Prologue

The brain’s a funny thing when it comes to memory. For example, I can’t remember what color underwear I’m wearing right now but I can tell you that I was wearing a California Raisins “Let’s Party, Dude!” T-shirt when I got smashed in the head by a dodge ball in third grade and the gym teacher, thinking about the mounds of paper work he’d likely face if he reported a concussion, told me to “clam up, lie down on the bleachers, and sleep it off.”

So what is it about the brain that makes the storage of these memories possible? Turns out that just beyond the central gyri and the longitudinal thingamafulcrum resides the Spazzbrum, a squishy sausage-like thing that remembers every horrible, embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you. Yes, from that time in sixth grade when you farted during your oral presentation to the day you met the people who would eventually become your in-laws and, thanks to a gas station Subway sandwich, you puked Exorcist-style all over their bathroom. Seriously, it was everywhere. Anyway, despite all the pain and agony the Spazzbrum has caused me over the years, it is the reason I’m able to remember the following story in such gruesome detail. Therefore, I dedicate this story to you, Spazzbrum. Jerk.

——-

Early on, I became obsessed with TV. Especially game shows. I was completely fascinated by this shiny world where toothy hosts made every moment feel important, as if the future of the world was riding on whether or not a contestant knew the retail price of a quart of motor oil. But more than the crisp $100 bills or the promise of a “brand, new car!,” what really fascinated me about game shows was that ordinary people (and by “ordinary people” I mean “people that looked like my school’s lunch lady”) could play a major role in a TV production.

Tic Tac Dough. Sale of the Century. Classic Concentration. The 1980s were a fantastic time for game shows. So fantastic that I actually enjoyed getting sick because it meant staying home from school and watching hours upon hours of game show schlock. Hell, I was more than willing to swallow a little cough medicine if it meant a hearty dose of Dr. Barker (“have your pets spayed and neutered!”), Dr. Dawson (“Suuuurvey Says!”), and Dr. Whatshisname from Press Your Luck (“No whammies, no whammies, stop!”).

And then there was Double Dare, Nickelodeon’s innovative game show for kids. I say innovative because, for the first time in television history, a game show dared to answer the age-old question: “what if we take a couple kids, cover them in a mysterious-yet-colorful slimy goo, and have ‘em pick plastic boogers out of a gigantic rubber nose?”

For advertisers, it was the perfect formula (messy + gross = ratings hit). For kids, it was the chance to live vicariously through the lucky contestants who got to do things like hurl pies at one another, dive face first down an ice cream-covered slide, and cannonball into a chocolate pool—all without a grownup shrieking about the mess you’ve made.

Oh yeah, you could also win money and cool prizes. See, on the show, two teams of two competed each other, answering a variety of questions ranging from ridiculous (“how many eyes does Michael J. Fox have?”) to downright hard (“what is the square root of 891305122.4?”). Now if a team got stumped on a question, they’d “dare” the other team to answer. If that team didn’t know, they’d “double dare” the other team who would then, either answer the question, or opt for a “physical challenge”—a rotating variety of different stunts that, more often that not, involved a player flinging something (i.e. bananas) across the stage for their teammate to catch with some kind of apparatus (i.e. their pants). All this built up to the show’s finale: a 60-second race through a wonderfully messy obstacle course.

For all the above reasons, Double Dare quickly became my favorite game show and I wanted so desperately to be on that stage catching bananas in my elastic blue tracksuit pants. The reality, however, was that Studio City was a world away from our house in the Orlando ‘burbs.

Everything changed in 1989. That’s when Orlando launched its plan to become “Hollywood East” by opening two new theme parks that doubled as full-working studios. And get this. One of the parks, Universal Studios was going to include Nickelodeon Studios.

Thank. You. God.

Now it turned out that God—obviously a fan of watching kids get slimed—was only getting started. See, in early 1990, The Orlando Sentinel announced that Nickelodeon was holding auditions for Family Double Dare. Whoa. All I had to do was convince my parents and sister to audition.

That turned out to be pretty easy. My sister, 18 months older and classically competitive, happily agreed. (Though, just to be safe, I had been fully prepared to whip out the “Do this for me and I’ll make your bed for a month” card). My parents were also on board. After all, Double Dare was textbook kitsch and my parents loved kitsch. From their collection of Howdy Doody and Welcome Back, Kotter lunchboxes to the department store mannequin positioned in our kitchen, our house was like one of those cool stores in near-abandoned strip malls that’s filled with talking Pee Wee Herman dolls, Mr. T trading cards, and stacks of dusty LIFE Magazines.

So with all Blooms on board, my dad called to set up an audition. He was told by the receptionist, “wear comfortable clothes because you’ll be performing a simple physical challenge.” Later that afternoon, we sat down to watch the show together. Immediately something jumped out at us: these families were really, really athletic. I don’t know why I never noticed this before—maybe I was too caught up in the whole “wouldn’t it be cool to be smothered in syrup” factor to realize—but catching oversized rubber frogs in frying pans while being blindfolded required real athletic skill. Now, with an audition date scheduled, I started to watch the show with new eyes. And what I saw scared the crap out of me: the contestants who I once idolized now looked eerily similar to the kids that tormented me daily in gym class.

Now it was one thing to be laughed at by the 20 kids in my gym class (“Easy out! Easy out!”); it was another to be humiliated in front of a national TV audience. See, I should explain that Blooms have never been what you’d call “athletic.” Not that we didn’t try. Hell, I tried every sport from soccer to karate and while it’s true that these trial periods typically lasted about three weeks, I had learned:

a)     I didn’t like to sweat.

b)    I didn’t like to hang around other kids who were sweating.

c)     Wearing the team uniform was cool—until it got sweaty.

d)    Gatorade is for drinking; not for pouring over your head.

e)     A and C

f)     All the above

And let’s not forget that whole can’t catch a ball/throw like a girl/complete and total lack of coordination syndrome that has plagued Blooms for centuries. But the challenge that lay ahead wasn’t some meaningless game of P.E. dodgeball or painfully long game of volleyball; it was Double Dare! And because of that, we were determined to kick butt at our audition. So much so that we did something totally crazy: we practiced. We actually transformed our living room into a makeshift Double Dare set and practiced different physical challenges.

Seriously.

My sister and I, standing on one side of the room, flung tennis balls to my parents who tried catching them in cowboy hats, sombreros, or other accessories from Halloween costumes from years past. We had races where we wore giant clown shoes (another Halloween favorite) and games of catch where we tossed tennis shoes into pots. We even dug up my old tricycle and pedaled zigzag around a line of cones in our foyer.

After a week of strenuous practice, two things were clear:

  1. We had roughly the coordination of a pile of mud.
  2. Because of that, our only hope of making it on the show was to somehow find a way to stand out from every other family.

About a week later (despite the fact we practiced every day, we had somehow become less coordinated), it was time to audition. As we drove along I-4, my heart raced at the thought of seeing Nickelodeon Studios. After all, this was going to my very first taste into the magical world of television! I was going to be in a real-life working soundstage! I was going to be surrounded by spotlights, cameras, and props! I was going to…

a rundown office park?!?

Something had to be wrong. Where was the giant Nickelodeon sign…or any sign for that matter? And where was the green slime? The only thing that came close was the mold growing on the front door. This was all wrong. We walked through the front door and saw a torn sheet of notebook paper posted with black duct tape on a far wall:

D.D. Auditions

—–>

We followed the arrow and walked down a long hallway. At the end was a woman in her late 50s sitting behind a bridge table. With dirty blonde hair and slimy leathery skin, this woman was the last person I’d expect to find at a kid’s network.

“Who are you?” she barked in a gravely voice that sounded like equal parts lifelong smoker and razor blade gargler.

“We’re here to audition,” my dad said.

“Obviously. What’s your name?”

“We’re the Blooms.”

“Wait over there,” she nodded at the wall.

My confidence was fading quickly. I had expected the bright and vibrant world of Nickelodeon. Instead, I was in the black and white world of Nick at Nite—minus the canned laughter. About twenty minutes later, a door opened and out walked a family of four. They were everything we weren’t: tall, blonde, and tan. They were all smiles are they strut down the hallway and looked us up and down, their eyes saying “Easy out! Easy out!”

A minute or so later, a man, a youthful 40 with sandy blonde hair and a neon orange Nickelodeon shirt, emerged from the room. After a brief consultation with leathery lady, he looked at us.

“Bloom family?”

“Right here!” my parents answered together, way too enthusiastically.

“Well, let’s get started then.” He gestured toward the room and we followed.

“My name’s Gary,” he said. “This’ll be pretty simple.”

“Gary, before we begin,” started my mom. “We’ve got something to say to you.”

“What?”

[SPOILER ALERT: What happens next is embarrassing. It’s also ridiculous. It’s one of those things that you look back on after the fact and wonder justwhatinthehell you were thinking. Anyway, at the risk of further embarrassing myself, as well as my sister and parents who were so kind to go along with this whole thing in the first place, I’ll proceed. Just remember, you’ve been warned.]

Like I said, we knew we weren’t going to get by on our athletic prowess alone. So, as a surefire way to impress the casting director, we came to the audition with a little something extra: a song.

That’s right. For some reason, we thought, “hey, if we can’t climb monkey bars blindfolded, we’ll sing our way into the show!” It was just like Lucy scheming to get a spot in Ricky’s show, only a lot less funny. Here now, published for the first time anywhere, is the song.

 

[Sung to the tune of “New York, New York”]

Start spreading the slime

We’re ready to-daaaay

We want to be contestants on

Fam’ly Double Daaaaare

Our tennis shoes

Are longing to stray

We’ll run that obstacle course

In the fastest waaaay

 

This went on for three more verses before we finished with a show stopping display of jazz hands and the toothiest smiles we could muster. We waited for Gary to shower us with praise. What we got instead was a really long silence. Finally he said something.

“You know, um, contestants don’t sing on the show,” he said.

“Yeah, we know,” my mom said in between breaths. “We thought we’d give you something special.”

Yes! Our plan to stand out was working!

“Whatever. I need you to do a physical challenge.”

Do you know that feeling you of dread you get before diving off the high board, taking a final exam, or if you’re a Bloom, doing anything that requires athleticism? Multiply that by 20 and that’s how we felt at that moment.

“Here’s the deal,” Gary said, handing my dad a lemon. “Put this under your chin, then pass it to each other without using your hands.”

That’s it? No throwing? No catching? We could handle a little lemon passing, no problem!

Gary called, “Ready, set, go!” and were we off and running. My dad tried passing the lemon to my mom. Thirty seconds later they were still trying. I caught a glimpse of Gary, he seemed concerned. We were in trouble. Finally, my parents managed to pass the lemon, which meant it was now up to my mom and me. With the lemon under her chin, my mom leaned down to pass it to me. The lemon fell to the ground and rolled.

And that’s when things really started to go really, really wrong.

My sister yelled, “What are you doing?!?”

My dad shouted, “Pick it up! Pick it up!”

My mom and I scrambled, Three Stooges-style, after the lemon.

“C’mon, you’re messing up!” my sister screamed.

“Hurry, hurry!” my dad added.

Finally, my mom grabbed it and tossed it to me. Big mistake. I didn’t catch the lemon. Instead, it fell to the ground again and rolled across the floor again. My dad started laughing uncontrollably and my mom wasn’t far behind.

“Hurry! You’re messing up!” my sister said. “C’mon, c’mon!”

I grabbed the lemon and placed it under my chin. Now with the clock racing and the pressure on, I did the only thing I could to salvage the mess we’d created: cheat. Violating the cardinal rule of lemon passing, I used my hands to transfer the fruit from my chin to my sister who was quick to point out, “stop cheating, Robbie!”

Mercifully, Gary stepped in.

“Uh, thanks for coming in.”

And then, the most ridiculous question in the history of ridiculous questions. Asked by me: “are we gonna be on the show?”

Gary looked at me paused. Maybe he was seriously considering putting us on the show! Maybe just maybe we had impressed him with our song and, well, unique physical challenge!

“We’ll, uh, let you know.”

Then again, maybe Gary was just trying to find a polite way to let down a 13-year-old kid.

——-

Epilogue

After the audition disaster, it was business as usual in the Bloom household. My parents continued to laugh through the times when life gives you a lemon…and you drop it. My sister, always the competitive one, became the official “rule policewomen” in the house and ensured that games of Monopoly were not only played fair and square but also ensured they were no longer fun. As for me, I watched as that season’s episodes of Family Double Dare came and went and eventually accepted that Gary wasn’t going to call. Meanwhile, I continued to obsess about the mystical world inside the TV screen and dreaming that one day I’d be a part of it. Assuming I wouldn’t have to pass a lemon under my chin, of course. 


Congratulations! You have been randomly selected to complete a survey on Job Satisfaction. The following questions have been expertly crafted by a team of professionals and by “team of professionals,” I mean “one person who decided that creating a survey on Job Satisfaction would be a great use of valuable work time to avoid doing anything that resembles real work.”

Please read the following questions carefully then choose the answer that best relates to your current job situation.

1. How would you describe your overall productivity at work?

    a. Very productive 
    b. Somewhat productive 
    c. Just passing the time until the season premiere of “LOST”

2. Of the following, which describes your general state of mind at work?

    a. Busy but happy 
    b. Busy and stressed 
    c. One step away from strangling your co-workers with the printer cable

3. On Friday afternoons, you feel:

    a. Satisfied with what you accomplished during the week 
    b. Confident knowing you put forth 100% effort into each and every project 
    c. An overwhelming sense of dread knowing that, in 48 hours, you’ll return to the living hell that is your job

Let’s see how you did!

If you answered A to any of the questions, you lied. 
If you answered B, see A. 
If you answered C, you hate your job. 
Then again, if you even bothered to answer the questions at all, you hate your job so much that you’ll gladly do anything to pass the time even if it means answering a survey or watching the video on YouTube where a guy, who just mixed Mentos and Diet Coke, gets smashed in the jewels with a Nerf missile.

The good news, Job Hater, is that you are not alone. According to a study that I just made up, 90% of people hate their jobs. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, such as bad bosses, hostile work environment, a paycheck that’s worth only slightly more than the paper it’s printed on, and others. However, for today’s discussion, let’s just focus on one area: meetings.

Meetings are like the Willy Wonka factory of the work world—people go in, but they don’t come out. Unless of course you’re a little boy with half a dozen grandparents, who are all 150 years old, carrying God knows how many diseases, and sleeping together in a small dingy bed whose sheets haven’t been changed since, well, never. If that’s the case, you’ll escape the factory eventually, but not before a lunatic with crazed eyes and a bow tie, who earlier caught you stealing Fizzy Lifting Drinks, explodes into a blind rage that, medically speaking, scares the bejeezus out of you. All in all, the whole ordeal will seem most annoying and time consuming. Just like meetings!

I figure that on any given day, I spend about three hours in meetings. “But Rob,” you ask. “Surely these meetings are productive!” [NOTE: That loud crashing sound was me falling off the chair laughing. That, or you just popped a gasket, in which case you should seek immediate medical attention and also find out what a gasket is.]

Really, “meeting productivity” depends on your personal criteria. For me, if I do a little doodling and write down my grocery list, I’m happy. Others, like the people I work with, expect—no, DEMAND— more from their meetings. They march into each and every meeting striving to attain the ultimate in meeting productivity…The Follow-up Meeting! 

BOSS 1: Great meeting, Fred! 
BOSS 2: Did we decide on anything? 
BOSS 1. Not a thing. I better schedule a follow-up meeting. 
BOSS 2: I’ll bring the pastries!

Funny enough, we are not the first to suffer from pointless meetings. According to a leading paleonscientologist, this plight goes as far back as the days of King Tut where, in the Great Pyramid, detailed hieroglyphics depict a man with grey hair, a banjo, and a fake arrow through this head saying, “You want another meeting? Well, excuuuuuuse me!”

So you see, meetings have been around a long time. And as long as there’s been meetings, there’s been the Meeting Weasel. You know who I mean. The dweeb that always sits next to the boss (ensuring optimal butt kissing) and loves making long-winded comments that, in accordance with the Meeting Weasel Code, always come at the most inconvenient of times, namely just as you’re dozing off or right before lunch. You may also remember Meeting Weasel from his other appearances in your life, such as The Guy Sitting Next To You On The Plane Who Won’t Shut Up and The Guy In Your High School Class Who Reminds The Teacher To Collect Homework.

Now in writing this piece, it’s become clear to me that there are still many important meeting-related issues to address. These matters are integral, thought-provoking, and (according to nine out of 10 dentists) critical in the fight against plaque. Tell you what, why don’t we schedule a follow-up article to discuss?

You bring the pastries.


I’m being forced to play kickball. That’s right, forced. As in “have to” as in “no way around it” as in “do you really want to be out of a job in this economy?” Let me explain. My office is having a team-building activity (their motto: “You WILL have fun!”) and, in this case, team-building means a game of kickball (my motto: “I haven’t felt this nauseous since middle school P.E. class.”).

Here’s the problem: I am not an athlete. I don’t shoot hoops or sink putts or run around a football field trying to grab a yellow flag from someone’s Umbros. I’ve never asked someone to “play a little one-on-one” or “shoot the 8-ball,” and I’ve never, to the best of my knowledge, uttered a sentence that contained the word “pigskin.” Hell, I don’t even watch sports on TV, unless of course, you count professional wrestling as a sport, which sadly, most people do not, choosing instead to think of it as a gigantic pimple on the butt of the TV screen, not unlike late night infomercials, and the dancing old man in those Six Flags commercials.

Bottom line: I’m just not a sports person. What’s more, there’s not a whole lot I can do to change that. You see, Sportsessence (a term derived from the Latin phrase Ix-nay on Sitting on your ass-nay and watching TV-nay) is actually a hereditable trait, much like handedness, tongue curling, and the ability to see a 3-D image in those posters of multi-colored, mish-mashed waviness. There are, however, plenty of people out there who have managed to inherit Sportessence. These are the folks who go jogging at 5 AM on a Saturday, and do things like participate in intramural sports for no reason other than, get ready for this one, THEY ENJOY IT! These are the same people who use that ridiculous piece of exercise equipment at the gym. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s where you sit down on the little seat, place your outer thighs against the sweaty pads and then spread your legs obscenely far apart, thereby feeling, not only “the burn,” but also quite the draft. These are the folks who, back when they were teeny, tiny cells, actually camped outside the Gene Dispensing Factory (at 5 AM on a Saturday) to ensure they received the coveted Sportessence gene.

I missed out on getting that gene. Probably because I was in the next building over, the Klutz Cafe, watching sitcoms and eating a pastrami sandwich. But Rob, you say, surely you learned some athletic skill after all those years of playing catch with your father! Ha ha! While my dad and I have certainly had our share of beautiful bonding moments (“And that, Son, is how you make an Egg Cream!”), “playing catch” was not one of them. Not that I blame him in any way. The complete lack of any and all athletic ability whatsoever among members of the Bloom family dates all the way back to 1896 when Stavros J. Bloom attempted to compete in the first Olympic games. Taken from Bloom family records, here is the actual transcript of a conversation held between Stavros and his track coach in April of 1896:

“Please-a pick-a me for the team-a, Coach!” Stavros said.

The coach frowned. “Your shoes are on backwards.”

So Stavros wasn’t chosen for the team, which truthfully, was probably for the best. Between his clubbed foot, frequent dizzy spells, and rare allergy to Oxygen, Stavros had no business being outdoors, let alone in a sporting event. This would prove to be consistently true for future generations of Blooms as well. Blooms and Sports just don’t mix. Especially during adolescence when you’re short, uncoordinated, and wear glasses with three inch-thick lenses. Welcome to my P.E. class at Rock Lake Middle School in Longwood, Florida.

I was always picked last for teams. Always. It didn’t matter what sport we were playing, either—I was last. The teacher would pick two team captains, guys with names like Travis or Conner or Austin or Colin; guys who were a foot taller than I, with biceps bigger than my thighs. What’s more, these boys had very cleverly made a deal with God (a huuuuuuge sports fan) because they’d already started going through puberty, meaning they had hair in places that I didn’t even have yet. For these guys, P.E. class was the reason they went to school every day, whereas I greeted each class with slightly less enthusiasm than I did a dental cleaning.

So the entire P.E. class would stand in a big group and the captains would pick different students to join their respective teams. Brown. Turner. Palmer. The chosen boys would jog over to their fellow teammates where they’d begin hi-fiving and slapping each other on the back. Young. Morris. Harris.One by one, my fellow classmates would get chosen. Stewart. Miller. Anderson. More names would get called while I stood there, uncalled, watching as the crowd around me got smaller.

“Okay, let’s play!” TravisConnerAustinColin would say.

“Hold up,” the teacher would reply with a snicker. “Nobody picked Robbie Bloom.”

Now while this sort of embarrassing event would actually happen MANY times over the years, there is one incident in particular stands out in my mind. In fact, this particular P.E. class was so awful that it solidly ranks as #2 on my “Horrifyingly Embarrassing, Wishing I Was Anyplace Else In the World, This Can’t Really Be Happening” Scale, coming in just a notch below #1: Performing the Tango in my college Ballroom Dancing class with Mauricio, who, in addition to being a hairy-chested Colombian man with a Village People moustache, was also the teacher.

I was standing alone in the middle of the baseball field, while my classmates stared at me like I had some dreaded disease. And then the debate started.

“C’mon, coach! I had Bloom last time!”

“Well I don’t want him! We won’t stand a chance!”

“Please don’t give me Bloom! He’s useless out there!”

The debate lasted nearly two more minutes before the teacher mercifully assigned me to a team, a decision that was met with mixed reactions (“Ha ha! You got stuck with Bloom!” or “Crap! We might as well not even play now!”).

Thankfully, I was placed in the outfield. This was perfectly fine by me because it meant I could stand all by myself, very, very, very far from the action. Seriously, my classmates were playing baseball and I was a zip code away. Now you’d think this would’ve been a comfortable enough distance to prevent me from suffering any additional humiliation, right? C’mon, that would’ve been a direct violation of the Klutz Code, which clearly states:

“regardless of the distance between the Klutz (referred to herein, henceforth and backwards as “Schmoe”) and the athletic activity taking place, Schmoe will always, without fail, find him/herself involved in a situation where Schmoe is called upon to perform an athletic feat. Naturally, this feat will be accomplished with disastrous results.”

And that’s exactly what happened. You see, in addition to being a big sports fan, God also has a tremendous sense of humor, which explains why, despite the fact that I was so deep into the outfield that I couldn’t even see the actual field without squinting, the ball went sailing through the air (in dramatic slow motion, with the Jaws theme playing) and came directly to me!

Good one, God.

So the ball came right to me and, of course, I didn’t catch it. I didn’t even come close. Instead, the ball landed on the ground and I went chasing after it, listening to the respective cheers and groans from the two teams, until I finally got to the ball and heaved it with all my might, sending it sailing triumphantly through the air… about ten feet before it dropped to the ground.

I ran to the ball and threw it again. It went another ten feet. So I chased it again. And threw again. Only this time I watched in despair as the ball, which now weighed 45 pounds, traveled a measly five feet. Several minutes and nearly a dozen throws later, the ball landed in the vicinity (read: a good quarter mile) of one of my teammates, who quickly scooped it up and threw it effortlessly to home plate—while still finding time to yell out, “Thanks for nothing, Bloom!”

Unfortunately, this type of thing was common as I grew up. However, as I got older, I realized that my lack of Sportsessence was actually OK. I mean, so what if I couldn’t catch a stupid baseball? Who cares if every time I went to bat, the other team chanted “Easy out! Easy out!” while the pitcher instructed his teammates to “Move in closer!” And does it really matter that one time in high school, when teams were chosen for a soccer game, I was picked last—behind Sam Tiffs, the kid with one leg? HELL NO!

Sure, I’ll agree that being good at sports does provide some advantages in life (“And so we made the deal right there on the golf course! 30 million, just like that!”), but c’mon, there are plenty areas of life where athleticism is not a prerequisite for success. Like being a mime, for example.

Besides, that stuff is ancient history. After a lifetime of obsessing over and reliving those moments from my childhood, I’m finally ready to let go of the past and start focusing on the present. Like this stupid office kickball game. And how I’m going to get out of it.


Sky’s the Limit

By Rob Bloom

Humor

Show of hands, guys. How many times have you been sitting in your living room, beer in one hand, backup beer in the other, watching TV, when out of the corner of your eye you notice that old bookcase of yours and suddenly realize what’s been bugging you for months—maybe even years—but you’ve never been able to properly articulate it in a clear, succinct statement.  Namely: “If only I had a gigantic wooden replica of a World War I propeller to prop in front of this bookcase!”

And ladies, I’m sure you’ve lost count of the times you’ve finished a workout at the gym only to remark, “Treadmill schreadmill! What my thighs really need is the Giddyup Core Exerciser Horse Riding Simulator!”

Lucky for us all there’s SkyMall, the catalog of random merchandise that is to airplanes what dirty sheets are to interstate motels. Along with a partially completed crossword puzzle, you’ll find SkyMall in the pocket of the seat in front of you—nestled snugly among the barf bag, the crumbled pretzel package left by the passenger before you, and the safety brochure with the illustrations of people who, despite the fact their plane just made a crash landing in the ocean, are all smiles. (Probably because they used SkyMall’s Escape Ladder. Pg. 59. Some assembly required.)

Though I’m a longtime SkyMall reader, it wasn’t until recently that I learned to fully appreciate the power of the catalog. And like most life-changing situations, my sudden appreciation came not from planning, but rather survival. You know, like when a father displays superhuman strength to lift a car off his son or when a brilliant collie rescues a dopey little boy from the bottom of a well or, in my case, when you pretend to read an airline catalog to avoid even the chance of conversation with the passenger beside you who insists on taking off her shoes and socks, stuffing them (the socks, not the shoes) in the seat pocket, then demanding the flight attendant bring over a blanket because she’s “chilly” (Talk about someone who needs a pair of Herbal Booties. Pg. 106. Operators are standing by.)

So with the scent of feet in the air, I willingly escaped into the world of SkyMall, a glossy paradise where glossy models demonstrate this season’s must-have products. You know, the ones that help you achieve something extraordinary like a better night’s sleep, the perfect pushup, or a hunk of steak branded with your initials. Just a heads up, though. Because every product in the catalog costs roughly the same as a minor surgical procedure, be prepared to pay top dollar for your SkyMall purchases. See, a long time ago, two airline execs named Dick spent many hours huddled around a conference table trying to think of ways to capitalize on the vulnerable brains of airline passengers.

DICK: You really think this catalog’s a good idea?

DICK: You kidding?!? Folks’ll be cranky, cramped in a tiny chair, and light-headed from the smell of feet! They’ll buy anything!

DICK: While we’re at it, maybe we should keep planes delayed on the tarmac longer.

DICK: Have I ever told you that I love you?

No question, SkyMall is certainly seductive. But as I flipped through the attractive-yet-overpriced-yet-useless-yet-ridiculous products on those delightfully slick pages, I just couldn’t stop thinking about RIP, or as he’s more commonly referred to around my house, “The Skymall Disaster of ’05” (Haven’t heard of it? Try the Orbitor Electronic Bionic Sound Technology Microphone Listening Device! Pg. 85!)

RIP was a combination Microwave/Toaster Oven I saw advertised in SkyMall. He was a “space saver.” He was the “answer to more convenient cooking.” He was “two hundred bucks that would’ve been better spent had I invested it in something longer-lasting, such as one hand of blackjack on the High Rollers table in Vegas or, better yet, a ceremonious flush down the toilet.”

In all fairness however, RIP did work great at first. Of course, a week later, he decided to stop working so he could perform other helpful tasks like shooting out pretty sparks and growling like Louis Armstrong. But like any gigantic disappointment, time and a few swings of a hammer heal all wounds. Actually, I’m happy to report that RIP has mellowed in his old age and is now resting quite peacefully in a storage unit. Right beside my Flying Alarm Clock, remote-controlled Dragonfly, and collection of neon flamingo and palm tree lawn ornaments.

There’s a serious problem in this country and, for the life of me, I don’t know why we aren’t doing something about it. Where is the news coverage? Where is the media outcry? Where is Al Sharpton? Well I, for one, have had enough! No longer will I sit in silence and watch as this miscarriage of justice continues! It’s time to take a stand! It’s time to fight!

IT’S TIME TO BAN TAPAS!

You know tapas, right? Teeny tiny itsy bitsy portions of (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say) food, commonly enjoyed by sophisticates and people who suffer from stick-up-the-ass syndrome. These, of course, are the same people who make a big production out of studying the wine in their glass (“well, it certainly appears to be serene in personality”) before, finally, taking a sip and frowning thoughtfully (“ah yes, just as I suspected. It’s a second cousin, twice removed, of the ’72 Chardonnay.”).

Tapas, derived from the Spanish word tapas (meaning “sucker”) is typically served in tapas restaurants with names like Bob’s Booby Barn. Wait, that’s topless. Tapas, on the other hand, is found in joints like El Snooteria where the servers dress entirely in black and, in accordance with strict tapas dining guidelines, are prohibited from smiling. Also, in an attempt to make up for the fact that the typical tapas entrée is the size of a bite-sized sample at Costco, they use really, really, really big plates.

“Here’s your braised pork,” the waiter says as he places the dish in front of you.

TRANSLATION: “Here’s a gigantic plate that, when placed over your head, could provide cover from a major tropical storm. I’m sure though, being the sap that you are, this clever illusion will make think you’ve had a lot of food but, fact is, you’re going to leave this table hungry.”

Of course, just as you’re about to dig in to your miniature pork thingy, six other hands comically beat you to it. See, that’s another guideline: you must eat tapas in large groups of people. Failure to do so could result in the risk of you actually consuming food and, what’s worse, potentially feeling like you had dinner. Clearly, this must be prevented at all costs. So before you know it, the braised pork is gone, leaving you staring at a gargantuan—albeit empty—plate. Repeat this about twelve more times and you have a typical tapas dining experience.

Now don’t go getting the wrong idea here. I’m not some kind of cretin who only eats at restaurants where they have pictures of food on the menu. I like good food as much as the next metrosexual but, dammit, I’m tired of leaving restaurants hungry.

Correction: I’m tired of spending a lot of money to leave a restaurant hungry. See, also in accordance with tapas guidelines, restaurants charge not by portion size, but rather by plate size. Enough! Give me real food! Steak! Chicken! Burritos! Big, sloppy, greasy food that, after you eat it, you know you’ve eaten it—largely because you spend the next three hours popping Tums like breath mints. I’m talking real food here. Man food! I know I’m not alone in this thinking either. After all, man’s need to gorge himself goes back to the prehistoric days when a couple of Cavemen set out on the first recorded bachelor party.

    (Techno music blaring in restaurant)


    CAVEWAITER: Here you go!


    CAVEMAN 1 (squinting at gigantic stone plate): What the hell is this?


    CAVEWAITER: Mini-bison sliders.


    Cavemen 1 and 2 exchange looks then quickly begin beating Cavewaiter mercilessly with their clubs.

Okay, show of hands, who’s with me? Who’s ready to fight back against the tapas machine? What we really need is to attack this thing viral-style. You know, assemble a group of 30, 40 pop stars to sing about the plight of the hungry diner (“Stopas the Tapas”), and post the video on YouTube. With any luck, we’d get almost as many views as the one of the bulldog riding the skateboard.

Sadly, I realize I haven’t had my last tapas meal. I know this to be true because I have friends and they have birthdays and, for some reason (probably because they’re not paying), people love to get tapas on their birthday. “Oh, I’ve been just dying to try that new place, La Ripoff! The food’s supposed to be amazing!,” they’ll say with genuine excitement. I’ll respond with nothing more than the forced smile of a tapas veteran who knows he’s going hungry that night.

Wow, after rereading that last sentence, I realize I may be overreacting here. I mean, maybe my next tapas experience won’t be nearly as bad as I think. It might even be fun. Particularly since I’ll be armed with a gigantic plate to throw at the first person that describes the wine as “serene.”

There’s a special room in Hell reserved for movers. It’s right beside the room holding the cable guy who said he’d be at your house between 9 and 4 and two doors down from the mechanic who swore your car needed a new filibusterator. This room, which is called something fun like The Devil’s Armpit, is only 528 square feet and:

  1. mind-blowingly hot
  2. completely and totally empty.

The way I see it, The Devil’s Armpit will look exactly like the apartment my wife Juliana and I moved to in Philadelphia in 2005. See, Juliana got a job in Philly so we moved away from Atlanta, family, friends, and grocery stores that sell beer. To help with this adventure, we hired professional movers. By “professional,” I mean “three guys in matching jumpsuits who handled our possessions like a Star Wars collector handles a 1978 IG-88 12” Bounty Hunter Robot.”

“You can never be too careful!,” Bob, the head mover called out as he carried a box marked FRAGILE out to the truck. Meanwhile, another mover walked in front to clear Bob’s path of any dangerous pebbles.

We gladly paid these men the amounts outlined in our contract: $300 (insurance policy), $800 (deposit), another $800 (1/2 the cost of the move. A final $800 would be due at delivery). Bob took the money order, we shook hands, and he and his partners drove off. It would be the last time we ever saw them. It would also be the last time we ever saw our stuff. At least, in any recognizable condition.

Juliana and I arrived in Philly a few days later. It was Saturday and the middle of August. We made the trek upstairs (the elevator was broken) to the 12th floor—to the aforementioned 528 square foot sauna—and waited for the movers to arrive. A couple hours went by. We tried calling the movers a few times only to get an automated error message from AT&T. Finally, at 10 PM, the phone rang.

“YO!,” the thick Jersey accent shouted into the receiver while the sounds of live Jazz blared in the background. “WON’T BE THERE TONIGHT!”

“Where are you guys?!?”

“WE’LL BE THERE MONDAY OR TUESDAY!”

“I want to talk to Bob. He said–”

Click.

Monday or Tuesday came and went. The movers, on the other hand, did not. Calls to both the movers and the moving company led only to automated error messages. The one time we actually managed to reach a live person at the moving company, I was told they had no record of our move. Things were looking bleak. They were about to get even worse. We took a trip to the library and Googled “moving scams.” I’ll save you the time of sifting through the dozen pages of moving horror stories by offering you the following summary instead:

We. Were. Screwed.

Here’s the scam. A couple of crooks open a moving company. They’ve got a registration, license, even those dirty padded furniture mats that smell like broccoli farts. Everything checks out. The company is listed on reputable websites and you’ll read glowing testimonials about their service. You’ll sign a contract and the movers will show up and do a real bang-up job. Then they’ll drive off and your story will become a major motion picture summer blockbuster starring Ben Stiller or, if he’s available, Jack Black.

Around 45 minutes into the film—or roughly 312 Stiller pouty faces—your move will be taken over by an “independent third-party contractor,” which is code for “new crooks who are in cahoots with the original crooks.” One day, the new head crook will call and tell you that, due to a scheduling error, they won’t be able to deliver your stuff for about 30 days. They will, however, deliver it to a storage unit somewhere. For us, “somewhere” was Jacksonville, FL.

Three and a half weeks passed. One night, around 2 AM, I got a call from yet another crook. This time, it was a gruff-voiced cretin who sounded like he’d been gargling razor blades. Let’s call him “Sore Throat.” He wanted:

1. A signed waiver that released the movers (the original company we hired) of any liability.
2. $1000 (in addition to the already agreed-upon $800 payment).

If we failed to comply, “Sore Throat” warned, “you’ll never see your stuff again.”

I contacted lawyers, the Better Business Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Everyone said the same thing, namely “you’re screwed.” The Department of Transportation did elaborate slightly, saying that if the planets were to align in a Triple Lindy formation and pigs started to fly and Ryan Seacrest went down to holding only four jobs and—this is the big one—the DOT suddenly increased their staff by, say, 200%, then, maybe just maybe, they might be able to research our claim before the next Olympic games.

Back to the scam. The movers have all the power. Sure, you could sue them…and you’d win. But you’d never see a penny from the judgment. The crooks would simply declare bankruptcy and close up shop. Then, the very next day, they’d reopen with a new name and phone number. Cue Stiller pouty face.

OPERATION: UP A CREEK was well underway and we had no choice but to employ the age-old WHIPPED solution (see Jon vs. Kate). I called Sore Throat and agreed to his terms. The very next day, the moving truck pulled up in front of our building. A tall, lanky guy—another independent contractor—jumped out of the cab and, without talking, opened up the back of the truck.

Inside? Furniture that looked like it had been attacked by a chainsaw. Clothes, covered in mold from spending the past month in a wet storage unit, thrown around. And boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, in the shape of basketballs. Except the ones marked FRAGILE, interestingly enough. Those were shaped like footballs.

 

I can’t sleep. It’s been two, maybe three weeks now. Could be more but, thanks to the lack of sleep, I’m not thinking so clearly right now. In fact, I’m pretty sure, given my current state of mind, it would actually be illegal for me to do anything that requires any significant amount of brain power, such as operating heavy farm equipment or deciding which contestant to vote for on “So You Think You Can Dance.” I’m not even sure I should be writing this column. After all, given my exhaustion, I’m liable to write something totally ridiculous and nonsensical monkey poop banana head.

So why can’t I sleep? I have no idea. It’s not like I’m downing an energy drink (label reads: X-Treeeeme 8 Hour Energy Rush! No crash! Made from a proprietary blend!) before bed. On the contrary, I’m simply walking to the bedroom, climbing into bed, closing my eyes, and then, like any insomniac worth his salt, spending the next four hours finding things to worry about.

“What if world peace breaks out? Won’t all those people at the UN be out of jobs?”

“What if Jon and Kate don’t get back together? Oh God, what if they do?!?”

“What if we keep putting off that trip to the Grand Canyon and then, one day, someone comes along, fills the thing up with concrete, and builds a Starbucks?”

Eventually, I stop worrying and realize it’s 3:30 AM. That’s when I:

  1. begin to calculate how many hours of sleep I’m going to get (if I fall asleep that very second)
  2. convince myself that I’ll be perfectly fine to function at work the next day.

I’m sure this sort of thing is normal among insomniacs.

NURSE: Doctor, you’ve slept three hours in the past four days. Are you sure you’re up to performing this very difficult and complicated brain surgery?

DOCTOR: Nurse, I’m a professional. Now let’s begin cutting.

NURSE: Doctor, we’re in the cafeteria.

DOCTOR: Hmmm, that would explain the macaroni in my pocket.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about saving anyone’s life. As a writer, the worst-case scenario is that I’ll spend eight hours staring at a blank Word document, waiting for inspiration to hit. Then, when it finally does, I’ll type something like “monkey poop banana head.”

“Yep,” I’ll say to myself with a satisfied smile. “I made some real progress today.”

My insomnia has gotten so bad that I actually consulted a sleep expert for help. She gave me some basic pointers on proper sleep hygiene, such as if you’re lying in bed for more than 10 minutes, you need to get out and do something else. I tried this for the first time last night and went into the living room to watch TV. Turns out there’s not much on the tube at 2:45 AM except infomercials. This is probably because the folks at the networks know there’s no way in hell a sane person would pay $19.99 for a Waterproof Electric Razor. A sleep-deprived person, on the other hand, will buy ANYTHING—particularly if that person is me.

Truth is, I cannot be trusted alone with an infomercial and a phone. Not only will I buy whatever they’re selling (“Yoga for Senior Citizens? I’ve GOT to get this!”), I’ll rationalize why we need to buy two or three of that item (“the shipping cost is the same! It’s actually cheaper to buy more!”). Over the years, I estimate my insomnia has cost us around $12,302 in infomercial purchases, a number that barely edges out my SkyMall impulse buys (“Wow! It’s a giant wooden propeller that leans against a bookcase! This’ll go great with our life-size Darth Vader statue and Marshmallow Shooter!”).

So clearly, watching TV is not the answer to my insomnia problem. Other suggested guidelines from the sleep expert include:

  1. Go to bed at the same time every night.
  2. The bed is to be used only for sleep or sex or, if you’re really kinky, having sex with someone who’s asleep.
  3. No water, bright lights, and, whatever you do, absolutely, positively no food after midnight.

As you can see, these are all good rules and should be taken very seriously, particularly the last one which, really, is the only way to prevent your small town from being overtaken by terrifying, violent gremlins who will not only destroy the local toy store but will also explode in your microwave, leaving you with one helluva mess to clean up.

Anyway, I’m rambling now. And, as I look at the clock, it occurs to me that I have to be at work in less than four hours where I’m expected to present an ad campaign to a client. I can only hope the presentation goes smoothly and I’m able to mask the fact that I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in, what seems like, ages monkey poop banana head.

There are many wonderful things about being a dog owner. The playing, the walks, knowing that your dog wouldn’t do a damn thing to stop a robber but would, without hesitation, risk its life to protect you and your loved ones from squirrels. These things, however, pale in comparison to one of the true joys of having a furry friend. I’m talking, of course, about standing on the grass for unbelievably long periods of time waiting for your dog to pee.

My wife Julie and I adopted Chloe (the Wonder Shih Tzu™) last August. Since then, I estimate we’ve spent roughly 14,285 hours waiting for Chloe to pee (that’s 45 years in dog time). It’s not as dull as it sounds. See, “waiting” implies you’re merely standing around, checking your watch every ten seconds, your anxiety level rising because you’ve got to catch the train to get to work on time and the clock continues to tick, meanwhile Chloe is having a gay ol’ time sniffing around yet failing to do anything that resembles peeing and, for the love of God, you’re going to miss that train! No, our morning pee trips are considerably more engaging than that—largely due to the amount of begging involved.

“C’mon, Chloe!”
“Okay, Chlo. Time to pee!”
“Goooo, good girl. Let’s peeeeee!”

These requests accomplish two things:

  1. Chloe staring up at us and rolling her eyes to say “I don’t watch you pee, dude.”
  2. Strange looks from passerbys who likely thought we were perfectly normal dog owners at first but, after witnessing this ordeal, now look at us much like you would at the guy sitting on the mall bench, big globs of drool falling from his mouth as he clutches a high heel to his chest.

Naturally, this ordeal begs the question, “if Chloe isn’t peeing during this time, what is she doing?” (as opposed to the more obvious question: “whatinthehell is wrong with you?!?”). Good question. If you must know (and she’d be soooo embarrassed that I’m telling you this), Chloe is what you’d call a yenta. For those of you who don’t speak Yiddish or own the Mel Brooks Anthology, yenta means a “busybody” or “gossip.” The original paparazzi, if you will. And that’s Chloe.

If someone is pulling out of their driveway four miles away, she’ll hear the running engine and want to check it out. If another dog is peeing in another zip code, she’ll want to smell it (the dog and the pee, that is). And don’t even get me started about what happens if she sees a squirrel. “Stop, Chlo!” I’ll shout as this 17 lb. ball of fur and crooked teeth is pulling me cartoon strip-style across the grass in a frantic effort to catch the squirrel.

Anyway, once everybody—and everything—in the continental US finally cooperates and gives Chloe the complete peace and quiet she needs, then, AND ONLY THEN, will she squat down. Julie and I celebrate this triumphant act with the type of celebration you’d bestow upon someone for a truly spectacular accomplishment such as winning an Olympic gold medal or resisting the urge to make fun of a really bad toupee.

“YAY, CHLOE!,” we’ll shout. “GOOD GIRL!” (I won’t even tell you about the types of looks people give us here).

Now Chloe wasn’t always a slow pee-er, mind you. There was that time, last September, when the vet, in an effort to control Chloe’s allergies, put her on steroids. Two words: ‘roid rage. Seriously. The steroids turned Chloe from Wonder Shih Tzu into Shih Tzu Badass. Among the side effects of the steroids was a sudden increase in energy, a desire to devour anything resembling food, and Chloe shaving 5 seconds off her 440 time. And then there was her increased thirst. When she wasn’t killing a pack of bubble gum (again, seriously), she was inhaling her water dish. Which, of course, meant she was peeing. A lot.

We’d take her outside and before she even had a chance to plot her squirrel-killing strategy, she’d pee. Then, on our way back inside the house, she’d pee again. Of course, it’d be wrong to keep Chloe on steroids just so she’ll pee faster. I mean, aside from the ‘roid rage, we’d have those pesky random urine tests to worry about. I guess that means we need to find another way to move the peeing process along.

We’ve talked to the vet and he suggested using some sort of a reward system to encourage quick peeing. You know, she pees and we give her a treat, such as a dog biscuit or a blueberry. I’m all for trying this idea though, to be honest, I think the key element here is selecting the right treat. Can you say “squirrel”?

Life is funny. I mean, just when you think that you’ll never get a newborn Kenyan cow named after you, WHAM!, you hear the sweet pitter patter of little hooves. As I type this, Rob the Cow (who, by the way, is quite the looker) is happily grazing in the Kenyan village of Sauri (population: 4,214 cows and nearly that many people). When I first met the future Rob, he was approximately three hours old, just a newborn, naked and nameless. We were introduced to one another towards the end of the two-week African safari that I took with my wife Julie and her parents.

You’re probably wondering, “How the heck did you get a cow named after him?!? Are you, like, a Cow Whisperer or something?” The answer to the second question is NO. Believe it or not, I’m not even that good with animals. This probably stems from the fact that, before this trip, the only time I’d encountered wild animals was while riding The Jungle Cruise at Disney World (oh, and diving away from an angry stampede of senior citizens en route to the General Tso tray at the all-you-can-eat China King buffet in Ft. Lauderdale). Soooo when Julie asked me if I wanted to go to Kenya with her family, naturally I was excited. And not just because her parents were paying.

Julie’s parents are soil scientists whose jobs require them to live in Kenya about six months of the year. This qualifies them as official Kenyan residents, which is a pretty big deal because, in addition to receiving junk mail (“You might already be a winner! Return this card and win a free cow!”), they get to participate in the traditional Kenyan Welcoming Ceremony where each new resident, upon receiving their pair of complimentary running sneakers, is asked to recite the Kenyan Creed. I’m paraphrasing: “I vow to face each day with strength and bravery, taking on all challenges, laughing in the face of danger, doing my best to seek out dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations, under strict accordance with the Fear Nothing Principle.”

The Fear Nothing Principle, as explained by The Idiot’s Guide to Avoid Getting Eaten by a Lion, has only one rule: fear nothing. Allow me to clarify. Nothing, in this case, includes everything that might worry someone (me) who’s traveling to Africa for the first time (again, me). My father-in-law, who has lived in Kenya for over fifteen years and is the only man I know that has caught a shark WITH HIS BARE HANDS, then placed it (still alive) into a household bathtub, is diehard follower of the Fear Nothing Principle. That’s bad news for me.

You see, when it comes to things like disease, infection, and wild animals that could remove all the flesh from my body in 0.2 seconds, I prefer to follow the somewhat safer, yet no doubt less manly, Fear Everything Principle. Sure, I understand this mindset might make some men feel weenie-like, but personally, I’ve grown pretty accustomed to the Fear Everything Principle over the years—really ever since 1988 when I became the talk of Camp Coleman for being “the kid who got the funky purplish rash over his entire body from playing in the woods and had to spend three weeks quarantined in an empty cabin that smelled like socks and warm cheese.”

So there you have it. A Fear Nothinger and a Fear Everythinger going on a safari to deepest, darkest Africa. Man, this has TV magic written all over it! So if you’re a TV exec looking for your next ratings hit, I’ve got just the thing for you! It’s called “Nothing to Fear but Everything” (it’s a working title) and it follows the wacky adventures of a modern-day odd couple as they trek through the jungles of Africa. It’s your classic fish out of water story meets Cinderella story meets swashbuckling blockbuster meets any other popular cliché that would help get the show on the air. And best of all, it’s based on real life so the scripts practically write themselves! For example, here’s an unedited transcript of an actual phone call I had with my father-in-law prior to the trip. As you’ll see, like any good sitcom, hijinks ensued.

ME: How many different travel vaccines do I need?
HIM: Why would you need vaccines?
ME: What about Malaria pills? Don’t I need those?
HIM: What for?
ME: What happens if we’re viciously attacked by a pride of hungry lions?
HIM: There’s nothing to worry about as long as you have your running shoes. And a change of underwear.

But don’t get me wrong; it’s not that my father-in-law didn’t care about my fears. He just didn’t think there was anything to be afraid of! Take our first day in Kenya, for example. When our jeep’s engine overheated and we were stranded on the side on the highway—and by “highway” I mean “dirt path in the middle of nowhere with nothing around us but 50,000 acres of dust and rocks”—he simply shouted out: “Everything’s fine; I’ve got it all under control!” Now keep in mind that he had to shout if he wanted us to hear him over the sizzle of the radiator and the hissing from the snake that was just five feet from my door. Seriously.

But despite this being a situation that some (read: sane) people would find to be unnerving, both my in-laws remained true to the principle and, amazingly, feared nothing. Impressive? Yes. But the real test was still to come. About four days later, in fact, when we traveled to Masai Mara, the wondrous savannah that Disney animators visited to collect research for “The Lion King,” a film that, looking back, was mostly accurate detail-wise, but quite frankly, we spent a few days in the savannah and I didn’t hear ANY animals singing. Not a one.

So we’re in Masai Mara on our fifth or ninth day of safari (it’s hard to keep track when you’re dehydrated), and everyone is actively playing the “spotting game.” This is where you spend several hours driving around the savannah in a jeep, trying to spot animals by peering through binoculars, which incidentally is something that I’ve neverbeen able to do very well because when I look through the eyepieces, all I ever wind up seeing are my eyelashes. My in-laws, on the other hand, are exceptionally skilled at spotting which is great for them because they’re also avid bird watchers, a hobby that involves squinting through binoculars, seemingly staring at nothing for long periods at a time, then saying things like: “Is that a blue-chested fartwallop?” “No, I think it’s the pepper-speckled hasselhoffer.”

I tried hard to be good at spotting, I really did, but unfortunately I just couldn’t contribute much to the game.

“Oh, oh! I’ve found an elephant,” I’d shout with pride.

“That’s a tree,” my in-laws would say in unison.

As you can see, spotting is a true measure of one’s patience, visual scanning techniques, and most importantly, the ability to tell the difference between a living, breathing animal and a stump of wood. Thankfully though, every once in a while, you get tipped off on where to look for animals. The rule of thumb is that if you’re driving around and spot a parked jeep filled with people, chances are, these folks have stopped because they’ve found something good. Or a lion has eaten their tires. Either way, it’s a National Geographic moment.

And that’s what happened to us. My mother-in-law (again, an expert spotter) saw a jeep in the distance and sprung into action. “Drive over there! Fast!” she yelled with the trademark enthusiasm of a Fear Nothinger. “I bet it’s something good!”

“I hope it’s dangerous!” my father-in-law yelled back, licking his lips in anticipation.

We sped ahead, racing through the grass at record speeds with almost-but-not-quite as much concern for safety as a city cab driver. When we got closer, we noticed there was something beside the parked jeep: another jeep. And there was another jeep beside it. And another. Turned out there were eleven jeeps in total, all filled with people, arranged side by side in a semi-circle. Whatever these people were looking at, it HAD to be good.

We pulled up alongside the other jeeps and I couldn’t believe what I saw: a pride of five lions gorging on the carcass of a buffalo. Right there. Less than 30 feet from us. It was surreal to observe these awesome creatures in their natural habitat. We watched for several minutes, staring in awe as the lions devoured the buffalo. The scene was so amazing that I (momentarily) ignored my Fear Everything instincts and instead, reveled in the excitement of the moment. And that’s when I noticed all the other jeeps had turned off their engines while ours was still roaring away—a definite safari no-no. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed this glaring violation of safari etiquette. At that moment, mama lion looked up from her feast and let out a mighty roar. Directed right at us.

Now when placed in a situation like this, there’s two clear choices one can make: stay or leave. Actually, there’s a third choice, but “wet your pants” would require way too much coordination under this kind of pressure. Clearly, a Fear Everythinger, valuing their limbs over a good photo op, would choose to leave, which leads you to assume that a Fear Nothinger would stay, right? Right? Not my in-laws. No; THEY decided on a fourth option: to drive closer to the lions.

Hold up. For dramatic purposes, that needs to be repeated.

There was (Percussionist begins banging on drum) a pride of five lions (drumming gets louder and faster) feasting on a buffalo right in front of us (drumming is super fast and crazy loud) and WE DROVE CLOSER!!! (Big finale: drums, cymbals, horror movie scream, chicken squawking, et al.)

It turned out that driving closer was a very, very, very bad move. All five of the lions stopped eating to stare at the insolent fools who had the audacity to interrupt their buffalo banquet. Hell, even the other people, all of whom were professional Fear Nothingers (you could tell because their pants were completely dry), were shocked at this display of stupidi…er bravery.

So there we were. And there were the lions. With less than ten feet between us. Course my in-laws were in Fear Nothing heaven, enjoying every second of this. Meanwhile in the backseat, I was enjoying it as well, much in the way I enjoy getting a tooth pulled.

“Turn off the engine so we can hear them chewing,” my mother-in-law suggested.

“Wow, look at the size of those teeth!” my father-in-law said as he turned off the car. “Betcha those babies could tear right through human bone!”

“Can we get any closer?” asked a familiar voice. Noooo, it couldn’t be! Surely it wasn’t! I looked in the direction of the voice and saw…my wife! What?!? Did my wife Julie, a tried and true Fear Everythinger, seriously just ask if we could drive closer to the lions? This coming from a woman who slipcovers public toilets with four rolls of Charmin before sitting down? What was going on here?!?

I thought I knew my wife pretty well. But the gentle woman I married was suddenly several continents away from the wild-eyed adventurer sitting beside me. Julie had gone from a Fear Everythinger to a Fear Nothinger in less time than it takes me to clean the lint from my belly button. I was shocked. Especially when she climbed into the front seat of the jeep, joining her parents for the traditional Fear Nothinger snack (beef jerky) and a classic Fear Nothinger discussion that involved questions like “Do you’d think the papa lion would mind if we pet his mane?” and “How long do you think it’d take one of these bad boys to digest a human body?”

I was feeling lightheaded, which probably had as much to do with the stench of Slim Jims filling the air as it did with my shock of Julie going over to the ‘dark side.’ Meanwhile, the lions had yet to return to their feast. Something about our presence (maybe it was the smell of fear from the backseat) had fascinated them and they were too distracted to eat. SO distracted, in fact, that they abandoned the carcass lying in front of them and starting walking towards us.

“Hey look,” my father-in-law said as he turned off the car. “That one’s licking its lips!”

All five lions were now directly in front of the jeep, staring at us through the windshield and drooling. After taking a moment to survey the situation, I knew we were in trouble, and not just because the mama lion was tying a napkin around her neck and setting out the good china. We were in trouble because the jeep was parked, the cameras were out, and the lion-human staring contest was entering the second quarter. Clearly, my wife and in-laws had no intentions of leaving anytime soon.

“What do you suppose the big one’s thinking?” my mother-in-law called to me in the backseat.

“Mmphmwmb,” I said. (Though I had lost the ability to produce intelligible speech, I was still quite capable of whimpering.)

I didn’t know how much more of this I could take and yet, my in-laws and wife were only getting started. I knew it would take some amazing, miraculous act of a higher power to persuade my father-in-law to drive away.

“I gotta pee,” my father-in-law announced. “Let’s get out of here.”

And with that, my father-in-law went to start the jeep. But nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. The battery was “dead” as in “gone” as in “finished” as in “holy crap, we’re gonna be lion kibble!” Now you won’t believe what happened next, mainly because it’s pretty unbelievable, but ‘believability’ never stopped Jerry Springer from reporting a story, and it won’t stop me! Besides, I promised myself that if we ever made it out of this situation with all limbs intact, I’d write about it. So here goes.

It was at that moment, that exact moment, that the lions, all five lions, began, get ready, to circle the jeep!

(Percussionist throws his drumsticks in the air, screams like a eight-year-old girl, and runs away.)

Let’s recap: we’re stuck in Masai Mara with a dead car battery and a pride of five lions circling our car. It was anyone’s guess as to what would happen next. Would my father-in-law continue to laugh in the face of danger? Would my mother-in-law, expert spotter, notice the two vultures flying in circles above our jeep? Would Julie ever return to being the person I married (“There’s a bug 400 feet away! Kill it! Kill it!”)? Would I ever resume a normal breathing pattern?

All jokes aside, this was very bad. C’mon, LIONS CIRCLING THE JEEP?!? Surely, THIS would be grounds for a Fear Nothinger to cry out “Principles Schminciples!” and start Fearing! Think again. Amazingly, my father-in-law remained calm and tried to reassure us (“I’ve got it all under control”) while my mother-in-law attempted to get our minds off the situation with some light conversation (“Look in that tree! Is that a black-billed sniffle sniveler?”). Even Julie kept her cool and showed a familiar softer side (“I think we could cut back on the Charmin”).

Amazing. Here’s a situation that would send Crocodile Dundee back to his trailer for a Scotch and Dasani and yet my insanely brave family members continued to fear nothing. I was impressed. And I wasn’t the only one. The lions also seemed impressed, or just bored, because they walked away from the jeep and returned to their buffalo buffet. And then, another miracle happened: my father-in-law turned the key and the jeep came back to life.

“Now wasn’t that fun,” my father-in-law asked as we drove away from the lions and back to the lodge.

I’m happy to report that was the last lion encounter we had in Kenya. In fact, the wildlife we saw thereafter was an assortment of giraffe, monkeys, zebras and other animals that, while exotic and beautiful, don’t send your pulse shooting to triple digits. No question about it, these animals were much more my speed. Like Rob the Cow, for example, which brings me back to the matter of how one goes about getting a cow named after them.

Truth is, it’s all who you know. The villagers in Sauri are extremely grateful to my in-laws for the countless resources (food, electricity, Coca-Cola) they’ve introduced to the village. And rather than giving a Hallmark card, the villagers show their appreciation by naming animals after you and your loved ones. So, long story short, the villagers named the cow “Rob” out of gratitude to my in-laws for their hard work, assistance, and for passing on valuable knowledge about soil science. Plus, they know better than to tick off the guy who caught a shark with his bare hands.

PHILADELPHIA, PA-

The story you are about to read is true. First, some background. A few years ago, I made my living exclusively as a freelance writer. During this time, I wrote for a variety of clients—from Time Warner who owns everything to a printing company in Blue Ridge, Georgia that didn’t even own a telephone (amazingly, they were the only client I’ve ever had that paid in full and on time). Anyway, the hardest part of being a freelance writer—other than trying to cope with the constant soul-destroying anxiety of whether or not you’ll pay your rent that month—is landing an interview for a gig. And that’s where our story begins.

—–

FADE IN.

EXT. APARTMENT BUILDING
It’s February in Philadelphia and this high rise, which looks startlingly like the building from “Good Times,” is blanketed in snow.

INT. APARTMENT
Even more depressing than the outside of the building is this apartment: tiny, cramped, and sterile. The walls of the 500 sq. ft. unit are closing in on ROB, early 30s, unshaven and, as a result of the long Philadelphia winter, pasty white. The phone rings. The caller is male with an incredible Russian accent.

ROB
Hello?

RUSSIAN MAN (Off Screen)
You answered ad. How soon you be here?

ROB
I answered a few ads. Are you from Craig’s List?

RUSSIAN MAN (Off Screen)
You be here in twenty minutes.

INT. BATHROOM – LATER
Desperately trying to make himself presentable, Rob splashes water on his hair and plucks away at a straggly unibrow. Disgusted by his pasty complexion, he takes a bottle of his wife’s Self Tanner, squeezes a comically large glob into his hands, and begins smearing it all over his face.

EXT. CENTER CITY – DAY
Rob, his skin a ridiculous shade of dark orange, stands on the sidewalk, staring at the unmarked building in front of him.

ROB
This can’t be right.

INT. BUILDING – CONTINUOUS
It’s a very long, poorly lit hallway. Ahead, a piece of white paper showing a crudely drawn arrow, hangs on a wall. Rob continues walking and comes to a glass door that’s been blackened out. He opens it and walks inside.

INT. OFFICE – CONTINUOUS
There is clearly some type of business going on here, but exactly what type is unknown. A black leather sofa is pressed against a mirrored wall. A SECRETARY, Russian, not a day over 18, her curvaceous body stuffed in a tight, plastic dress, sits behind a metallic silver desk.

ROB
Hi, I’m Rob Bloom.

SECRETARY
We’ve been expecting you. Sit.

Rob sits on the couch. Meanwhile, an attractive, muscular man who towers over six feet tall, struts in the office and down a hallway. Shortly thereafter, two gorgeous women with big hair, big lips and big breasts, both well over six feet, walk down the same hallway. Suddenly KURT, 35, tall, muscular, his black hair pulled into a ponytail, walks up. He speaks in a thick Russian accent.

KURT
We spoke on phone. I am Kurt. Come.

Rob follows Kurt down a long hallway filled with many doors. As they walk, Rob tries to glimpse into some of the rooms along the way. In one, he sees an attractive woman, wearing only a trench coat and spiked high heels, lying on a couch and talking into a video camera.

KURT
Through here.

Rob enters a room with floor to ceiling mirrors and a ceiling covered in soundproof foam. Kurt sits in a tall chair and motions for Rob to take the couch. He does and sinks like a stone into the cushions.

KURT
Drink?

ROB
No, I’m fine. Thanks.

Kurt says nothing and continues staring at Rob. Suddenly, he begins shouting instructions in Russian. Moments later, the Secretary enters carrying a tray with a coffee pot and two empty cups. She places the tray on a table beside Kurt who has yet to take his eyes off Rob. She leaves, closing the door behind her. Kurt takes the pot and fills both cups to the top.

KURT

Drink.

ROB
What is it?

KURT
Like coffee.

KURT (raising his glass)
To your future.

They drink. Rob takes a sip and begins coughing furiously.

KURT
Problem?

Rob, tears streaming down his cheeks, shakes his head no.

KURT
Good.

Taking the pot, Kurt pours more “coffee” into Rob’s cup.

KURT
We drink.

Rob, now sweating, takes another sip and again, goes into a coughing fit. He places the cup down on the table beside him and wipes his dripping brow.

ROB
Whew, it’s a bit hot in here, huh?

Kurt says nothing. Rob laughs nervously as sweat—and self tanner—run down his face.

KURT
Enough games. Why you want job?

ROB
Well, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this job is.

Rob’s sweating is now out of control. Also out of control is the self tanner, which continues to ooze and has begun to absorb through Rob’s shirt. (WRITER’S NOTE: Yes, I applied the tanner to my neck, chest, and arms. I wanted it to look natural, okay? Who are you to judge me?!?)

The combination of tanner and sweat has caused large orange/brown patches to appear everywhere—Rob’s armpits, stomach, and, of course, in the form of two dinner plate-sized circles around his nipples. Kurt remains stone faced. Suddenly, he begins shouting in Russian. Moments later, TIFFANY, Russian, mid 40s, blonde, busty, and also well over six feet, enters the room. Dressed in a skintight leopard-print leotard, Tiffany is equal parts James Bond villain and animatronic figure.

TIFFANY
I am Tiffany.

Rob stands up to greet Tiffany who dwarfs him. They shake hands and Rob winces at her strength.

KURT
Sit.

Tiffany and Kurt stare at Rob who’s a mess with streaks of orange and brown running down his cheeks. Slowly, they raise their coffee cups and begin to drink. Slowly. The temperature in the room seems to have gone up ten degrees and the mirrored walls are starting to fog. Kurt removes a cigarette from his front shirt pocket and places it, slowly, between his lips. He hands a lighter to Tiffany who leans over—way over—to light the cigarette. When she does, Rob gets a long look at her plastic surgeon’s handiwork. Still, no one speaks. Rob, who is now drenched in sweat and tanner, fidgets nervously in his chair. He wipes his soaked forehead, making gigantic discolored streaks across his face. Kurt passes the cigarette to Tiffany who takes a long drag. Meanwhile, the silence continues.

ROB
So…what exactly do you do here?

Like a volcano erupting, Kurt and Tiffany explode into a tirade of Russian, literally screaming at one another. Tiffany is screaming and waving her arms in the air while Kurt, his face beet red with anger, does the same. The look on Rob’s face says it all: he’s wondering a) how in the hell he’s going to get out of here and b) how he can possibly convey this story in writing. Then, as quickly as the volcano erupted, it stops. Silence. Kurt and Tiffany stand from their chairs and stare down at Rob. Finally, Kurt smiles.

KURT
We let you know.

FADE OUT.

—–

In case you’re wondering:

No, I didn’t get the job (or find out what the job was, for that matter).

No, I haven’t used self tanner since.

No, I didn’t respond when Kurt e-mailed me six months ago, asking if I was available to meet about an emergency project.

Today’s story comes from the “Things that could only happen to me” file. Previous entries in this popular series include:

  • I’m 16 years old, it’s summer in Orlando, and I’m working the register at a retail store. A heavyset female customer pays for her items by unbuttoning her blouse, reaching into her bra, and producing a large, sweaty wad of cash.

I think I’m dying. Okay, maybe not dying exactly, but definitely in need of an oxygen tank. Meanwhile, these guys are standing around in their short shorts and florescent mesh tank tops looking like they could go another three miles.

In what could only be described as a historic effort, I just completed a 5K. I say historic because it’s the first time in history that a Bloom not only signed up for an athletic competition but actually paid to do so. See, prior to today, I happily subscribed to the age-old Bloom philosophy (circa 1946, Brooklyn) of “why run unless you’re being chased?” You have to admit it’s a good point. I mean, this is supposed to feel good?

The backstory: my wife Julie and I booked a trip to the Grand Canyon. The trip is a few months away but we thought it’d be fun to buy a guidebook and learn what one can expect from a visit to the giant hole. After flipping through a few photos, it became perfectly clear what we could expect: sweating.

The people in these photos were nothing like us. For one thing, they were all about 6 feet tall and incredibly tan. What’s more, they genuinely seemed to love the outdoors (NOTE: My beef isn’t with the outdoors itself. Just bug spray, the way your skin smells after you put on bug spray, and the lack of TiVo access). Anyway, there they were in their flannel shirts and hiking boots, exploring one of our nation’s greatest treasures (no offense to Bea Arthur), and all together looking very, very fit. It soon became clear to Julie and me that if we were going to make the most out of the Canyon, we needed to:

a) get in better shape.
b) invest in self-tanner.

And so our quest to get in shape began (not to be confused with previous quests of the same name, which incidentally date back to the last millennium). We started by asking each other “what’s our first move?”—a reasonable question we could’ve answered had our mouths not been filled with pizza. The next morning however, we got serious. And that’s when, in a moment that could only be classified as pure insanity, we signed up for a 5K that was only two weeks away.

It takes guts to jump into something like that. It takes stupidity to do it when the race is part of the Bryn Mawr Running Club, a local group who runs, get this, for the fun of it. We had two weeks to prepare. Julie did this by running on a treadmill five days a week. I took the less conventional, albeit more creative, route of humming the score from “Rocky,” hoping that I could somehow conjure some of Rock’s fighting spirit without having to do, well, anything that resulted in sweating.

Two weeks later, Julie had run roughly twelve miles. I, on the other hand, had come up with roughly twelve reasons not to run the race (Reason #8: Running Sucks). The day of the race arrived. We pulled up to the running park and I instantly felt like I did in summer camp when I’d be standing on top of the high dive, looking down at the pool waaaaay below, scared out of my mind. The only difference there was that all the other kids were just as terrified as I was. Here, at the scene of the race, I was surrounded by real runners who were, you’ll love this, running a mile just to warm up! I had a bad feeling.

The clock was ticking down. While most used this time to stretch and talk strategy (“I’m gonna weave through the post and then, WHOOSH, I’m gonna find the pocket!”), I had more important thoughts racing through my mind (“Didn’t we pass a Starbucks on the drive over?”). Suddenly, it was time to race. A man with a megaphone assembled the herd to the starting line and, I’ve got to admit, for a brief moment, my feeling of dread had vanished and I was genuinely excited. “Who cares if I’m not a runner,” I thought. “We’re all one big group here!”

A siren sounded and, no kidding, the next thing I remember is seeing a cartoonish blur fly past me. It’s possible that at one point I, quite literally, ate someone’s dust. I can’t really describe what happened next, namely because my brain stopped forming memories after I got lapped by a middle aged guy with a portable oxygen tank. What I do remember, however, is forcing myself to keep going. So did Julie. And eventually, we crossed the finish line together. And while I’d like to end this by saying I learned something from the experience, the honest-to-goodness truth is that it was slightly less fun than undergoing lengthy and unnecessarily invasive dental surgery. Now where’s that guy with the oxygen tank?

Turns out that the resolution I’ve made for the New Year is the #1 most common resolution made among Americans, the coveted 18-34 demographic, and comedy writers named Rob. That’s right; this year I resolve to never again let a man pin me to a table and violently twist my head around in circles so I end up looking like the girl from “The Exorcist.”

“But Rob,” you say, “You’ve made this resolution before. What are you going to do to actually keep it this year?” Simple: I’m not going to fly. That’s how this whole mess started anyway. See, a few weeks ago, my wife Julie and I spent way too long at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. Now the airline will tell you that this was due to a problem with the plane’s ice shield thingamabob thingie. Of course, I know the real reason I wound up sleeping on the floor at Gate 31, which is that the Gods of Air Travel absolutely hate Rob Bloom and therefore take every opportunity to keep him at airports for ridiculously long periods of time, thus ensuring he’ll contract more germs than he would by French kissing a toilet seat at Grand Central Station.

Hence my sore throat or, as I liked to refer to it, “OOOOOOW!” This was easily the world’s worst sore throat. Ever. Imagine for a moment that you just gargled razor blades and grapefruit juice and then scraped the inside of your throat with sandpaper. Get the picture? Yeah, you’d be lucky to get off that easy.

So with a sore throat that hurt every time I was foolish enough to swallow, or do something really boneheaded like breathe, I decided to take action. I placed my throat in the “ignore it and it will go away” department—right beside our broken heater and the red Tupperware container in the fridge that’s been there so long that neither Julie or I can remember what’s in it—and went on my way.

Shockingly, ignoring it didn’t make my throat feel better. In fact, the pain, like a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, only got worse as time went on. So after a week, I buckled down and called my doctor…who couldn’t see me for four days. Desperate for help, I logged on to my insurance company’s website and found another provider in the area. They could see me that afternoon (WARNING SIGN 1).

The doctor’s office looked less like a medical suite and more like the set of a bad (as opposed to a good) porno film. Jazz muzak was playing, there were a half dozen of those little Zen sand boxes with the tiny rakes, and, sniff, sniff, was that incense burning? A female patient walked up to the receptionist and said, “see you next week.” Then two other patients did the same thing (WARNING SIGN 2).

After a few minutes, the nurse called my name and I followed her down a long hallway to the exam room. Along the way I saw three people—three very healthy-looking people—sitting side by side, with IVs hooked up to their arms. (WARNING SIGN 3). But that was nothing compared to what happened next.

I swear what you are about to read is true.

NURSE: What brings you here today?
ME: I think I might have strep.
NURSE: Take off your shoes.
ME: Do you want to look at my throat?
NURSE: We don’t have the tools for that. The doctor doesn’t believe in them. Now take off your shoes.

And, for some reason, I did. She asked me to lie down on the table and again, for some reason, I did. Then she began massaging my feet. And then my legs. Then my thighs. She must’ve noticed the look on my face (you know, the “whatinthehell are you doing?” look) and said, “you seem tense. Didn’t you get a cleanse last time?” (WARNING SIGN 4).

“Last time? I’ve never been here before.”
“How did you find us?”
“My insurance company’s website.”
“Do you know what type of doctor’s office this is?”
“Family practice, right?”
“I’ll be right back.”

As I lay there on table, my shoes off, I tried to make sense of not only what had just happened but also wondering what was going to happen next. I didn’t have too much time to think. The door flung open and in walked the doctor. Standing well over 6 feet and weighing at least five Mary-Kate Olsens, he looked down at me.

“You’ve got a low grade fever. 99 or 100.”
“You can tell that just be looking at me?”
“I’m a doctor. Stay still.”

Then Giant Doctor sprung into action. He flipped me over, jabbed his elbow into my back, and pressed down with all his weight. My spine popped like it was bubble wrap. Then he flipped me over and snapped my neck, all the while telling me that my clogged auras had caused my sore throat and this cleansing would heal me by releasing my auras (WARNING SIGNS 4-85).

A long 30 seconds later, the aura cleansing was over; as was my self-respect. “You’ll be feeling better tomorrow,” he said as he left the room. I didn’t. But I did feel better a few days after that when I went to a different doctor and got a prescription for an antibiotic.

And that’s why I’ve made the resolution to avoid doctors who pound my body the way Rocky Balboa pounds a dead cow. I know it’s a lofty one but I’m optimistic I can keep it. Just as long as I stay away from this doctor. And airports.

Beard

By Rob Bloom

Humor

So I’m growing a beard. I’m not sure how I feel about it, to tell you the truth, and it’s not just because my beard hasn’t come in all the way. See, I’ve got all these splotchy patches—parts of my face where there should be beard but isn’t—so to the casual observer it looks like I’m either midway through transforming into a werewolf or I’ve been making out with a lawnmower.

But that’s not the big problem. My real concern is that, well, I’m just not sure I’m a Beard Guy. Ever since the Supreme Court passed its landmark judgment (Man v. Razor, 1964), Beard Guys have been running rampant: Paul Bunyan, Chuck Norris, Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments.” These are Real Men. You know the type: forearms like Popeye, wardrobe like the Brawny guy, and hairy. All over. Seriously, if you were to see one of these guys at the beach, you’d swear they were wearing a cardigan. Course you’d never say anything because you value your dental work too much. Now as much as Real Men love to fight, it’s really only foreplay for their real passion: looking under the hood of cars. What are they looking for? Who knows! Whatever it is though, I pity it because the moment the Real Man finds it—RIP!—that part’s as good as gone.

Macho man? You betcha!

Another thing about Real Men is that they’re low maintenance. But if they did decide to shave for some reason (i.e. they’d run out of bears to wrestle that day), you wouldn’t find them using a pansy Gillete Fusion razor or slapping on some Nivea Aftershave Balm. Hell, Real Men just whip out their switchblades and, in a real manly way, scrape those pesky hairs off one by one. Incidentally, they’d do this while looking under the hood.

Of course, Real Men are only half of the Beard Guy population. The other half’s made up of Intellectual Men, otherwise known as “the beard stroking community.” Seriously, these guys cannot help but stroke their beard while talking. It’s great, though. Not only does the beard complement their intellectual mystique, it also covers up, what I can only imagine is, a nasty dermatological condition that can only be soothed by constant rubbing. But in all seriousness, you can’t help but be intimidated by Intellectual Men. They do the New York Times crossword puzzle (the Sunday edition!) for fun and use terms like “hypertensive encephalopathy” in everyday conversation. They’re also extremely cultured. When out to dinner with Intellectual Men you can expect to hear the following phrases:

a) “This Riesling is absolutely transplendid.”
b) “Do I detect a hint of fennel in this dish?”
c) “Honestly, Bogata is so underwhelming this time of year.”

On the contrary, you will never, upon any circumstance, hear Intellectual Men say any of the following:

a) “So, who do you think will win ‘Project Runway’ this season?”
b) “Did you catch that battle royal steel cage match last night on ‘Raw’?”
c) “So THAT’S why this call this place Hooters, eh?”

This is my problem. I don’t fit into any of these ridiculous and narrowly defined categories that are for entertainment purposes only and in no way indicate either my death wish or my desire to receive angry e-mails from hoards of bearded men—excuse me, bearded persons—who found the above stereotypes to be insulting. Take it easy on me, all right? I’m going through a beard crisis right now.

So what’s a guy to do? Shave or not shave? My wife, the bearer of kisses, is not in favor of the scruff. My parents, the bearers of guilt, made an initial effort to support my beard with comments like “It looks…interesting!” and “Well, you certainly look…different!” but in the past few days, they’ve let their true feelings slip: “You have such a nice face…why cover it up with an ugly beard?”

And then there’s my take on it, which is, quite simply, I feel like an imposter. Like when somebody asks me who I think will win the Super Bowl and, in an effort to fit in without revealing the fact that I know absolutely nothing about sports, respond “The Yankees.” The fact of the matter is that I’m just not a facial hair guy and yet, here I am, walking around, pretending to be a member of Beard Guy society—knowing full well that I can be discovered at any given moment for the fraud that I am. It’s ridiculous. And that is why I must shave the beard! I must be true to myself! I must do this for ME! Well, and for my wife. After all, she’s the bearer of kisses.

Let me begin by saying that YES, I am aware that what I’m about to say sounds crazy. And not just any kind of crazy. We’re talking Stephen King nuthouse crazy—a room with padded walls and a warden named Large Marge who goes about 6’6” and 250 and hasn’t smiled since the Reagan administration, partly because her moustache gets in the way and partly because that tick of hers prevents any form of facial expression. Nevertheless, here goes: I am being attacked by the Pillow People.

Let me explain. About two years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Kenya (motto: “Angelina Jolie slept here!”). We prepared for the trip in the standard way one prepares for a trip to a country where the insects are the size of racehorses and outnumber people 200:1.

1. Getting several dozen immunizations, all of which, despite the doctor’s promise of “this won’t hurt a bit,” hurt like hell.
2. Buying various industrial-strength bug sprays (the kinds that have skulls on the labels and names like “Zap It!” and “Kill ‘Em Suckers!”).
3. Familiarizing ourselves with African culture through intense cultural research (read: we drank Kenyan coffee and watched “Out of Africa,” which incidentally is the LONGEST movie of all time).

Also, because the flight to Kenya takes about two days—or three viewings of “Out of Africa”—the doctor thought it’d be a good idea to prescribe the sleeping pill Ambien. I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials. A peaceful, soothing piano melody plays as we see a woman enjoying the most peaceful, soothing sleep of her life. We know this to be the case because an announcer, in his most peaceful, soothing voice, tells us that Ambien will give you the best darn night’s sleep you’ve ever had—granted you don’t experience any of the common side effects such as grogginess, allergic reactions, and the sudden desire to operate heavy machinery. Oh, and let’s not forget hallucinations.

Knowing this, I had second thoughts when the doctor pulled out his prescription pad. Personally, I thought it’d be easier to sleep by packing a portable DVD player and watching “Out of Africa.” But once I weighed those side effects (nausea, abdominal cramping, dizziness caused by slow-moving plot), I knew I’d be better off with the pill. And just like that, I invited the Pillow People into my world.

INCIDENT ONE

We’re sitting on the plane, en route to Kenya. With a stomach full of undercooked turkey strips, I pop my first Ambien. I konked out thirty minutes later (I know this because that’s how long it took the flight attendant to clean up the mess in the aisle, courtesy of the infant in 12E whose parents, no doubt, will have second thoughts the next time someone suggests they bring their baby on a transcontinental flight). So I slept. And then suddenly, according to my wife, I screamed and threw my pillow on the ground. 



HER: “What’s wrong?”



Scared out of my mind, I couldn’t respond. She tried again. 



HER: “What is it?”


ME: “THE PILLOWWWWW!” 


HER: “What are you talking about?” 


ME: “IT’S TRYING TO EAT ME!”

My wife laughed, said I was having a bad dream, and told me to go back to sleep. Terrified of the man-eating pillow, I stayed awake the rest of the flight.

INCIDENT TWO: A YEAR LATER 

After working non-stop for months, I was putting the finishing touches on a screenplay. When I finally finished around one in the morning, I was too revved up to sleep. Enter Ambien. I was just about to drift off when I heard something: whispering. My eyes popped open and scanned the room. There they were, on top of the dresser: two throw pillows…TALKING TO ONE ANOTHER. I couldn’t make out the whispers but it was clear they were plotting something. I don’t know, maybe they were angry at me for ripping the tag off the mattress a few months back. Whatever the case, they were pissed. And out to get me.

INCIDENT THREE: LAST WEEK

You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson by now. But it was late, I was overtired, and with a big presentation the next day, I really needed a good night’s sleep. So I took an Ambien and experienced the most dramatic hallucination yet. First, the shoes on the floor turned into alligators. Then, the air conditioning vent morphed into a giant mouth and tried to eat me. And, of course, the pillows.

* The whispering was louder.
* The sounds more menacing.
* And the pillows were growing at an alarming rate, like Popeye’s biceps after a can of spinach or the construction of a new Starbucks franchise.

My wife stopped me just as I was jumping out of bed to grab the nearest scissors. So, long story short, I’m finished with Ambien. And the next time I’m tossing and turning and in dire need of something powerful to send me into a deep sleep, I know what I’ll do. Screw the side effects, I’m watching “Out of Africa.”