Monthly Archives: November 2005

no I said I want it WITHOUT pickles goddamit


Since this is Omnitopia Week on the blog, how about a report card for some of our “ubiquitous, ever-present environments”? Today let’s tackle one of my favorites: fast food.

1. Wendy’s – Pardon me, but what the fuck happened to Wendy’s? It used to be the standard bearer for quality back in the late ’80s and ’90s, but now each time I go to Wendy’s, they feel small and the bathrooms are disgusting. I suppose they jumped the shark when they stopped the buffet bar (home of the “Hold ‘Em Heels Deal” whenever we won a football game), but this is one establishment in desperate need of some focus-group testing and re-branding.

By the way, did you know Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, was one of the National Guards that killed those kids at Kent State? I always thought that was one of the best urban legends in history.

2. McDonald’s – Truly the Michael Jordan/Madonna/Nike of fast food, McD’s successfully reinvents itself every four years while still serving the same crap you know and love. Bathrooms are almost always a safe bet on a road trip, and the fries rock. I almost never go there, because it is damned impossible to find anything on the menu that won’t remain in your large intestine for seventeen years. The entire restaurant is always covered in a microscopic layer of oil, which is both disgusting and fascinating.

3. Starbucks – Man, they did this place right. Kent thinks the coffee tastes like “monkey ass,” but he doesn’t do it the right way. Stick with me: a soy latté with four squirts of almond syrup drowns any and all soupçons of ass, primate or otherwise.

Plus, you have to admit your average Starbucks barista tends to be an interesting sort – they all seem to be indie rocker English majors with no discernable career drive. I mean, we were all indie rocker English majors too, but back then, we were indignant, disdainful and constantly talking shit about the patrons at Kinko’s while planning world domination.

4. Burger King and Hardee’s – I’m lumping these together because they’re both disgusting, Hardee’s more so. The reconstituted potato meal that makes up your average BK french fry is just above sawdust on the periodic table, and the restrooms at Hardee’s would be illegal in Afghanistan. We used to meet at the Burger King on Franklin Street next to Linda’s (affectionately known as the BK Lounge) but never since. And if you’re stopping at Hardee’s on a road trip, you better have a flat tire or a thrown rod.

Oh yeah, Hardee’s was the place that used to have signs that said “Our Biscuits Are Made From Scratch™!” You’d think the actual phrase was trademarked, but no: Scratch™ was a product of their own making, a trademarked mix of hydrogenated palm oil, Polysorbate 80, piano wire, bathroom caulk, and hamsters.

5. Taco Bell – Back in the early days of the internet, Sean and I used to troll UNC’s “gopher” program for the lamest Usenet newsgroups we could find. When we got to “” we knew we’d found a home. Every few days we’d post something like this:


From: Ian Williams (

Subject: Taco Light

Date: Wed, 30 Nov 1993 21:48:36 -0500


Hey everybody. Whatever happened to the Taco Light?

I thought it was real tasty. I liked the flour shell.

I’m very, very lonely.


…and just sit around and wait for the sad sacks to roll in.

This probably gives you an idea of my and Sean’s dedication to all things Taco Bell, which was truly my salvation in high school (and the cause of my collapse from malnutrition – true story – my senior year).

“Think Outside the Bun” is a great tagline, but truly ironic given that Taco Bell basically makes eighteen meals with every mathematical permutation of the same five ingredients, but I don’t care. I allow myself their Mexican Pizza once a year (much like the Chicken Egg and Cheese at Time Out) so that I don’t, you know, die.

6. Subway – God bless Subway and their trying to not make America fat, but how on earth can they make pastrami and turkey taste exactly the same? They have five new breads now and they all taste the same too. I have to put seven quarts of horseradish sauce on my sandwiches just so I can distinguish their taste from the bag they came in.

And is it me, or does Jared on the commercials still look like he secretly wants to be obese again? It’s like he still has the fat-guy pants and the muu-muu just in case he decides he wants off this crazy merry-go-round.

Tomorrow: Malls!

the charm of the highway strip


I’ve been thinking about the idea of “omnitopia” again: basically, Andrew Wood at San Jose State put a name to the absolute same-ness of American suburbs, and furthermore, to most stores and shops that dot the country. He called them “ubiquitous, ever-present environments.”

I wrote about this a million years ago on the blog, but I’ve always been fascinated by those guys that tied up Starbucks employees, stuck them in the back room, and then ran the place for several hours, pocketing the proceeds.

This kind of robbery can be pulled off without a hitch in Omnitopia: there are only two or three basic kinds of Starbucks in the country, providing would-be robbers an endless stream of “dry runs” in order to pull off their heist. Shit, a McDonald’s would be even easier, but if you really wanted to make some cash, I’d go for an Applebee’s or even a Macaroni Grill. You can’t tell me that each Macaroni Grill puts their safe in different places.

The question is this: is Omnitopia necessarily a horrible thing? Aesthetically, sure, the preponderance of strip malls with an Auto Zone and a Blockbuster is disgusting, and will make for excruciatingly boring archeological digs in the 37th century. The forced Americana kitsch of Cracker Barrel, the homogeneity of Radio Shack employees and even the PUSH BUTT graffiti in the restrooms can make you both claustrophobic and depressed.

But on a long road trip, the understanding that you are never more than fifty miles from a Wendy’s chili (low fat, kids!) or the 100% positivity that the Starbucks in Barstow has hazelnut syrup can be… oddly comforting. I’ve railed against predictability and ninnyism my whole life, and yet I am given succor that there are 12,804 places to get a large fries with McDonalds’ bizarrely tasty hot mustard sauce.

Omnitopia offers sanitation, can always provide a bathroom in moments of desperation. But it also means you will never try that fascinating-looking Mexican place three miles off the freeway. You will stop frequenting that indie bookstore, but why bother when Barnes & Noble lets you read on the couch in the aisle? Holding a Starbucks latté, for that matter?

Sometimes I feel caught in the middle of the great cultural tug-of-war between comfort and La Vie Boheme. I crave the clandestine nook with benches etched by requited lovers, but singing along to “Goodbye Stranger” with a Filet-o-Fish in one hand is fucking sweet.

dirty bucks, blue argyle socks


On one of the lesser HBOs, I just finished watching the last 2/3rds of one of my favorite movies: How I Got Into College, which, along with “Heathers” in 1989, was probably the last innocent gasp of films made for my specific generation just getting out of high school. Featuring a staggeringly-pretty Lara Flynn Boyle with actual baby fat on her cheeks and Anthony Edwards desperately trying not to lose his hair, you may remember this one as having the “Man A” and “Man B” stoner dudes inside people’s mailboxes solving SAT questions.

This movie was directed by Savage Steve Holland, who gave you the transcendent “Better Off Dead” and the execrable “One Crazy Summer” (and was also the voice of the Whammy on “Press Your Luck”), and even has Nora Dunn and Phil Hartman as college-entrant specialists. I’m not sure why this movie appeals to me so much, as it has none of the wicked darkness of “Heathers,” the off-taste brilliance of “Revenge of the Nerds,” or the existential fuck-you of “The Last American Virgin” – perhaps it fills a niche just by being very sweet. And Diane Franklin-esque, for that matter.

Anthony Edwards is slumming here, much as he was in the “Nerds” movies, but he manages to polish turd with the best of them. And Lara Flynn Boyle – god, before she starved herself rotten, she was so unthinkably cute. When Corey Parker (the forgotten “third Corey”) gets his first kiss from LFB, it is a paroxysm of innocent ecstasy.

Also, getting into college is such a fabulous (or tragic) rite of passage that I’m amazed more movies never addressed the experience directly. When each character gets their acceptance letter, I teared up, remembering the precise moment when my dad called me at school and told me that I’d been accepted into the University of North Carolina as an out-of-state student. I walked on air with a weightlessness that lasted weeks, and like Frost said, it made all the difference.

HIGIC was shot in 1989, which, along with 1986, I consider my favorite year of post-adolescence. There was a crispness to 1989, a bright shock of lacquered hair sticking straight up and being noticed. When Corey and Lara speed down the highway in order to get her college essay in before the deadline, I looked at the 1989 trees and felt like I remembered them that way, cold and upright, en route to an unforgettable spring.

Enough time has passed since 1989 that it has now gone past short-term memory, slipped even past some long-term thoughts, and become something harder, unbendable and staring across the expanse of sixteen years with the longing stare that “this time has truly passed.” They say the human body regenerates every cell every seven years, and so as I watch the blue sky in “How I Got Into College” and remember exactly how it felt, I see it with eyes that have been replaced twice over.

miles standish proud


The Cliff Notes of my recent life were put into stark relief yesterday by Chris M, who, in my shorthanded truncation, said I went from a psychotropically-medicated man with a life in shambles to a smiling, bi-coastal hybrid gadfly with a wonderful wife and cute baby. In an effort to make sense out of one’s own life, I’ve adhered to that script in my mind as well – peaks and valleys, sure sure, but the nugget commentary seems like truth.

Which leads me to ask: yes, but why does that make my viewpoint invalid? Just because my life has gotten better in the last four years doesn’t mean I can’t have empathy for those whose lives have been ruined by those currently running the country. The better question is this: why are you conservatives so mean?

Look, here’s an incontrovertible fact: everything Bush proposes in terms of the economy actually helps me. Every time he proffers a deeply unfair tax program or exemption, pretty much every time he opens his mouth, Lucy, Tessa and I benefit financially. And still we quake with rage when we see the Republicans’ idea of a fair budget.

Too sanctimonious for you? Too fucking bad. If there is one thing I’d like to give thanks for, on this holiday, is that my family still possesses the ability to think outside our own goddamn circumstances. I’ve been broke, basically homeless, earning under the poverty level for years and didn’t have health insurance until I was 33. That is no longer true, but I know first-hand the feeling of being one car accident away from utter destitution.

And yet now, because we drive a Prius and own a house, and tend to go back and forth between coasts for work, my words – even those culled from disinterested third parties – are suspect. “Consider the source,” some of you like to say, whenever I bring up anything political.

J Boogie, despite being one of the biggest bores I’ve ever read, still offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of your typical rabid wingnut. He always tells me to go back to listening to NPR (which is a little like Barney telling Lisa to “go back to Russia” when she tried to serve gazpacho).

Conservatives have spent about 120 years decrying the liberal’s habit of “moral relativism.” Right-wingers, in contrast, like to think of their world in bi-valent terms with absolute evil and clear lines between good and bad.

Yet they don’t trust sources that threaten their polarity. This could be called “truth relativism,” in that something coming from NPR (or me) can’t be taken seriously because, well, consider the source. Like Dennis Miller said, before he went batshit, “right-to-lifers think that life begins the moment you agree with them.” In the fight between relative morals and relative truth, I’ll take relative morals for $2000, Alex.

I fully admit: every time I hear a good argument from a conservative, including those on this blog, my mind changes a little. I’m not threatened by this; I enjoy it. But right-wingers, your ability to not give a shit about other people really freaks me out. Frankly, I don’t know how you do it. That kind of willful control over your own opinions has got to be exhausting.

Here’s to a Thanksgiving holiday full of mead and spiked eggnog, and hopefully a minute of opening your mind to some guy in Cleveland who worked hard all his life and is still spending the holiday eating Pringles with his wife and two kids, living out of his car. He and I would like to toast your “relative truth” with an obscene gesture.

Or not. All of you have a safe and wonderful weekend.

another such victory and we are undone


Nobody likes people who say “I told you so,” but I don’t care. I’m a cartoon character on these pages anyway, and my caricature knows no scruples, so here goes. I TOLD YOU SO.

I told you so, and so did every other progressive American out there, but you didn’t listen. We hated it from the get-go, we were sickened when it started, and we all felt a twinge of madness when nobody seemed to care.

And then you made another choice last year, a decision so reckless that it sent the other 49% of your compatriots into mourning. Couldn’t you see what we were heading for? We were no great soothsayers, no infallible seers: we just looked at the facts. What the fuck were you thinking?

Many people sit in contented schadenfreude now, inwardly smiling at each scandal, wishing ill will like pancakes at the State Fair. They feel like they’ve been exonerated.

I don’t. I have to live here. So does my wife, and my daughter. We’ll have to deal with your choices for a long, long time. I feel demoralized, Pyrrhic and fagged.

You know who you are, and you disgust me. I’m a cartoon character, I can say that. You left us in this, and we told you so before it ever happened. We told you so, we told you so.

peel your banana and UNGH! take a bite



Let the indoctrination begin!

As I’ve said before, I don’t expect people who went to other schools to understand the whole ethic of being a rabid Carolina fan – in fact, when I was a know-it-all eighth grader, I looked upon, say, your average Alabama football fan as one of the most eye-rollingly pathetic creatures in America. Hell, I still look at other schools, like Mississippi State with their cowbells and shit and wonder what the hell is wrong with those people.

But we all have our irrational religions, and this is mine. And now Lucy’s. And sort of Tessa’s, although I should note that this football game against Dook was not just Lucy’s first game, but Tessa’s as well. She was too busy having parties with the Cellar Door clique on N. Graham Street to ever come to Kenan Stadium, but better late than never, eh?

Saturday was something of a astronomic event in the celestial skies of UNC: a football and basketball game on the same day. Both played against teams we should have walloped, but instead, won both in the last seconds. It was definitely exciting, so my girls got their money’s worth, but the crowd noise was just too much for Lucy at times. Once, when a Dook player gave our quarterback a late hit and the stadium freaked out, she started bawling like a newborn.

Is it bad parenting to admit that I think it’s unbelievably cute when she really wails?

Anyway, after Ol’ Ironsides went to bed, a bunch of us went to the Dean Dome to catch Gardner-Webb (a school located in Boiling Springs, NC I’m told) and thanks to the true-blue brotherhood of excellent dudes, Chuck and Craighill got us unbelievably great seats. There is nothing like the squeak of the shoe and actually hearing the ball bounce.


Chapel Hill and Durham are currently at the bend of their shoulder season: these are the days when the weather creaks into miserable, with short respites of gorgeous. Being here with Lee and Suzanne has been a breath-catching, soul-sating weekend that we intend to stretch out a little longer (because Tessa’s a little sick, and as you can see above, I need a haircut like the deserts need the rain).

On Tuesday we head to Boston, where it is snowing. We don’t even have jackets. Someone please provide hints on blood thickening, because everyone’s toes are still on Venice Standard Time.



I’m doing this illegally, sitting in my car in the middle of Durham, stealing wifi off someone’s transmitter, and I think someone just called the cops.


Journey well made, arrived safe and sound. Hope to see any of you at either football or basketball game. Have a wonderful weekend!

*peels away*

she’s a little lighthouse






It’s funny to think of it now, but before Lucy was born, I was actually afraid that there would be no connection. I’ve been told that some parents just don’t develop an unspoken, preternatural bond with their offspring; they’re just not hardwired that way. As with all things I’d experienced over the last four years, I just kept repeating the mantra given to me by someone wise:

Nothing worth doing comes without a healthy dose of ambivalence.

Nothing worth doing comes without a healthy dose of ambivalence.

Nothing worth doing comes without a healthy dose of ambivalence.

And here I am, three days out, and I am physically pained not to be around her. Imagine how hard it must have been for those going off to war, like Tessa’s mom’s dad, who fought the Battle of the Bulge with a six-month-old left in Texas.

Maternity and paternity leave in this country is woeful. I realize that lots of parents run desperately back to work as though their sanity depends on it, but I couldn’t be one of them. As XTC joked as the Dukes of Stratosphear,

You bring me colour where once I had just black and white…

Now I have rainbows appearing round here in the night…

Well I don’t need any cigarettes or beer from a jug

You’re my drug-

You can slow me down or pick me up

You’re my drug-

And I don’t ever know if I can give you up.

coefficient of friction



A few thoughts tonight from Tucumcari, New Mexico:

1. Why are even the crappiest motels in the bumfuckiest of places still almost always sold out of rooms? The parking lots don’t look crazy full, but for some reason, every place you stop is always down to their last room, and it’s usually a “Smoking Queen” (but aren’t they all).

Perhaps motels alongside America’s highways have reached the point of perfect supply-and-demand capitalism: years of winnowing out competition has left the exact number of rooms available to every prospective traveler. No less, no more. If you take a road trip, the Market somehow knows it, and adjusts so that you have the last room in a town you can’t even pronounce.

2. God, the “Master and Commander” books sure are amazing. How did Patrick O’Brian do it for so many years? Just when you think he’s coasting on laurels, he kicks your ass about 3/4ths through every book. Do yourself a favor and read the ones you never got around to.

3. I have remarked before about the blinding proliferation of asinine Republican propaganda that used to plaster every car: the Democrat-hating, gay-bashing, the condemning of non-Christians to hell, the Hillary is a Lesbian kind of shit one was subjected to whilst traversing this nation’s southern freeways. I have to say that kind of rear-window sloganeering is largely gone. Even the “Support our Troops” stickers have dwindled to a trickle. Deduce from that what you will.

4. Why did we go for that chump field goal on third down? My heart is still a little broken.

5. Tessa’s best friend Jason has his own small P.R. company that we’ve used for years, and he has always held firm the following principle: nothing worth knowing about you can come from you. That is, information gleaned about you from a third party is exponentially more meaningful than anything that can be said by yourself.

In essence, this is the same thing as a conspiracy. If a third person is involved in creating a reality, then you have the building blocks of any deceptive relationship. All you need is that one “other” person to return a phone call, to give you an alibi, and the story of truth can be infinitely altered.

I used this “seemingly innocuous third party” all the time, especially when I made my roommate – a frequent commenter on this blog – assume the position as my very cautious, very caring family doctor who got me out of pretty much anything I didn’t want to do.

I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to bend reality to your wishes as I looked at the immutable bleak hills of New Mexico, but there you have it.