in case I wake up at three in the morning with a new euphemism for tanning bed? Yeah. You do now. That’s why you’re going to deliver two revolvers with five hundred rounds of ammunition, a hundred 20-gauge shotgun shells, a ballistic vest and a gas mask. Also supply six fragmentation grenades, suitable for thwarting pursuing FBI agents, enticing shrapnel collectors or removing sugar glider infestations.

Bring the cash and weapons to the sixth floor of 600 W. Chicago Avenue and leave the vehicle parked outside, the engine running and the doors unlocked. No tricks, snipers, double-crosses, voodoo hexes or skunk eye. Follow these instructions and these twelve people will go on living, dutifully recycling oxygen for trees and robbing the funeral industry of sought-after revenue for many years to come.

In a Nutshell

Fed-up Groupon scribe demands money, escape vehicle and weapons, as well as renewed sense of dignity and purpose, in exchange for lives of twelve hostages

The Fine Print

Expires in two hours, at which point one hostage will be executed, followed by another hostage for each additional hour these demands are not met. Limit 1 per order. Valid only for option purchased.

Suit for Hire

In these uncertain economic times, your firm needs every kind of advantage on its side — not merely a strong balance sheet and efficient supply chain management, but a potent psychological edge. You need someone whose very presence communicates strength and competence to employees, partners and competitors alike. You need someone like me.

I am a suit.

I will sit at a conference table or at an elegant luncheon, in my suit, quietly radiating calm, authority and steely reserve. Leaning back in my chair at the appropriate angle, my fingers curled under my chin, I will take in everything said around me, nodding or simply fixing the speaker with a respectful and attentive gaze. At meetings, I will take notes on a legal pad tucked into a rich leather portfolio, using a Waterman pen with my initials engraved on the barrel. My handwriting is bold and angular, stylish while still preserving legibility, and you will notice how decisively I underline my major headings.

At no point will I pull out a Blackberry and begin typing on it — I do not own one, and my Louis Vuitton briefcase contains no laptop. (I am available with an optional laptop-bearing assistant; please speak to me for details.) Instead you will find a region-appropriate copy of Crain’s; my Kindle; several neat file folders containing documents of obscure but impressive purpose; a pair of Prada men’s sunglasses in a black leather case; a Netflix envelope, sealed and ready for mailing (Ratatouille, I explain with a smile; my daughter loves anything Pixar, and we ought to just buy the movie for all the times she’s seen it but we don’t like to use the TV as a babysitter); and my portfolio and pen, should I not be working with them.

I may, in a lighter moment that illustrates my humanity and approachability, show you a photo of my wife and aforementioned young daughter on my iPhone. Their names are Marisol and Kendall, respectively. I will humbly thank you when you tell me how beautiful they both are and then make a self-deprecating remark about my daughter inheriting her looks from her mother. We will both know I am lying; I am a gorgeous man, with captivating hazel eyes, unblemished skin and a jaw like the prow of a yacht.

I will politely deflect all other inquiries into my background and history. As far as you are concerned, I am a man from nowhere, a blank slate, an abstraction made flesh. (I am available with a full background, including university associations and professional organizations, for a modest upgrade charge.)

My suit itself? Contemporary and elegant, with a cool slate-grey hue, stylish lines that accentuate my physique (I work out rigorously and have a resting pulse rate of 45) and a subtle texture to the weave that you may well find yourself admiring during our many conferences, in moments when I happen not to be speaking. My silk tie is custom-made and tied in a flawless, bullet-hard Shelby knot; other knot styles up to and including a full Windsor can be accommodated on request.

As far as my handshake is concerned, I have a grip like a tiger shark’s jaws and can split walnuts between my fingers — did I not assure you that I work out? In addition to my full regimen of cardio, weights and resistance training, I also study Jeet Kune Do, the fighting system devised by the late Bruce Lee. This training allows me to precisely attenuate my handshake to communicate fellowship, encouragement or menace as appropriate to the situation. Without even speaking I can assure the lowliest hourly employee that I am firmly on his or her side; let a supplier know that he is in for toughest negotiation of his life; or so frighten an opposing counsel that his balls shrivel between his sweating thighs like a puppy cowering before a rolled newspaper.

As we work more closely together over the days and weeks, you come to appreciate the awesome intellectual resources I can command, along with my willingness to put them completely at your disposal. Soon I will begin finishing your sentences for you, and then speaking your thoughts before you have a chance to utter them. Days rush by in a blur as achievements you had previously dismissed as impossible suddenly appear tantalizingly close. You notice I never appear nervous and rarely blink. Dimly, you begin to understand that I am capable of doing, and actually may have done, terrible things. You will be grateful I am on your side.

My fingernails are immaculate, my hair perfectly in place. My wristwatch is rated to a depth of 400 fathoms as well as the vacuum of space. My shoes glisten like the hood of a black Ferrari. And I can be yours for a surprisingly modest fee. After all, what price is too high to surpass your ambitions, redraw the competitive landscape and leave your opponents broken in the dust? Contact me today for a quote.

(References available upon request.)

I Know What Conservatives Like. I Know What Liberals Want.

Conservatives don’t like things that liberals like. That’s not surprising, nor is it surprising that the reverse pretty well applies: liberals don’t like things that conservatives like. Where the difference starts to creep in is that conservatives seem more likely to take this stance to its next logical step: going out of their way to do things that liberals don’t like, solely because liberals don’t like them — even if doing that thing ultimately harms them.

For instance, there was a great deal of attention given recently to a study that tried to persuade people to reduce their energy usage at home. Notices were sent to the highest-consuming households with gentle suggestions that the household in question could do better in conserving energy. The study found that Democratic households were likely to reduce their usage in response; Republican ones, by contrast, were likely to increase it. As noted in the linked article, Rush Limbaugh even encouraged his listeners to turn on all of their lights during Earth Hour, a gesture that certainly cost his audience many thousands of dollars in wasted utility spending. Glenn Beck told his audience not merely to refrain from using their own grocery bags, but to use as much plastic as possible. That’ll show us tree huggers!

It is a commonplace among conservatives that liberals are bereft of humor and joy, hate individual liberty and derive their sole pleasure from curtailing other people’s happiness. A popular conservative slogan goes “Annoy a Liberal: Work Hard and Be Happy.” As a liberal myself, I think it’s only fair to confess that this supposition is true. At our secret monthly meetings (which we totally have, usually in mosques or Whole Foods stores), my fellow liberals and I like to swap stories about the various successes we have had in jealously undermining the successful and the hard-working, persuading women to have abortions and redistributing as much of America’s material wealth to undeserving poor and minority households as possible. We like to strategize about which decadent cultural practice we ought to demonize next: how about off-roading, or fishing? And we speak of the true ache in our hearts when we contemplate those who are prosperous and happy, and who bear the lowest tax burden of nearly anyone in the First World. It is our mission to destroy such comforts, and we will get there one day, Dawkins willing.

At any rate, in the spirit of free discussion, I would like to confess on behalf of my fellow liberals several other activities we liberals hate, and which our conservative countrymen may feel compelled to adopt.

1. Punching Yourself in the Face
As a liberal, my reflexive compassion compels me to help people whether they want it or not. Were I to see a successful American savagely pummel his own mug into swollen, eggplant-like mush in defiance of my touchy-feely values, I would want to see him restrained, evaluated and possibly commited for his own protection. You’re not going to just let me get away with that, are you?

2. Setting Fire to $100 Bills
Little-known fact: the smoke from burning American currency is actually deadly to liberals, and the higher the denomination, the more toxic the fumes. If you were to bring a $5,000 bill to a David Sedaris reading and set it on fire, you would kill most of the audience in the space of a few seconds. You probably don’t have a $5,000 bill, so an equivalent amount of Benjamins would probably do the trick (I haven’t actually tried it).

3. Giving Away All of Your Possessions to a Poor Family
Hey, it’s the government’s job to confiscate your wealth and redistribute it! Stop that!

I offer these suggestions in the hope that my conservative countrymen will make reasoned decisions based on what is actually good for them, rather than what they imagine to be bad for someone else. If that doesn’t work, well, maybe someone will actually punch himself in the face, which would be kind of funny. Glenn Beck, care to take this one up?

They Live

You’re a drifter — down on your luck, roaming from town to town with a bedroll and a tool chest strapped to your back. Everywhere around you, other people seem to be getting the breaks — although, admittedly, many more seem to be just as up against it as you are. You find a job as a scab laborer on a construction site, and a squatter’s village that at least offers a hot meal and a place to sleep. Despite all this, you don’t let it get you down. You still believe firmly in the lessons you learned as a kid: that the world is fundamentally a fair place, that people will treat you well if you treat them well, and that working hard and playing by the rules will one day get you to a place of comfort and security; maybe not the mansion on the hill, but not the squatter’s camp either. America still works, you tell yourself, and that gives you the strength to pick yourself up and keep trying.

Then one day you put on a pair of sunglasses and see things you never saw before, and your world goes to shit.

John Carpenter’s They Live looked unflinchingly at the underside of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. While Gordon Gekko was rhapsodizing about the goodness of greed, migrant worker George Nada trawled through a stunted shadow economy that grew like a fungus on America’s underbelly. They Live presents an America that seems decent enough to justify George’s faith: the squatters’ camp where he finds shelter runs on compassion and good old American hard work, a true expression of the generosity we hold as one of our core values. The problem, as it turns out, is the ultimate viper in the garden: the elite feeding on America’s underclass are actually aliens in human form, hopscotching rapaciously across the galaxy like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Galactus. Even more heartbreaking is when George discovers why he was able to maintain his faith in the American dream while it fell apart around him. The aliens have submerged the culture in subliminal messages, with every surface blaring a mute clarion of stasis and conformity. Thanks to a pair of sunglasses invented by the revolutionaries fighting the aliens, George walks through L.A. and finally sees, in literal black and white, the new guiding principles of America. SLEEP 8 HOURS A DAY. MARRY AND REPRODUCE. WATCH T.V. STAY ASLEEP. CONFORM. OBEY.


What makes They Live resonate so much for me, a decade after I first saw it and well after it was first released, is what it reveals about paranoia and the comforts of conspiracy. While the film bears the trappings of a sci-fi-based horror movie, its central conceit — that American society is being undermined by alien invaders — is actually more comforting than frightening, because it supports the premise that people are too fundamentally decent to create the kind of society depicted in They Live. Suddenly, we didn’t do it — it was done to us. This preserves our ideas of our own goodness while offering a tantalizing promise of redemption. An alien menace is a menace that can be fought and destroyed; what came from outside can be sent back outside. Sure, defeating a technologically advanced alien race is not going to be a walk in the park. But if there’s one thing we know how to do as humans, it’s kill those who are different from us. Whether the solution proved to be sunglasses, computer viruses or red anti-alien virus powder, we’d find a way. If, however, the problem turns out to be us — if we, not alien invaders, made the world around us, with all its greed and its waste and its callousness — then we’re probably screwed.

Click to continue reading “They Live”

Lordy Lordy.

I am 40 years old today.

When I was growing up, 40 was the official over-the-hill birthday. A 40th birthday party involved novelty canes, ear trumpets, black armbands, walkers and other unfunny, made-to-be-thrown-away crap that occupied a dedicated shelf at Spencer’s Gifts. It still does, somewhat, but as I’ve aged I’ve noticed that culturally, we have tacitly agreed to move back the point beyond which “it’s all downhill from here.” As more Baby Boomers edge closer to the abyss, we have grown less willing to draw the line at which we must admit to ourselves that we are, finally, old.

I am a bit unsure of what to make of it all. Statistically, the odds are that my life is more than half over. When I think of all the things I would like to have done by this age – mostly involving writing and traveling, neither of which I’ve done to anything like the extent I once hoped – I am torn between two competing realizations: that youthful dreams rarely come true and mostly aren’t even meant to, and that I have squandered too much of the only existence I will ever have.

How badly should I feel that I have never lived abroad (well, apart from that semester in college), written a novel or been to Italy? That I work in the corporate world and have often substituted workplace ambition for personal or artistic goals? Is there any point in regretting the many mistakes I’ve made — situations where I sacrificed my happiness for someone else, gave into fear and laziness or knowingly made a bad decision to spare someone’s feelings?

I tell myself that any mistake is worth making as long as I learn from it. I tell myself that it is never too late to do the things that matter to me: to live in a place I don’t know, to use my talents for my own ambitions rather than for my bosses’, to live a life I will be grateful for once it’s over. I think these are valid views — but I would, wouldn’t I?

Shortly before he died, Christopher Hitchens said, “You have to choose your future regrets.” We can never fulfill all our dreams — not if our dreams are worth the name. I haven’t fulfilled all that many of mine. But I do have a beautiful, intelligent and fantastically talented woman to share my life with; reasonably good health; and that persistent, nagging urge to do something more than show up to a job every day — to make something lasting that reflects who I am.

Yes, I wish I had more time ahead of me. But do I wish I were younger? Not a chance. What wisdom I have has been very dearly bought. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than where I am today.

Happy birthday? Why, yes it is, thank you.