Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tales of a 4th String Nothing

Dear friends,

The Hard Taco song for December is called, "Suds." As a good meal is matched with the right wine, music should be paired with concordant activities. This song is best enjoyed when bathing, drinking, or drowning.

The Hustler Award
I always tried to avoid sports that involved touching people. Most of the physical contact I had with my schoolmates went like this: One of them would punch me, and in return I would bite his arm and pull his hair.  As my penchant for biting and hair-pulling became widely-known, the punching tapered off. I had finally achieved this happy state of equilibrium when I received the calamitous news that I had to try out for the 8th grade basketball team or forfeit my allowance. My parents wanted me to be "well-rounded." More specifically, they wanted to enrich me with the opportunity to fail at lots of different things.

Failure was inevitable. I had skipped kindergarten, and was a late-bloomer anyway. At 4'10", the only person on the court who was shorter than me was the littlest cheerleader (the one who got thrown). As my classmates were quick to remind me, she, at least, could jump. To the chagrin of both the coach and me, he wasn't allowed to cut anyone from the basketball team. Instead, we were divided into castes, or "strings." The 1st stringers played most of the game, and the rest of us would split their leavings.  Unfortunately for me, one's "string" level was inversely related to one's Tanner stage

1st string (Tanner Stage 5):  Mr. Conforti, the coach, buys you a Bayside Bulls warm-up jacket with his own money. 
2nd string (Tanner Stage 4):  You only play for 15 minutes per game, but you still get your own locker during away games.
3rd string (Tanner Stage 2-3): You only play during the cheerleaders' cigarette break. The coach calls your parents and talks to them about better property taxes in other school districts. 

I was on the 4th string, a classification invented to describe myself and my friend Jason. Jason had congenitally small fingers on his dribbling hand, and he was ahead of me on the depth chart. For me to see any playing time, two criteria had to be met. 1) Our team had to be ahead by more than 15 points by the closing minutes of the third period and 2) a player ahead of me had to be "injured." In eighth grade basketball, no one ever really got hurt, but sometimes a boy would suddenly throw up during play. As peculiar as this seems, this happened regularly and without warning. When it did, the "injured" player would be escorted to the locker room, and everyone would get to sub up to the next level. If the right combination of people was vomiting, my number might be called. 

When I did come in off the bench, I always gave it everything I had. I never made a basket, but if I got to play for two minutes, I would spend that two minutes biting the arms and pulling the hair of every opposing player on the court. I was a competitor.

At the end of the season, Mr. Conforti brought us all back to his classroom and thanked us for a great year. He announced that Lamont Brown was the winner of the MVP Award, and we all cheered.  

Then Mr. Conforti surprised everyone in the room by singling me out for the "Hustler Award." I can't remember the exact words he used, but essentially, the Hustler Award was granted to the player who kept showing up for practice despite obvious futility. He said that sometimes he would look down to the far end of the bench and see my hopeful eyes looking back at him as if to say, "Are you gonna put me in, Coach?" When I looked at him like that, he said to a roomful of my peers, he would get a little choked up.

So Lamont Brown and I both left that classroom holding shiny plastic basketball players. His was a portent of future success in high school hoops. Mine was a charity trophy, achieved through a scrappy ineptitude that evoked a baffling emotional incontinence in my coach. Paradoxically, it was both one of the proudest and most embarrassing moments of my life, and incidentally, it would be the only sports trophy I would ever get.

Someday, when I'm forcing my own children to participate in activities they hate, I will show them the trophy. "Your dad was a hustler," I'll tell them with quavering voice, "a well-rounded hustler. So if you don't practice your clarinet right now, I will bite your arm."

With warmest regards,

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tough as Boots

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for November is called "Alpha Mom." A parody of this song will one day be featured in "Guitar Hero - Al Yankovic North American Tour." I'm hoping for either "Alfalfa Mom" or "Balfour Aplomb," the latter being a reference to the great composure of the Englishman who facilitated Israel becoming a Jewish state. I'm just throwing those out there. The ball is in your court now, Weird Al.

Anti-Semitism in the Upper Peninsula and Why It's My Fault

Like most small towns, Houghton, Michigan didn't have a particularly robust Jewish community in the early 1980s. When you're the only Jewish kid in school, you have to be tough as boots. I learned early on that if a classmate said something hurtful like, "You killed Jesus," the correct response was to gnash my teeth and scream, "That's right I killed him! That's right I killed the son of God! Who's next?!" As the saying goes, a lamb has to grow claws to survive among rams.

When we lived in Houghton I had a neighborhood friend named Wilhelm Greuer, and I absolutely idolized him. He was a year older than me, and by the age of 8 he was printing and distributing a home made newspaper, The Houghton Bugle. The Bugle featured Wilhelm's opinion pieces ("Walter Mondale is Way Rad") and my own guerilla journalism ("School Closes on Certain Days When There's Lots of Snowing Sometimes Sometimes.") Wilhelm was also responsible for the comics section, but since we didn't know how to print anything other than text, they were more like miniature screenplays:

(Charlie Brown and Lucy are standing. In the background there is a straight line, representing the horizon.)
CHARLIE BROWN: Lucy, how old are you?
LUCY: A woman never reveals her age.
CHARLIE BROWN: What year were you born?
LUCY: 1979.
CHARLIE BROWN: Then you must be five.
LUCY: You blockhead!

I liked to spend as much time as I could at Wilhelm's house. When I wasn't scouring the Wall Street Journal for headlines that we could plagiarize, I would run my hands over their furniture, hoping to pick up loose pieces of his sister Frederika's straight blonde hair, which I had an inexplicable desire to touch.

Wilhelm and Frederika were first generation German-Americans, and based on our limited discussions about World War II, it was clear that their family didn't really buy in to the whole blame game thing. Wilhelm once told me that the Holocaust, while regrettable, happened because the Jews kind of got in Hitler's way.

Okay, I guess that makes sense. Wilhelm was older than me and smarter than me, after all, and I didn't see any reason to doubt his logic. Why point fingers? Hitler was inconvenienced, one thing led to another, some unfortunate stuff happened, and now everything is fine, here we are, and isn't that Frederika's hairbrush over there?

Really, the only thing that came between myself and the Greuer family was my own gluttony. Mrs. Greuer kept a silver canister of fancy German Gummi candy out on their living room table. I asked about it politely, and she told me that it was imported and that I was not allowed to have any.

The phrase "not allowed to have any" needed further clarification. At my house, leaving candy anywhere it could be seen, smelled, or reached by stacking chairs and climbing on top of the refrigerator was an open invitation to eat it. If my parents had candy that wanted to live to see the sun go down, they would place it in a safe deposit box and hide the key in a bee hive. 

Meanwhile, the Greuer's weren't just displaying a 3-pack of SweeTARTS. This was luscious, multicolored imported Gummi candy, in a silver canister no less. I knew it was off limits. I knew that if I stole the candy, I would be reinforcing whatever stereotypes I assumed they had about me, but in the end, it didn't matter. I pinched those German Gummis, twice in fact, and Mrs. Greuer caught me both times. So yes, dear EVERY JEWISH PERSON NORTH OF THE MACKINAC BRIDGE, I am the reason none of your neighbors like you.

The next year we moved to Milwaukee, presumably so my family could escape the stigma of my sticky fingers. There were plenty of Jewish kids in my new school, but we lived in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. The closest thing to anti-Semitism that I experienced was when one of the McDevitt boys would drive by me and yell "Read the Torah!" out the window of his car. Then he would turn around in a cul-de-sac, and drive past me the other way, yelling, "Read the Torah!" just to reinforce his point. I wasn't really sure if that was intended to be an insult or paternal advise, akin to "Stay in school! Get a library card!" But read the Torah? Didn't he know I wasn't old enough? Maybe because I was so tough as boots he assumed that I was 13 instead of 9.

Too Dirty for Apple
When the newest Hard Taco album became available on iTunes about a month ago, I was startled to discover that the iTunes Store had slapped the "Parental Advisory" sticker on the album and deemed 18 of the 19 songs to be Explicit. Boo! (As in "Boo, I'm scary!" Not as in "Boo, I'm crying!" It was just Halloween, after all, not Valentine's Day.) What makes these songs explicit? The leading theory, dear EVERYONE WHOSE EMAIL ADDRESS I KNOW, is that they are too sincere and charmingly personal for anyone under 40.

With warmest regards,

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Fiestaware-Induced Superpowers

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for October is called, "Muscle Memory." I strongly encourage you to use this as your audition song on "So You Think You Can Dance." Rest assured, none of the other contestants will be dancing to my father's trombone playing, and that itself should be enough to get you to the final 8.

Infertility: The Consequence of Unavoidable Actions

Mr. Feltyberger asked our AP Physics class to break up into pairs and stand with our partner at one of the lab benches. At each station was an object; a rubber duck, the mantle from a camping lantern, a rusty thermometer, a shapeless lump of metal. Ethan and I chose a station and inspected what appeared to be a piece of a broken plate with a glossy orange finish. Mr Feltyberger announced, "One of the objects in this room is radioactive. I will go from station to station with a Geiger counter and we will use it to find out which one."

I was immediately disappointed. There was no way that my broken orange plate was radioactive. I was 100% sure. Jyothi Vinnakota had laid claim to the shapeless lump of metal, and she was already smiling, because everyone knew she had chosen the radioactive object, and the rest of us were wasting our time. Stupid radio-inert plate shard.

So I did what any 16-year-old boy would do with fragment of dinnerware that was decidedly not radioactive.

I put it down my pants.

This was quickly followed by a loud announcement to my lab partner, "Oh no! I accidentally put the radioactive plate down my pants!" I placed my hands on my cheeks and shook my head from side to side with mouth agape in feigned terror. I was confident that this was a pretty accurate impersonation of a man with an object in his pants that was emitting dangerous doses of radiation. Did Ethan find this hilarious? Yes he did.

Meanwhile, Mr. Feltyberger held the Geiger counter up to the box of fertilizer. No sound. Mr. Feltyberger held the Geiger counter up to the shapeless lump. No sound. "Huh," I said, and removed the plate from my pants.

The rusty thermometer? No sound. The Geiger counter continued its voiceless journey from station to station. At each object, the tension heightened, as if Mr. Feltyberger were saying, "Duck..... duck...... duck....." The old coffee tin? No sound. When I looked down at my station I no longer saw a broken plate, but a shiny orange shard of doubt. Radioactive things are supposed to glow or at least make a subtle humming sound, right?

If you've never heard a Geiger counter, it sounds vaguely reminiscent of a DJ scratching out a beat on vinyl. When Mr. Feltyberger pointed it at my shard, the DJ went to town. I felt strangely itchy. I closed my eyes and imagined that the scratching was the sound of Run DMC bursting through the classroom door. As the beat started, the rappers stood back-to-back with their hands on their shoulders and started laying down rhymes...

DJ Run: Well they call me Run
DMC: And my name's Darryl
DJ Run: And your 501's are filled with... peril!
DMC: Cuz Sucka MC's gonna end up... sterile!
DJ Run: For dropping that nuke down your... apparel!
DMC: The orange glaze was uranium... laced!
DJ Run: So now you got ill with a nuclear...
Both: Waist!
Jam-Master Jay and Geiger Counter: Wik-wik-wik wikky wikky woo!

Mr. Feltyberger than explained that the reddish-orange Fiestaware got its distinctive color from depleted uranium. Obviously, it was not safe to eat off these plates, so the line had been discontinued in the early 70's.  

And so I spent the next 12 years of my life convinced that I would never sire a child, or at least one with an even number of nipples. Happily, this turned out to be a baseless fear, and when my kids were born with the traditional allotment of limbs and organs, I quickly blocked out the Fiestaware Incident.

Then yesterday, I was watching my children play. Scarlett was sitting on the floor and Malcolm walked over and sat in her lap. It was if they were stacking on top of each other, and they fit together almost too perfectly. I began to wonder, could it be that these children have… unusual aptitudes? Then I realized that all of those years I had been worried about the wrong thing. My children are not normal. They will never be like the other kids, because they are endowed with special, unnatural... plate powers.

With warmest regards,

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It Doesn't Take a Genie

Dear Friends,

    I am pleased to announce that a large box of new Hard Taco CDs is sitting in my kitchen, and like all things on God's brown Earth, it has a name. The box is called "box," and the album is called, “and then the training takes over…” The new disc is truly a sensual massage of all four of your senses.

(I warned you to stop using Zicam, but did you listen to me?)

   This CD features a handful of previously unreleased songs about GREAT AMERICAN WARS which will direct a relentless blitzkrieg on your remaining three senses.

(Seriously, why would you keep liquid nitrogen right next to your mouthwash and in an identical bottle?) 

   However, even without these exciting military-themed tunes, this CD is nothing less than a merciless steamrolling frenzied onslaught/assault on both of your senses.

(Just to clarify... you're wearing that blindfold just in case you happen upon a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey?)

Scarlett's Recording Debut
The Hard Taco song for September is called, "Roughhousing Robots." This is a milestone for us, because it is the first song in our oeuvre to feature vocals by a local up-'n'-comer, Scarlett London. You will be moved, touched, softened, disconcerted, placated, ruffled, and completely melted by her performance. Then you will hear her second line, and you will experience an entirely different set of emotions.

And now I will throw a bone to the majority of readers who scan the HT Digest looking for content that has nothing to do with music by presenting an fragment entitled:

The Startling Origins of Common Expressions

Common phrase: "Children are like sponges."
Original phrase: "Sponges are like children."
In 1849, the Lynchburg General Store began to market huggable sponges to young women who had been rendered infertile by malnutrition and weevils. The phrase "sponges are like children" became so engrained into to the vernacular that when child labor laws were ratified a decade later, it became illegal to mop up a spill with a sponge that was less than 16 years old. 

Common phrase: "It doesn't take a genius to know..."
Original phrase: "It doesn't take a genie to know..."
This expression became ubiquitous after a rash of magic lamp-finders squandered all three wishes by asking the genie to verify the following:
1. Inhaling poisonous fumes isn't the most healthy thing to do.
2. There is a problem when the "Check Engine" light comes on.
3. Meg Ryan might have had plastic surgery.

Common phrase: "Starve a fever, feed a cold."
Original phrase: "Starve a beaver, feed a toad."
The odds of surviving an illness in the 17th century were greatly increased by having ample firewood to keep warm. This expression built on the common misconception that beavers ate wood, and that toads ate beavers.

Common phrase: "No Skin off My Nose."
Original phrase: "No Skin on My Nose."
This is said to be an observation made by Joan of Arc shortly before her death, in reference to one of the more noticeable effects of being burned at the stake. For unclear reasons, the expression has taken on exactly the opposite meaning over time. Another example of this phenomenon is the phrase "Don't let the cat out of the bag," which originally was, "Don't! Let the cat out of the bag!"

Next month: the startling origin of the phrase, "When life gives you ovals, make Ovaltine."  

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Postcards from Panama, Part 1

The new Hard Taco Song for August: "Backup Torch Song" is ready to be enjoyed and feared. 

Dear Karen,

   Remember when you made me promise that if neither of us were married by August 2009, we should just give up looking for someone else and marry each other? I just happened to be near a calendar last night (at midnight) and realized that it is August 2009! I’ve been travelling all summer, but I will be back in the U.S. in a few weeks, and I thought maybe we could get together to laugh about that silly little promise we made in eighth grade, and how funny it is that we both remember it. I hope all is well.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

   Have you seen that YouTube video with the 4-year-old who plays the gong? She plays very fast, with a great deal of confidence. The fact that she’s so young makes it even more amazing. I know it has been a long time since we’ve talked, but I think I still know the kind of thing that you would find amazing.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

   I haven’t heard from you yet. What are you up to?! This is a picture of passenger ship I rode down the infamous Panama Canal today. The Captain told me that A) The average toll to take a ship through the Panama Canal is $54,000, and B) The lane with the attendant is actually quicker than the lane where you throw change in the basket. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve been sending these postcards to your parents’ house, because I’m not 100% sure I know where you live right now.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

  Did you know there is a psychiatric disease that is unique to Panamanians? They call it Almejaldulterio. (It is a masculine word even when a woman has the disease.) The afflicted person becomes convinced, despite reasonable evidence to the contrary, that a clam is wearing their clothes and aiming to replace them in the workplace and the wedding bed. Pilar told me about a movie (a thriller) in which a clam really is wearing this woman’s clothes, and nobody believes her because they think she has Almejalduterio. In case you were wondering, Pilar is a friend who I know because she works at the place I go to rent inner tubes.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

   The natural beauty here is amazing. I have never seen so many trees packed in so tightly. Pilar drives a Toyota pickup truck with flames painted on the back half of it. The flames make it look like the truck is backing up really fast. She needs a pickup truck for her job because she has to carry stacks of inner tubes upstream after people are done riding them. I am not telling you this to make you jealous. Interestingly, many people have commented to each other that she is quite attractive, but I just see her as a close friend.  Please write me back and acknowledge that you received the ocarina I sent you. It is nothing special, except that it was very expensive because it was made out of something called vegetable ivory. Hope you’re doing well!!! Please write back.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

   I still haven’t heard from you, and I’m wondering if it is because you’ve had second thoughts about keeping that promise you made on the evening of August 1, 1989. I’m positive that we promised each other that we would get married exactly twenty years later, because I wrote it down at the time. I’ve been thinking about how much you’d love Panama, especially because the people here are so vigilant about defending the rain forests. The objective is to minimize the impact on wildlife and their habitats. With that in mind, do you think we should just go ahead and have the wedding down here? I don’t care either way.

With warmest regards,

P.S. If you are already married to someone else, please let me know, because that would be totally fine with me. Just let me know.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Dystopia: [dis-toh-pi-a], n. a future in which loafers have no pennies

Dear Friends,

   I spent most of my early years in the icy shadow of the magnificent Quincy Mine, a defunct copper mine outside of Hancock, Michigan. The Quincy Mine closed its doors in 1945, but trust me, Honey, there are still plenty of copper deposits left in "Old Reliable." All it would take is someone, someone like you who already has a flashlight taped to his or her head, to ride the Quincy hoist elevator to the floor of the deepest shaft and pluck the loose copper nuggets off its sweet, fertile ore bed. 
   Wait…did you hear that? If I am not mistaken, that is the sound of coppertunity knocking.
   The Hard Taco song for July is called "The Quincy Steam Hoist." This song celebrates the Yooper’s dream, in which there are two saunas in every basement and the streets are once again paved with amygdaloid lower-grade strataform copper orebodies.*
Getting Down to Brass Tacks

   Rather, get down to this alarming fact: Without copper, there would be no brass tacks, which are a 70/30 copper/zinc alloy. Like fossil fuels or Vitamin Water, copper is a finite resource. We now have synthetic copper substitutes for most electrical applications, but musical science has not yet found a way to make a timpani without native copper. The popularity of the timpani is increasing at unsustainable rates in both India and China. Within 25 years, the earth's copper supply will be all but depleted, and within two generations there will be no more songs that go BAHM BOHM BAHM BOHM bubbita bubbita bubbita bubbita BOHM!
   If you think that a future without timpani music is grim/chilling, try to visualize a world without pennies. The U.S. one cent piece is only 2.5% copper, but this modest proportion is crucial to maintain the weight and the yaw of the coin. Those of us who wear penny loafers depend on a perfectly balanced penny with consistent yaw, parity, and drag. A penny with less than 2.5% copper, when inserted into the slit of one's Weejuns, disrupts the equilibrium, causing one to tumble about on the deck of one's pleasure boat.
   I pray every night that, before our copper surplus is gone, a hero will arise with a system of counterweighted argyles, chinos, and tennis sweaters that can compensate for penniless loafers. If they don't, I fear that our grandchildren will inherit a bleak tomorrow in which dreary closets are stocked with miserable brogues and tassel loafers.

With warmest regards,

*  Most Yoopers just dream of having roads that are paved, period.   

Monday, June 1, 2009

Smackdown: Natural Childbirth vs. Reality

 Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for June 2009 is called, "Denmark Needs Rock Stars." If you don't love this song instantly, check your control panel to make sure that the speakers aren't on mute.

Our Childbirth Class
The brochure uses a restaurant analogy to highlight the difference between the two Lamaze courses. There is a six day course, for couples "who want and need a tablecloth, real napkins, and real silverware." Then there is the half-day "drive-through" version of childbirth classes. We agree, drive-through sounds good.

When we arrive, we sit in a circle with about ten other couples and our instructor, Gretchen. The first thing Gretchen does is apprise us of her credentials. She is a mother of three who spent over 10 years as a lactation consultant. She is also a registered doula, which I'm pretty sure means she knows how to lead explorers around the Himalayas and carry their camping gear for them. I miss the rest of her introduction, because I'm imagining Gretchen explaining to a team of British adventurers that the mules refuse to go down that pass, because they sense a great evil there.

When I start paying attention again, it is only because I note an inkling of hostility between Gretchen and my wife.

Gretchen: The Lamaze method is about promoting wellness. Many women find interventions like painkillers and epidurals to be superfluous and really invasive. Doctors may try to pressure you into a troubling intervention when you're at your most vulnerable. I will teach you how to make informed choices and be politely assertive.

Lauren: I want to have an epidural.

Gretchen: And that's perfectly... I mean, that's certainly a choice some women make. But you should know that it's your right as a mother to empower yourself to avoid the routine use of unnecessary interventions as part of your transition to parenthood if that's what your inner wisdom guides you to do.

Lauren: I'm definitely getting an epidural. Like, as soon as I possibly can.

Gretchen: (gritting her teeth) Fine.

We are then handed a workbook. There are five chapters, which I would summarize as follows:
Chapter 1: In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Chapter 2: Pain medication during labor preemptively annuls any natural bond between mother and baby.
Chapter 3: If your inner wisdom is trying to tell you to give birth while squatting on a large rubber ball in your bathtub at home, listen to it! If your inner wisdom sounds like it's telling you it prefers a sterile hospital bed, you're not listening close enough.
Chapter 4: The health benefits of breast-feeding are doubled when it is done in public.
Chapter 5:  Commercial baby formula has been linked to autism and pediatric gambling problems.

Gretchen then tells us that the next activity is called, "The Alphabet of Support." The men go to one side of the room and the women to the other. I am handed a blank sheet of paper and a Sharpie and asked to scribe for our team. Our charge is to come up with a list of things that the husbands or boyfriends can do to show support during labor. We need one item starting with each letter of the alphabet, and we have 45 minutes to do this. It went like this:

A. Let's see. Affection. Answer her questions - questions she might have.

Applicators. Do women use applicators when they're in labor?

For B we can do Be Nice or Be Supportive.

I like Be Nice. Put that down. And let's put Massage for M.

C. Considerate. Show consideration,  or Consider her feelings. Or just be there for her Considerably.

C could also be talk about Church. 

Let's put Lamaze for L!

No, L should be Love. 

How about Labor, comma, help with?

Labor... help with.... got it. But we're still at D.

Seriously, I've done this before when my sister had her son. The best right answer foris Love. Are you going to change it?


D... Dahhh... Dehhh....

Druhhhh...Drum... Darm... Denmark. Danish! Bring her a Danish! 

As the morning winds down, we hear from a woman in our class named Meredith, who I can only describe as huffy. Her husband is a heavy, balding man with swatches of thick black neck hair bursting out around his collar, narrowly set eyes, and a look of learned helplessness on his face. "Isn't it true," Meredith says, "That people should just leave you alone after you have the baby? That new parents shouldn't have any visitors at all, even family, for a good 8-10 weeks?" 

Gretchen pauses and then says something about every woman making the choices that are right for her.

I glance at Meredith's sad puppy staring-at-the-floor husband and imagine the two of them taking swimming lessons. "Isn't it true," she would say, "that it's best for a wife to hold her husband's head underwater for a good 2-3 minutes after he stops struggling? That she should, at the very least, throw away his personal mail without letting him read it?"

And I'm thinking, I am so grateful for the woman I married. When our big day comes, I will make sure that she gets her pain medicines. I will definitely Be Nice, and I will definitely bring her a Danish.

With warmest regards,

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Best Lore in Canandia

Dear Friends,
The Hard Taco song for May is called, "Blankety Blank." Don't be afraid to listen to it at double speed. 

In my travels, I found myself deeply moved by the rich folklore tradition of our neighbors to the North.  For the digest this month, I am reprinting excerpts from my favorite compendium of Canadian folk legends ("Grandma, Where Do Igloos Come From?") and my favorite book of Canadian ghost stories ("The Bloody Puck").

The Newfoudland Bull Moose: Twenty miles west of St. John's, there is sinkhole that is believed to be the home of a spectral bull moose named San Yarnford. Once every hundred years, San Yarnford emerges from the recesses of his dank basin to let children stroke his antlers and to warn them of the perils of playing too close to sinkholes. 

The Leaning Trapper: There once was a trapper who roamed the vasty wilds of Labrador. He was a simple man, and he believed that iron snares were an indulgence. Instead, he would sleep at a 45 degree angle, propping his shoulders with a stick. Inevitably, a beaver would brush against the stick and knock it over, causing the sleeping trapper to fall on the animal. The more the beaver struggled, the sleepier and heavier the trapper would become. In honor of this legendary trapper, it is now customary for every trading post to be guarded by two sleeping men propped on sticks. 

The Silent Howls: A wealthy French furrier offered a woman nine pure white huskies for her hand in marriage. When she accepted, the huskies immediately set upon her, and tore fissures in her trunk and limbs. She slowly regained her constitution over many months, during which time her only companions were the wretched ice chiggers who spoon-fed her a slurry of nutrient plaster. When she was finally strong enough to lift her head, she slew the nine huskies and fashioned a fanny pack from their nine snow white dewlaps. If you walk the shores of Port Alice on a still night, you can still hear the spirits of the nine huskies, trying in vain to howl without their dewlaps.

The Wendigo: The Algonquian Indians believe that there are feral people with unnatural size who live in wooded areas and eat other people. It is believed that this is based loosely on the Winnebago Legend, in which the feral people park recreational vehicles in wooded areas and eat other people. 

The Purloined Skull: In the early days of McGill University, a heady young chess enthusiast wrote in the margins of his journal, "I have discovered a rook that can travel diagonally as well as linearly. I must share this with the scientific community at once before they com..." The last word trailed off at an angle, almost as if the author's skull had been taken mid-sentence. Nobody knows who purloined his skull. Was it an anatomy professor?  A spurned lover? A Fraternal Order of Ivy League Chess Reactionaries? Could I convince you that the true answer is... all three, working in cahoots?

The Golden Chin: A Micmac warrior lost his chin in battle, and replaced it with a chin of gold. His four younger brothers were envious of the golden chin and used guile to wrest it from him. The warrior saw through their deceit, however, and never removed his chin. One day, the youngest brother handed the warrior a piece of parchment enumerating the deeds of their ancestors. So afraid was the warrior that the document would blow away that he placed his golden chin on top of it as a paperweight. At once, the younger brother seized the chin, and ran off into the gulches. To commemorate his own folly, the humbled warrior commissioned a replacement chin made of Atlantic cod.

The Fox and the Magic Clasp: It is said that Glorious Jim the Prospector was tracking an elusive ingot through the marshes of Fort George when he came upon an axe wedged in a tree trunk. He knew that if he removed the axe, he would be crowned King of the Loggers, but he was not strong enough to do so. He stayed with the axe through the winter's night, neglecting shelter, neglecting food, and forgetting the precious ingot he had been following for so many days. When his fellow prospectors found his frozen body the next morning they gave him a traditional prospector burial, which consisted of sifting his remains through a pan. To this day, nobody knows why this legend is called "The Fox and the Magic Clasp."

With warmest regards,

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hot New Additions for Your Girl Scout Trophy Sash

Dear Friends,

   Assuming that you keep your iTunes playlist arranged alphabetically, and assuming that you're tired of ABBA, this may be the happiest day of your short life. Seconds from now, you will have access to the exhausting new jam from your favorite group, Aardtaco. Oh yes, little readers, this is not some puzzling brand of April Foolery. We are, in truth, creating new music under the moniker Aardtaco in an effort to appeal to our base. (I believe that our base consists mostly of pirates.)
   If you're thinking, "Toooooo cool!" I certainly can't stop you. To do so I would need to take mind control lessons and who has the time?
  So here you have it, the first Aardtaco song, "A Life of Crime." Again, this is a topic that is of interest to our base.

   As you may remember, The Hard Taco Digest usually focused on topics of broad interest such as Disney Sequels and Germs, but the new Aardtaco MyGest is personalized, using cookies from your computer to identify your areas of interest. Based on your search history, your custom Aardtaco MyGest this month is:

"Most Desirable Girl Scout Badges"

WEBESOS - Not to be confused with WEBELOS, this badge is worn by Girl Scouts who are not yet potty-trained. It is short for "We Be Soiled Scouts." By convention, these girls are typically referred to as "Brownies."

Purple Heart - To qualify for this badge, you must sustain an injury that results in the loss of your right arm and shoulder, such that you cannot wear your sash without it slipping off. 

Sew Simple - Earn points towards the Sew Simple badge by fixing a Purple Heart-wearer's sash to her shoulder-stump. You need to fix 3 sashes to 3 different shoulder stumps to qualify.

The Red Badge of Storage - Similar to the Purple Heart, but the injury must occur while stocking Tagalongs into their plastic cookie cozies.

Volunteer Dog-Sitting  - To dog-sit without being paid is the most selfless thing a girl scout can do.

Alarmist - Have your parents take you to try 1-Alarm Chili.

Advanced Alarmist - Have your parents take you to try 2-Alarm Chili.

Trenchie - For accumulating over 20 hours of experience in trench warfare. As all trenchies know, it is crucial that you never open more than one box of Thin Mints, to hide your numbers.

Money wise - Use your knowledge and your self-esteem to open a bank account.

Moderation - While the teller is looking down to type in your information, grab a hostage and demand a backpack filled almost half-way with unmarked FIVE DOLLAR BILLS. 

Eco-Action - Take a step toward saving the planet by unrolling the cardboard in your Dum-Dum stick, folding it twice, and gently placing it in a recycling bin. 

Influence - Use your powers of persuasion to coax a fish out of your brother's sandbox.

Chicken Sexing - Large industrial egg-producing facilities are only interested in raising female chickens. To earn this badge, you must master the skill of squeezing a baby chick in such a way that you can identify its gender. If it is an unwanted male, your troopmaster will immediately "cull," (which means "kill") the chick. Learn about the various methods for "killing" a male chick (which means "culling" a male chick), including burying it alive or macerating it in a wood chipper.

Hen Rights - Learn about gender equality. Chicken sexing is downright chicken sexist! All the female chicks can do is gaze enviously up through that glass ceiling and see their male counterparts liquefied in a high-speed grinder, suffocated in a plastic bag, or simply have their necks broken. Write to your senator and insist that female chicks are equally qualified for decapitation and asphyxiation with carbon dioxide.

Brash - Whatever it is you are thinking about doing impulsively, just go right ahead and do it without considering the consequences.

The Juliette - Named for Juliette Gordon Lowe, the founder of Girl Scouts of America and a notorious cross-dresser. To earn this badge, put on a Boy Scout neckerchief and shoulder loops, stand in front of the mirror and repeat the phrase, "I'm going to win the Pinewood Derby..."  

With Warmest Regards,

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Praise They Ever Cherished Name, Dear Hapless Crapalope

Hey College Kids,

   Put down Wii Tetherball for a minute and pay attention. The Hard Taco song for March is called "Excelsior," and I'm not going to lie to you: It's pretty swell. But look, I'm not going to beat around the bush: good grades are pretty swell, too. You can listen to the song, but I'm not going to sugar-coat the truth: you really need to study harder, starting right now. You're never going to win a lifetime achievement award at this rate.

On the Subject of Imaginary States, Their Universities, and Their State Birds
Ohio State... Florida State... Michigan State....
Their names evoke images of storied university campuses nestled somewhere within the boundaries of a geographic territory that has attained political statehood. But what about the thousands of undergraduate students who attend imaginary state schools? Wayne State, Kent State, Ball State, Wright State, Appalachian State... the colleges are very real, of course, but they are all located in fictitious land masses.

Students at these institutions face a number of challenges. Foremost, it is rather impossible to visit an imaginary state, which means that the U.S. Postal service cannot deliver care packages to students. If your daughter is a freshman, you have to wait until she is home on break to give her microwave popcorn and Easy Mac. If you're truly intent on getting to campus for Parents Weekend, your only chance is to ride a plane (destination irrelevant), and turn on your cellphone just before landing.  Most of the time, the navigation system will go so haywire that the pilot will lose track of the ground and send the plane careening into the sun. Occasionally, though, the plane may wind up delivering you to your daughter's school in time for convocation.

   But let me answer the question you're really curious about... can an imaginary state have a real state animal? Unfortunately, the answer is no. By convention, most imaginary state schools retain the jackalope as their sports mascot. A handful of teams have taken exception to this precedent, but none have completely abandoned the tradition of mongrelizing antelopes. Examples follow:

The Morehead State Crabalopes
The Grambling State Imapalarangutans
The Ferris State Kangazelles
The Bowling Green State Springboxen (Oxen with the antlers of springboks)
The Empire State Boxsprings (Springboks that offer your mattress the comfort and support of oxen)
The Alcorn State Hapless Crapalopes*

With warmest regards,

*This is pronounced cra-PAH-loh-pees. However, their mascot is still a piece of crap with antlers.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

How to Save Sharper Image

Dear Friends,

   I was saddened to learn that The Sharper Image shut down all of its retail stores last year. Perhaps their product line was simply too innovative. Or perhaps the customers that could benefit most from the Sleeve Lengthener or the GPS-ready Water Wings are already dead.
   The Hard Taco song for February, "Let's Play Pretend," is only a little innovative, so it might be just thing that The Sharper Image needs to reconnect with consumers.
   Okay, Sharper Image, now that we’ve entered into this partnership, let's take a look at your competition. There used to be a catalog called Hammacher Schlemmer that sold a lot of similar gadgets. Well, when Hammacher Schlemmer came to America, its name was offhandedly changed by an anglophile Ellis Island immigration official. On paper, the company must now go by "Hamburglar.”
    The real giant in the innovative products industry is Sky Mall. They have identified a willing niche: airborne consumers with at least one hand. Their only competition for the attention of these consumers is a half-finished crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine. I suggest that The Sharper Image change their name to "Mallwings" or “Shopping While High” to help capture a share of this market, and kick off their new product line with the following moderately innovative offerings:

Lawn Sodoku - A delightful square 20' x 20' Soduku board, easy to install. One use, medium difficulty. $39

Thiesman Fracture Replica - Have your own 1:1 scale replica of Joe Thiesman's gruesome compound tibial fracture. $119.
Meter-Aid Parking Alarm - The Meter-Aid uses smart technology to predict when your meter is about to expire. It then drops additional quarters directly onto your windshield. When the parking cops arrive to ticket you, they will be safely bribed while you continue your errands. $279

Shoeprint Stencils - Wouldn't it be great to do the Shim-Sham-Shimmy in your own kitchen? But who can remember the moves?! With our new shoeprint stencils and some black spray paint, you can commemorate your favorite dance moves wherever you want. These stencils are also helpful for more mature customers who don’t remember how to get to their own bathrooms. $49
Chinese Burr Garden - Ancient Chinese horticulturalists knew that burrs could be arranged in a bed of sand to channel positive energy. While wild burrs are very difficult to capture and dangerous to handle, modern Chinese horticulturists believe that the same affect can be attained by arranging small pieces of Velcro. $69

Engraved Gummi Worm – Have your initials (or favorite three letter word) commemorated forever on a gummi worm. Maximum order: 1. $25

Showers of the World – What would it feel like to shower at the bottom of Lake Ontario or the shores of the Panama Canal? The Showers of the World satellite system continuously updates your shower experience to match the real time temperature and turbidity of any body of water in the world. $499

AccentID - Accents are caused by subtle changes in the shape of someone's palate and tongue. Now you can identify even the most obscure accents. Simply take a plastic/plaster mold of the foreign person saying "em," "voo," unh," and "beef." AccentID will analyze the molds and tell you the origin of the accent from its library of >10000 languages and dialects.

iPod Popcorn Adapter - iPods are great for watching small movies, but it's not truly a miniature theater experience without a single kernel of freshly popped buttered popcorn. Includes 20 individually wrapped kernels with adapter wiring. $49

Handsie Pajamas - We all remember pajamas with hands, but until now they were not available in adult sizes. Hurry, because this fad won’t last long. $69

Baby Jesus Monitor - Now parents can keep close tabs on Baby Jesus, even when they are up to 100 feet outside of the manger. $50

With warmest regards,

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Down with Fruit Bruises

Dear Friends,

   Happy New Year, Sweetie. The first Hard Taco song for 2009, "Never Shake a Baby," is not only a great song, but a great idea for your next New Year's resolution. I'm not going to beat around the bush: 2009 is not going to be a ridiculously great year, whether you stick to this resolution or not.

   There is one resolution I hope we all keep, however. We must resolve to buy more American fruit. This is crucial because, for one, many people aren't buying enough American fruit. Tomorrow, when the supermarkets re-open, you can go scope out the produce aisle and see for yourself. The problem is fruit bruises. If there is one infallible truth about groceries, it is that nobody (Nobody) wants bruised fruit. 

   At this point, you are undoubtedly printing out Mapquest directions to the nearest megaphone rental so you can scream "I agree!" Relax... I can already hear you. If you feel the need to prove it, take this simple quiz about fruit bruise attitudes:

You accidentally pick up a bosc pear with an unsightly brown cavity. You immediately:
Avert your eyes. Remember that you were supposed to pick up some yogurt. Announce this aloud to everyone within 20 feet of you, and make it sound urgent. Run like hell.
B) Hold your arms over the broccoli, praying that one of those mist-machines on a timer will activate and cleanse the wicked bruise ichor from your fingers. Afterwards, run like hell.
C) Put the bruised pear in a bag. Use your iPhone to look up the mailing address of that insufferable prick you went to high school with. Think about mailing him the blemished pear as retribution for being so unforgivably loathsome. Realize that this would require you to handle the pear. Proceed, instead, to take a picture of the fruit bruise with your iPhone and email it to him. Run like hell.

   Now that we are, as they say, tethered to the same psychological zip-line, let's talk through a solution to the problem by examining the facts.
Fact: Nobody (Nobody) would intentionally purchase bruised fruit.
Fact: Every piece of fruit has a little sticker on it. This is called a fruit sticker.
Fact: The location of a fruit sticker on a given piece of fruit is entirely arbitrary.
Fact: If a piece of fruit is 95% healthy and 5% bruised, a sticker placed over a healthy area will drop the percentage of visibly delicious fruit to 90%. The likelihood that the fruit will be sold will plummet!

   Now imagine, if it pleases you, a device* that identifies the largest bruise on each piece of fruit and puts the sticker directly over it. Now the fruit from our example looks 95% healthy, 0% bruised, and 5% mysterious!  Folks, we just increased the chance of that fruit being sold (using math.)

   When people buy more American fruit, you guessed it: everyone wins. Suddenly, grocery stores will find themselves with a budget surplus, which they can spend on more fruit stickers. Soon, every fruit bruise in America will be concealed. With no more smashed, rotted fruit to camouflage, grocers will be forced to meet burgeoning demands by pulling handfuls of whatever out of the dumpster and covering it with a monolayer of fruit stickers.

   At this point, the buyers are going to catch on, right? People won't actually purchase wood shavings and amputated ankles just because they are encapsulated in small adhesive ovals... WILL THEY

   I can't predict that, but I'll be prepared for any contingency, because my plan has a PHASE 2. Instead of smothering a decayed piece of produce* with unattractive identification labels, we use stickers that are stylin'. I'm talking about stickers everybody (Everybody) wants. Of course, the licensing fees for branded images like Princess Jasmine or the ReMax balloon would be prohibitive, but there is one sticker that is highly desirable and absolutely free…

   I will not lie to you about this: I don’t know anybody (Anybody) who can resist this sticker. I recently stood in line for over an hour just to get one. Now imagine a banana wrapped in fifteen "I Voted" stickers, each with a little American flag on it. Would you buy that banana? Would you campaign on that banana's behalf? Would you stand behind that banana, even if it turns out to be rotten? I believe you would.

   I believe you will.

With warmest regards,

* or migrant worker