Monday, December 1, 2014

Prost Traumatic Stress Disorder

Dear Friends,

One of the best things about living in Ann Arbor is that we have signs, and one of the best things about signs is that some of them list our Sister Cities.  

In the past, we have taken you on a whirlwind tour of Hikone and a whirlpool tour of Dakar. This month, we will embrace both inter-cultural discourse and distant cultural interccourse as we cyber-jaunt through our oldest urban playmate, Tübingen, Germany. 

People of Tübingen, I offer you this month's Hard Taco song, "Ubble-a Dup Dup," which was so-named to give you a healthy American portion of the letter U the way we believe God intended it... without an umlaut. 

Tübingen is a small college town in Southwest Germany, just a few miles from the German Alps. The first recorded mention of the city was in 1191, when it was besieged by Henry IV, King of Germany. He noted that the gentle Neckar River that runs through the city center was "ideal for kayaking and tubing," and called the town Kayakingenundtübingen. This was shortened to Tübingen in 1540 when Martin Luther exposed kayaking as a Papist pastime. 

The University of Tübingen has a world-class reputation for cultivating innovative thought. Well-know graduates include Friedrich Holderlin, the hypochondriac poet, and Alois Alzheimer, who invented dementia. The most popular major among current students is German, although graduates find careers in everything from engineering to lederhosen engineering.

Tübingen, Germany - Quick Facts/Speculations
Population: 89,000
Old world values: Austerity, order
Liberal college town values: Frugality, tidiness
Emblem: David Hasselhoff carefully arranging Gummy Bears 
Tree: The family tree of the Hapsburgs
Flower, and what one says to it: Edelweiss, every morning you greet me.  
Statue in Town Square: A giant beer stein depicting images of scholars discovering that lunch is the most important meal of the day
Motto: Mut und Glauben, Aber Kein Augenkontakt, Bitte. ("Courage and faith, but no eye contact, please.")
Nickname: A Small Cog In Our Great National Cuckoo Clock
Exports: Train parts, curt nods, Popes who think it's okay to retire, BMV luxury cars (they can't pronounce W.)
Favorite Grimm Fairy TaleA woodsman sells his children to an evil dwarf and lives happily ever after.
Second Favorite Grimm Fair Tale: A queen prays for a child, and a benevolent angel brings her one... in her soup. She immediately recognizes what it is, so she cries while eating it. 
Most Popular Baby Clothing Store: Snugglers of Catan
Traditional angles for viewing Zungenwurst: From the front and in partial profile

Zungenwurst from the front

Zungenwurst in partial profile

With warmest regards,

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Another Ick in the Wall

Dear Friends,

"There's a pit where bad guys have to dig up crystals all day instead of going to jail."

That is my son Malcolm's vision for the new Hard Taco song, "Chisels 'n Dust," which he co-authored. I enjoyed this collaboration, and hope it is the first of many. I look forward to breaking up over aesthetic differences and grudgingly reuniting after a decade of unsuccessful solo endeavors.

I always feel a bit embarrassed about posting a link to my songs on Facebook, but I do it anyway, just in case one or two people are curious. Other than that, I'm a pretty reserved Facebook poster.

We all know people that exist at the other end of the spectrum. One of my friends furnishes her timeline with new material five or more times a day. Most of the posts are just three letter interjections, such as Yay or Ick, but within minutes, each of these garners hundreds of Likes and Comments.

So what is her secret? Am I an unpopular person or am I just providing unpopular content? To find out, I took 24 hours and posted the same kind of stuff as everybody else. The results will shock you.

With warmest regards,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Word Limit

Dear Friends,

If you believe in the old adage about the relative value of pictures and words, this month's wordy Hard Taco song, "Pick Two," is worth over 0.8 pictures. The chorus of this song is a reference to a metaphor I read about in a David Sedaris essay. To paraphrase, your life is spent cooking at a symbolic stovetop. The four burners represent your family, friends, health, and work.  To provide enough heat to two of them (and thus, to be successful at them), you have to turn the other burners off.

Most of us find other places to waste time besides the big four. I'm sure you've got your own auxiliary heat sources, but for me there's the music recording burner, the fort-building burner, and the stupid digest-writing burner (the one I would most like to turn off.) With all of these going, there is certainly no gas for the reading anything other than one book of David Sedaris essays burner. 

In a parallel universe, I bet I'm a great reader. In this one, I make it through one or two novels in a good year. Aside from a fluky Kurt Vonnegut phase in 1999, I haven't really been an avid reader since 9th grade, when I finally outgrew the only favorite author I ever had. Any guesses who it was?

Piers Anthony.

Anyone? No smoldering Piers Anthony fans out there? Not anymore, but in the 80s, he was the reigning colossus of fantasy cheese. For years, it seemed like every time I stepped into Waldenbooks, there was a new Piers Anthony novel on the shelves. All 100 or so of his books were about people who unintentionally traveled between magic and non-magic worlds, a trope which has since been adapted more successfully in countless books and movies.  One factor that was crucial to his limited success was that Anthony was also a pervert, but not so much that they couldn't stock his books in middle school libraries.

From 4th grade on, I carried a Piers Anthony paperback with me at all times. My Grandpa Arnold would see me reading and mumble, "Pierce Rabinowitz." I never knew why changing the last name from Anthony to Rabinowitz was funny. The only similarity between the two names was the long o sound, but it's hard to argue that was enough to qualify as wordplay.

One day, we were running some errands in my grandpa's truck, and he noticed that I was holding a copy of, "On a Pale Horse."

"Pierce Rabinowitz," he mumbled. Whatever joy he got from this clever pun melted away quickly, because I took this as an invitation to summarize the plot of the book. This guy Zane is about to kill himself because he's really sad, but then he sees Death, the actual guy-version of Death, the grim reaper guy with the scythe. So Zane flips out and shoots Death instead of himself! And then here's the cool part...  he has to take over Death's job! He has to drive around the world in a limo, which can turn into a boat sometimes, and collect people's souls.

After about fifteen minutes, I paused to take a breath, and my grandfather said, "Every person is born with a word limit. Once you say all of your allotted words, you die."

So I stopped talking. Not because I understood his point (that I should shut up), but because I thought he was commenting on the book (he wasn't.)

But then I started thinking about what he had said. What if he was right? Could I achieve immortality by taking a Benedictine vow of silence? Were the world's orphanages filled with the children of auctioneers?

It didn't end up holding true for my grandfather. He didn't talk much, but he also didn't live to be particularly old. Still, I think his theory may hold water if we were to examine populations instead of individuals. The average life expectancy in the United States is 78.1 years. In Germany, it's 79.8 years. Why the discrepancy? Contrasting health care systems? Perhaps, but I would argue that they main difference is that Germans can say almost anything in one word. Examples:

Sitzpinkler = A man who sits to pee.
Shmutzfangmattenserive = The act of cleaning doormats
Torschlusspanik = The fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages
Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih = Floor sander rentals
Schwartzwalderkirschtortenlieferantenhut = The hat of the black forest cake delivery person

Spanish, on the other hand, uses extra words to express simple concepts. If you want to fundraise, for example, you have to say, "estamos tratando de recaudar fondos." And guess what? The average Guatemalan only makes it to 71.5 years. (And most of them go to their graves without ever understanding what Girl Scouts are doing with all those cookies, because no one has time to explain it to them.)

All of this comes back around to my original point, which is that this month's Hard Taco song, "Pick Two," is extraordinarily wordy. That means I'm going to end up on the wrong end of the actuarial bell curve if I don't make up some ground. So please, if you see me this month, please shut me up when I try to give you a summary of the first 37 Xanth novels.

With warmest regards,

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Fleshy Chablis for Steam Engine Steve

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for September, "What Has He Done, The Bear," is the most important song you will listen to all day. You won't BELIEVE the third and twelfth lines. One quarter of the way through the song, you'll start to question everything you've ever thought about anything. By the time you're halfway through, you'll start to believe in the jaw-dropping power of the human spirit. And once you rank the 300 signs that you're a Hard Taco Digest reader from most to least unbelievable, what happens next will break your heart.

A Lesson in Wino Pairing
Lauren and I recently attended a destination wedding in Northern California.  Sonoma County is known for breathtaking views of rolling hills, pinstriped with sweeping vineyards. Not surprisingly, the combination of picturesque beauty and unlimited free wine tastings has attracted droves of hoboes to the region for over a century. I'm not talking about the sedentary street bums found in other cities, but actual steam rail-riding, bindle-carrying hoboes.  Thousands of them. They call the region Napa Valley, which is the Wappo Indian term for "Nappy Vagabond."

The old stereotype that hoboes love wine holds true in roughly 100% of cases. I always assumed that the wine a hobo chooses to drink is just a matter of personal preference, but the Sonoma sommeliers know better. Gabriel, who pours at the Lancaster Estates tasting room in Healdsburg, gave us a free primer on how to pair a fine wine with the right breed of hobo. Here are the basics:

Cabernet Sauvignon - A powerful, tannic red grape.  Goes well with a toothless hobo wearing a stovetop pipe hat and coveralls that are missing a button.

Chardonnay - A wider-bodied white grape that is often seen with late harvest tramps, such as Tarnose Nabob or Hobo Huxtable the XII. Also pairs nicely with white-bearded sidetrack hoboes like Mr. Ben "Nickel Note" Pantaloons.

Malbec - A sophisticated mid-season ripener, and a good match for a stocky, snake oil-selling charlatan in tattered coattails. A supple wine that creates delightful stains on burlap pants held up by a piece of rope.

Merlot - A lauded middle-palate grape with a round finish. A bottle of this varietal is often found in the brown paper bag of a tall, stubbly bindle-stiff with a mutt limping a few paces behind him.

Pinot Noir - Delicate and fresh, with softer aromatics. Perfect for inebriating medium-bearded vagabonds like Creaky Rags Lupino or Milo "Extra Chum" Spare-biscuits.

Riesling - A drier white that goes well with chicken, fish, a can of beans, and any urine-soaked bum lying stuporous in a boxcar.

Sangiovese - A silky red wine native to Tuscany, often consumed by a hoboes who begin stories with, "Let me sit down a minute, a stone got in my shoe."

Sauvignon Blanc - A versatile, smoky varietal typically found in the hand of a Westbound hobo sleeping under liberal-leaning newspapers. Popular pairings include Seasick Admiral Mulligan, Steam-for-legs Sal, or Lushy McBedsore. Also pairs well with any hobo wearing a bent fork tied to a string around the neck.

Syrah - A hearty, spicy red, often with toffee notes. Pairs well with harmonica-wielding itinerants like Snaky Bunyan or Earl "Redundant Skinfold" Hardwhiskers.

Zinfandel - Found only in California, Zinfandel grapes are crushed by inserting them between the two plates of the San Andreas Fault and waiting for an earthquake. This creates a zesty and versatile wine that can intoxicate a wide range of hoboes, from dumpster-diving handcar pumpers to your high-end jungle buzzards with corncob pipes.

White zinfandel - Sweet, syrupy, and trashy, white Zin is terrible and no hobo would ever drink it.

With warmest regards,

Friday, August 1, 2014

Postcards from Panama, Part 6

Dear Friends,

This month, I offer you a sweet redneck love song called, "Write His Name In Monster Trucks."  This song has the honor of being alphabetically last in the Hard Taco catalog.

Meanwhile, here's the annual installment of "Postcards from Panama." You should be able to drop right in, but if you're wondering how we got here, you can catch up here.

Postcards from Panama, Part 6

Dear Karen,

I've been having a symptom. Since we are going to be married soon, I think it is important that we are open with each other about our symptoms, even the non-concerning ones. Mine is that I wake up in the middle of the night and my fingers are making "OK" signs. Most likely, this represents what doctors call a "completely normal variant." In other words, it may be even MORE normal than other positions that hands can be found in upon awakening.

It is also possible that I am dreaming about throwing darts.

Please write back and let me know what you think about the idea of discussing our symptoms with each other.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

I have a longstanding belief (a firm one) that people must follow their dreams, no matter how dire the cost. I think my dreams are telling me to play darts, so on Thursday, I am going to a local carnival. The last time I attended a carnival, I got to throw darts at a wall full of colorful balloons. Had I successfully popped the white one, I would have won a giant plush hyena.

Would you like me to try to win you a life-sized plush hyena, or would you find that to be too threatening? I haven's seen you since 1992, so it is possible that you have developed hyena-related PTSD in the meantime. Just in case, I will pop the white balloon, but only ask for a less-threatening, medium-sized plush hyena off the rack of inferior prizes.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

The carnival was amazing! I will not pussyfoot about this... it exceeded my wildest hopes. When we are married, Karen, I will track down this particular carnival company and we will visit it together, many days in a row.

Here's the best part: Do you remember how someone, perhaps you, always said that I was probably ultra-talented, and that I just hadn't discovered my special power yet? Karen, I have figured out my special talent:  I can look at someone and guess how much weight they need to lose. I got the idea from one of the carnies who was doing something similar. On a whim, I tried it out on my neighbor, Dignidad, and his brother, Debilidad. Both of them need to lose 15.0 pounds. They were amazed that I was accurate to the tenth of a pound.

My neighbor's brother also needs to have a large mole removed, but it doesn't weigh enough to impact my calculations. (Yet.)

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

You haven't written back, so I assume you feel my description of the carnival was not comprehensive enough. Here are some additional details:

They had a balloon-popping game, but instead of throwing darts, I got to shoot a crossbow that was mounted on a table.  The design is ingenious! It is impossible to shoot yourself accidentally unless you stand on the wrong side of the table. When we have children, I will insist that they only play with crossbows that are safely table-mounted.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

Today was the last day the carnival was in town, so I went back and made an appointment with the manager to discuss job openings. I proposed that he hire me to travel with them from town to town and guess how overweight people are. I even brought my own contract for a flexible three-city tour that included a signing bonus and incentive pay. Haggling is an important part of Panamanian culture, so I expected him to try to bargain me down. (If you don't haggle, they think you are a foreign spy.)

Unfortunately, we couldn't agree to terms and he kicked me out of his office. It was weird, because I kept telling him that he needed to lose 30.4 pounds, and this really should have impressed him. 

It's probably for the best, because carnival workers are notoriously cruel to exotic animals, and I simply can't condone that.  What are your opinions about cruelty to exotic animals? 

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

The carnival was such an amazing experience, Karen. I can't think about anything else! I know it's not the same thing as being here together, but I ordered you a custom bumper sticker that says "I Heart Carnivals." It's not big deal, except that it is very expensive because the minimum order was 200 stickers.

You will probably want to put separate stickers on both your FRONT and REAR bumpers. This will facilitate conversations when you arrive somewhere.  If you only put the sticker on your rear bumper, people won't know how you feel about carnivals until you are driving away and it is too late to discuss!

You can sell the remaining 198 bumper stickers to friends and neighbors. You should pick a price and stick to it, because NOT HAGGLING is an important part of Americans culture.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

I meant to tell you that I ordered your custom bumper stickers from a local "madre and padre" store, not from an online mega-store. A lot of people in South America show their support for local businesses by buying things from Amazon. (The river, not the website.)

My neighbor Dignidad thinks that all of the bricks and mortar stores will collapse because of the sheer number of websites. I think that as long as we all continue to support local commerce, they will be fine. I am more worried about stores that are just bricks, and have no mortar. I think they are much more likely to collapse.

With warmest regards,

Dear Karen,

By the way, how are you? Out of curiosity, do you have a husband or an active boyfriend right now? If you do, that's okay. I was recently thinking about that one time on August 1, 1989 at 8pm when we promised each other we would get married 20 years later if we were both still single. If you have an active boyfriend right now, it is someone that you made a similar promise to, perhaps predating August 1, 1989? If so, I would completely understand.  Just let me know!

With warmest regards, 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I Can Commit Mass Murder That Day If Need Be

Dear Friends,

  The Hard Taco song for July is called, "Sharkopotamus Rex." I wanted to capture that unpolished rock energy of a teenage garage band without having to stand around in a nasty garage. To that end, we recorded this one up in the studio, as usual, but left the garage door open. The musty odor inspired us to play louder and sloppier.  

  While I have been recording loud sloppy songs for a very long time, this is only the 146th monthly Hard Taco digest. The first mass email went out in June 2002, and it was exceptionally uninteresting. Prior to that, I would pair each new song with a humorous 140-character tweet. This predated Twitter, of course, so I had to type the message on my computer, print it on a dot matrix printer, make 200 copies with carbon paper, rubber cement them to cassette tapes, and send one to everyone on my mailing list via Pony Express. 

  As a throwback, here are my tweets from 2001.

January 2001 New song, “Be In My Video.” New president sworn in! Seems like a bright guy. Withholding judgment until I see what he looks like in Doonesbury.

February 2001 New song, “25.” Bachelor party this month. Don’t want a stripper, so it will be at the zoo. As compromise with best man, camel will wear tasseled pasties on its humps.

March 2001 New song, “Frankenstein Overture.” Getting married! Also, that movie about Pearl Harbor is coming out! So many things to be excited about.

April 2001 New song, “Monkey Business.” What is the difference between "sewage" and "raw sewage?" I want to make sure I use the correct term when I call State Farm.

May 2001 New song, “Paper Cranes.” If I ever go to prison, the first thing I’ll do is find the one guy who is more of a nebbish then me and make fun of his nose incessantly.

June 2001 New song, “Qwerty.” You heard it here first. Michael Bay will win Best Director for “Pearl Harbor,” and Best Picture will go to touching Black/Paltrow feature, “Shallow Hal.”

July 2001 New song, “Something Else.” Somebody named O.B.L. sent me a link to this doodle poll.  I’m on a busy rotation in September, so I’m just going to click "If Need Be" for most days.

August 2001 New song, “Tapalong.” With one month of medical internship behind me, I am very grateful to be an Earth doctor.  On Jupiter, the average workday is 93.9 hours.

September 2001 New Song, “The Gloaming.” There is a Magma Bar in Copenhagen. The room is kept just over 1000 degrees Celsius so the bar, table, stools, and glasses are all made of magma. Don't people get hot?

October 2001 New Song, “The Hunt.” One cool thing about DVDs is that you can turn on Spanish subtitles. My new favorite Disney characters are Cristobal Robin and Juanita Pooh.

November 2001 New song, “Ugly.” Post-Halloween reflection... The creepiest cemeteries have headstones at angles. Headstones that are perpendicular to the ground are more somber, less creepy.

December 2001 New song, “Wildflowers.” If you ask me, the best first names for babies are cities (i.e. Madison, Austin, Stockholm) or 19th century jobs (i.e. Cooper, Husker, Flogger.) The best middle name for a baby is Junior.

With warmest regards,

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Dog Side of the Aisle

Dear Friends,

This month's Hard Taco song is called, "Bezonce." For the Goth types who prefer words in unlinkable jet black, that song, again, is "Bezonce."

In regards to both politics and pets, it's a two party system. Some folks want nothing to do with domestic pets, but the rest of us are either dog people or cat people. If you claim to be anything else, you're throwing your vote away.

I am a dog person, although I'm not as hard-core dog as I used to be. I must say, as I have aged, I've trended more towards being socially dog, but fiscally cat.  I'm not one of those crazy extremists who subscribes to Cat Fancy, but let's face it... I'm not an idealistic college kid anymore. I'm a grown man with a family and a mortgage, and I'm wise to how the world works.  I never thought I would say this, but sometimes cats offer practical solutions that dogs can't.

But you can check my record... I'm definitely still more dog-leaning. A quick Command-F query confirms that I have written 18 Hard Taco Digests that mention dogs, and only 4 that mention cats.

Doggist propaganda by P.D. Eastman

My dog-leaning roots run deep. Have you ever seen "My Book About Me," by Dr. Seuss? Basically, it's boring Mad Libs for narcissistic children. Dr. Seuss wrote stems of sentences and left blanks for kids to fill in with autobiographical information. My parents bought me an off-brand version of this book when I was six. "It's just as good as a real Dr. Seuss," they probably said. "I'm sure you won't even be able to tell the difference." I may have put up a fight about this, but I filled out the book anyway. When I went back and read it years later, I noticed a subtle theme among my responses. See if you can pick it up!

  My name is: ZACH
  I have: ONE sister(s) and NONE brother(s)
  My favorite kind of animal is: DOG
  Last night I had a dream about: A DOG AND IT WAS SCOBY DOO
  I would be surprised if I looked out my window and saw: 100 DOG IN A ROW

I still feel the same way about that last point. 100 dog outside of my window would be an unusual circumstance, regardless of their configuration. 100 dog in a row? Frankly, I would find that combination of volume and alignment to be outright shocking, even after all these year. 

A few months after I was born, my parents got a puppy so they could call someone Abby, the girl name they had picked out for me when I was still an undeclared fetus.  Abby was a stringy black and white mutt about the size of a loaf of bread. I think she was one-quarter shih tzu, one-quarter corgi, and half kangaroo rat.

Abby the Dog, enlarged to show detail.
Poor little Abby. She went to the groomers once or twice a year, and the extreme haircut they gave her would strip any visible remnants of canine ancestry, leaving her rat-like frame shamefully exposed. The groomers delighted in compounding this humiliation by tying a massive pink ribbon around her head, which only made her look like some kind of scrap-booking accident.

Abby was most notable for her self-destructive habit of darting under our feet as we walked by. Inevitably, someone would step on her, and she would let out an endearing, high-pitched, "REEET!" 

I definitely loved that dog. I know this because I feel it, not because I remember many joyous moments with her. Tiny dogs can live forever, but that just gives them more time to be old. In most of my memories, Abby was brittle, arthritic, and exhausted.  In the last decade of her 17-year life, the black patches faded to grey and her fur-shrouded eyes sunk even deeper behind filmy cataracts. When she lost control of her bladder, we relegated her to the kitchen where her messes would be easier to wipe up.

We continued to accidentally step on her from time to time, but she rarely generated a full-blown "REEET!"  It was more like...  reet. She was acknowledging the incident, but in a detached way. The lusty indignation was gone.  

Reet. Still down here, folks.
My friend Jeff liked to say, "All your dog does is stand in the corner and shiver and piss." It was a fair assessment, albeit a bit mean-spirited. (* see footnote.)

My kids have been asking about getting a dog. This morning, I showed my six-year-old son the above picture of Abby, and he said, "Wow. What was it like?" He didn't want to know what Abby was like, but what it was like to be that kid with a dog. I must have given him a sentimental answer, because afterwards he said, "I think my eyes are starting to have some water in them about that story."

Lauren is allergic to dogs, so his dog ownership yearnings are going to remain unfulfilled for a while. In the meantime, he'll just have to make due with writing bizarre autobiographical dog fantasies in "My Book About Me" (or its generic equivalent.)

With warmest regards,

* Muffin, Jeff's bichon frise, eventually died of neck cancer. While this was also very sad, reminding him about it cheered me up a little (and still does, if I'm having a bad day.)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Oppositional Thumbs

The Hard Taco song for May is called, "Belt Test." Brrrringggg! Hello? Okay, bye. That was the 2070's, calling to say they want their favorite song back.

It's not easy to talk about, but I am a recovering addict. I was a fiend for the left thumb. I was one of the lucky ones who got out without braces, but not before I saw thumb-sucking tear my family apart. It started out socially, but by time I reached 1st grade, I was sucking my thumb between classes and when I was alone at night. When I woke up in the morning, incisors still aching from the prior night's binge, I would roll over and look for the nearest thumb. I told my parents I was clean, of course, but they didn't have to dust my hard palate for fingerprints to know I was lying.

It got to the point that I couldn't even remember what life was like before I started sucking. I still don't remember, actually.

After countless failed attempts, I finally got the help I needed. I'm delighted to say that on March 30th, I celebrated 28 years of complete thumb-sobriety. Thank you, I know! One day at a time, right?

Pediatricians will have you believe that babies are drawn to their own thumbs because it reminds them of nursing. That your infant's immature brain and underdeveloped tactile senses prevent her from distinguishing two objects as disparate as a thumb and a breast. This is a reassuring thought for parents, because it implies that it is not your baby's fault. She just doesn't know better.

But babies know the difference. It's a hard mouthful of colostrum to swallow, but the evidence is overwhelming.

The synthetic nipples used in baby bottles have a similar texture to flesh nipples, I suppose, if the latter is having a good day. I concede that a baby who hasn't had much formal education could be hoodwinked into thinking a bottle was some kind of dwarfish wet nurse. It's a little far-fetched, but a lot of kids weren't exposed to Mozart in utero, leaving them cognitively behind their peers. Those kids might now know, for instance, how big a dwarf is.

But let's be perfectly clear: thumbs do not feel like nipples. Hey kid, you know that hard smooth thing that keeps scraping your gum flaps when you bite it at the wrong angle? Pretty hard to miss, right? That's called a thumbnail, and you are not going to find anything remotely resembling that on a breast. If you ever grow up and get to be in a bridal party,  you will be treated to a mani pedi, not a mammo-pedi.

You will also notice that when you put your thumb into your mouth, the thumb feels wet. Every time you put someone's nipple in your mouth, your thumb does not feel wet. Not unless you have one of those granola mothers who birthed you underwater and forgot to take you out.

Just look at the nearest baby's thumb. I'm doing that right now, and it is longer and thinner than any nipple I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of nipples. (Either 10 or infinity, depending on whether or not I can count the nipples I see when I stand topless between two mirrors.)

Even if a baby's brain is not fully myelinated, I'm pretty sure it can tell the difference between the flavor of an inedible thumb and the flavor of life-sustaining milk. Not to brag, but by a few weeks of age, my own kids had already developed such cultured and discriminating tastes that they would literally vomit half of what I fed them. Not every baby has such a sophisticated palate, but even the most uncivilized preemie isn't going to confuse the taste of milk with the taste of NO milk.

So don't delude yourself into believing that your infant is sucking her thumb because she doesn't know better. She's doing it to escape, to fit in, to rebel, or maybe even to seem more grown up. You want to be her friend, but what she needs right now is parent. A parent with real nipples.

With your help, we can make this a thumb-free world.

With warmest regards,

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Where, Indeed, Is My Sugar Cookie?

Dear friends,

The Hard Taco song for April is called, "Sugar Cookie." I would dissuade you from listening to this piece of music or reading another line of this memoir unless you are squarely in your third or fourth decade of life. I fear that the vulgar nature of what lies herein may have deleterious effects on the moral stability of the young and the physical stability of the old. With that admonition, I reluctantly proceed with my tale of depravity.

I will not dispute that I fancy myself to be rather an enthusiast of highbrow humor. Truthfully, I find forays into satire by a loquacious dry wit to be utterly charming. Take, for instance, this amusing folly:

"René Descartes, do you not think that Anselm's ontological argument is impeccable in comparison to your own?"

"I think not."

Descartes ceases to exist.

No need to feel contrite if this humorous quip compelled you to laugh aloud. I, too, find this breed of drollery to be quite diverting! Quite diverting, indeed.

It came as a bit of a surprise then, when I was invited to present a joke following the annual medical student roast, "The Smoker." If you are not familiar with this Smoker, I envy you, for it is only the vilest scourge to afflict our otherwise distinguished university. It is a boorish theatrical production, known for lampooning the medical school faculty with vulgar impersonations and other churlish japes that straddle the line between meager tomfoolery and abject buffoonery.

Let it be known that I do not shrink from a wry lambasting. Nay! As I have already clearly demonstrated, I am a true devotee of scintillating jocularity. I profess that this Smoker, sadly, does not fall into this category.  It is truly philistine.

Unfortunately, there is no easy recourse for those, such as myself, who are invited to participate in this base pageant of tiresome vagaries. Refusing such an invitation would serve only to incite the devilish furies of the brutes who author this production, prompting them to fabricate even more obscene and incommodious impersonations of the refusing party. This, in turn, could disparage one's good name and even jeopardize one's livelihood.

I tell you all this, dear friends, so you understand the paucity of options I had at this juncture. I had no recourse but to recite a joke that was either ribald or scatological. And while it burned me to the very bosom of my pith to do so, I created the aforementioned musical number, a companion piece if you will, which I grudgingly consented to perform that self-same night, before an audience of approximately 650 people.

I now admonish you, one last time, to read no further. While I have acquiesced to repeat the text of this profane treatise, you are by no means obligated to read it. If you must, God have mercy on both our souls.

The Sugar Cookie Joke:

So this guy has buttworms, right?

So he goes to his doctor and she pulls down his pants and says, "Yep, you've got buttworms. I want you to go home and come back tomorrow with an apple, an orange, and a sugar cookie."

So the next day, the guy comes back with those three things. The doctor pulls down his pants and bends him over. Then she takes the apple and shoves it up the guy's butt. She waits 30 seconds, then she takes the orange, and she shoves it up the guy's butt. Then she waits another 30 seconds, takes the sugar cookie, and shoves it up the guy's butt. 

"I want you to come back tomorrow," she says, "and bring an apple, an orange, and a sugar cookie."

When he does, the same thing happens. She takes the apple and shoves it up the guy's butt, waits 30 seconds, shoves the orange up the guy's butt, waits 30 seconds and shoves the sugar cookie up the guy's butt.

This goes on for seven days, and each day the same thing happens. Finally, on the seventh day, she tells him to go home, and come back the next day with an apple, an orange, and a hammer. When he comes back, she pulls down his pants, bends him over, and shoves up the apple. Then she waits 30 seconds and shoves up the orange. Then she waits 30 seconds.

Nothing happens. Another 30 seconds.

Nothing. One minute passes. Two minutes pass.

Finally, on the third minute, the buttworm pops out and says, "WHERE'S MY SUGAR COOKIE?!"

...and she hits it over the head with the hammer!

With warmest regards,

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hard Taco Digest: CAPPSSS LOCKKKK!!!!!

Dear Friends,


That's the name of the Hard Taco song for March. It's a tale of science, jealousy, the scientific method, redemption, and testing a hypothesis.  As per usual, savvy click-makers who follow this link will be treated to a song and lyrics. As per unusual, I am also including stage directions, because you will want to act this out while singing it in the shower.

Once again:  Volcanoes!!

The first exclamation mark is there to give your weekend a little extra juice. The second is to facilitate the juicing up of your coming week, as well.

Notice that I call it an exclamation mark, not an exclamation point. Indeed, this august pillar of literary enthusiasm contains a point, but the same can be said for just about any punctuation symbol. Calling "!" an exclamation point is like referring to the Dalai Lama as "His Holiness the 14th Forearm." It only tells part of the story, and it's not even the best part.

The exclamation mark is a versatile but underutilized symbol. It can serve to indicate...

Surprise, excitement, fear or anger:

A musical:

Surprise, excitement, fear, anger, and a musical:
Mamma Mia!

The end of every e-mailed sentence:
Andrea! I heard you got a haircut! Yay! I hope you are surviving this weather! Let's have breakfast some time! Say hi to Ben for me!

Advertising prowess:
South Side Clinic: Medicine By Homeless People, For Homeless People!

Hell is throwing a cocktail party... and you're my plus one!

The beginning and end of any Spanish sentence.
¡Puedo comer vidrio y no me hace daño!

The factorial function:
6! = 720

A Eureka moment for a Mexican mathematician:
¡6! = 720!

That you are Edgar Allen Poe and you're in the middle of a sentence:
Beside the larder, oh! there was a dole-some rapping. 

That you are missundaztood:
That an alien is flipping you off with both hands:
_!_ (o_o) _!_

A confused scream (when used in combination with a question mark):
Our keynote speaker is just a forearm?! What happened to the rest of the Dalai Lama?!

You are fully juiced for the next seven days:

With warmest regards,

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ours Is Not to Reason Why

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song this month is called, "Gabillionaire." I dedicate this song to my Grandpa Arnold, who gave me my first taste of child labor.
Grandpa Arnold stopped working as a plumber before I was born. He spent the second half of his career as owner and operator of a small plumbing retail business, the Franklin Plumbing Supply. Every time we visited, there was a suspiciously temporary-looking sign on the stockroom door that read, "Zachary N. London, Warehouse Manager." A similar sign on the door by the desk said, "Sari R. London, Office Manager." I was pretty sure that my sister's sign stayed up, even when we weren't visiting. The warehouse manager position rotated among me and my four male cousins, but Sari was the only granddaughter, so she had the secretarial assignment locked up.

Grandpa Arnold at the warehouse door with cousin Kyle, my new assistant warehouse manager. April 1986.

"All employees," Grandpa Arnold was fond of saying, "earn a standard wage of 10 cents per hour per year of age." Year after year, the office manager somehow held on to the title of highest paid employee.

You may think that as warehouse manager, I would have more of an administrative or supervisory role, but my primary job was taking inventory of the fittings. For the benefit of those who have never managed a plumbing supply warehouse, fittings are defined as follows: small pieces of plumbing stuff. My grandpa tried to teach me the difference between galvanized and ungalvanized fittings, tee adapters, flare fittings, and hose clamps, but it was no use. I was hopelessly distracted by calculating how many more hours I would have to work to afford the most recent Xanth novel.

Had I continued my employment at the Franklin Plumbing Supply into my teens, I would have appreciated the vivid nomenclature of the trade on an entirely different level.  Gas cock. Male/female coupling. Discharge tube. O ring. Packing nut. French drain. Alas, at the age of 10, I had no appreciation for the comic or erotic value of these terms, and I just slipped deeper into a greasy blue-collar ennui. 

"Let's go over this one more time," Grandpa said. "This brass nipple has both a female end and a 6 inch male extension."

"Hmm? Oh, okay."

"Screw nuts," he added. "Black ballcock."

I earned my 10 cents per hour per year of age counting the number of fittings in each drawer.  Then I would write the tally down on a torn piece of paper and place the paper in the drawer. My piece of paper would inevitably be there when I visited the following year, but the number of fittings would have changed, so I'd have to start over. After some time, it occurred to me that Grandpa Arnold wasn't actually using my numbers for anything, and he was just trying to keep me occupied. I complained about this, and asked him why I still had to do it, but I already knew the answer.

"Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do or die."

You may recognize this as an erroneous quotation from The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson. It was Grandpa Arnold's favorite poem, and his favorite answer to any why question.

Sometimes we would go on road trips in his pick-up truck to procure new stock for the shop.  "The difference between a friendly competitor and an unfriendly competitor," he would tell me, "is a 45 minute drive." These restocking trips were always long, because we couldn't give business to any unfriendly competitors. To pass the time, my grandfather would do three digit multiplication problems in his head and quiz me on what he called SAT words. I'm not sure if Grandpa Arnold ever took the SAT, but he would have aced it.

Sari's job was to answer the phone and say, "Franklin Plumbing Supply." That was the extent of her secretarial duties. Regardless of how the person on the other end of the line responded, she would let him finish, wait a couple seconds, and say, "Hang on. I'll get Arnold." 10 cents per hour per year of age meant that this routine earned her up $2 more than me every day. I had more than one tantrum about this inequity.

"It's not fair! All she does is answer the stupid phone and I have to take inventory all day and carry around PVC and move that self-rimming sink. Why is Sari laughing when I say self-rimming? And why does she get paid more?"

"Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do or die."

Most of his customers were other plumbers. I can't say he was friendly with them, because he wasn't exactly friendly with anyone. Still, there was a sober camaraderie among the plumbers, a brotherhood of men who had, at one time or another, stood inside a septic tank and looked out at the rest of the world.

My most vivid memory of the Franklin Plumbing Supply was the smell. Everything in that building, from the Norman Rockwell calendar to the cabinet full of carbon paper, had the same peculiar smell. It was the smell of grease, or rather the smell of greases. The smell of the soap-thickened grease from the pipe threader mixed with the smell of the thin powdery grease on all of the fixtures and fittings. Then there was the stale dry grease that seasoned the linoleum and my grandfather's fingers.

This grease blend was the smell of my childhood. Grandpa Arnold died when I was 13, and soon the Franklin Plumbing Supply was sold off to an unfriendly competitor. It has been almost 25 years, and I have not been able to recapture that smell, but I know I would recognize it instantly. 

I can imagine him walking from room to room every morning before the store opened, daubing his effects with assorted greases to maintain the perfect pH balance. And of course, he would be practicing his SAT words. The multipurpose lubricating grease is unctuous and velvety. The silicone grease is elegant, yet austere. When the two are co-infused with the house pomade, I'll have created a perfectly robust and intellectually satisfying amalgam. 

With warmest regards,

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A First Look at Virgin Galactic

Dear Friends,

There is a grand tradition of Jewish people writing Christmas music. The best-selling single of all time, White Christmas, was composed by Irving Berlin, whose real name was Israel Isidor Beilin. The list goes on. Winter Wonderland, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Let it Snow, Santa Baby, You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch, and Silver Bells were all written by Jews. José Feliciano, the author of Feliz Navidad, was actually born Mordecai Simchah Gefilte Fishman ben Moishe Saul Cohen-Lowenstein Rabinowitz. True story.

This month, I grapevine in the footsteps of my ancestors with this medley of short Christmas songs. I hope you find them to be the perfect musical milieu for screaming at mall clerks who politely ask to see a receipt for the thing you're trying to return.

My senior year in college was probably the last time I knowingly disseminated Christmas cheer. My five housemates and I held occasional meetings to accuse each other of leaving unwashed dishes in the sink or to complain about the 50 pound bag of rice that was purchased without unanimous consent. That December, we held a house meeting to vote on whether to sublet our extra bedroom to an enigmatic Asian fiddle player. We agreed to do so if two conditions were met: 100% of his rent money would go towards Christmas lighting, and the display would be so garish that it could be seen from space. The electrical nightmare we created stretched well past the point of vulgarity, but unfortunately, there was no easy way to verify that it was visible to astronauts.

At this point, I wiggle my fingers and say, “DOO-da-la-doot, DOO-da-la-doot,” to indicate that we are traveling forwards in time to the present day. This year, overweight rich people will finally be able to journey to edge of the cosmos and look down on earth. 2014 is here, and this will be the year that commercial space travel takes off.

I predict that the industry will be referred to as "Rocketourism" by those who enjoy buzzwordplay, and that you will have heard both of those words here first.

How should you prepare for your first space tour? According to the Virgin Galactic website, you will leave from a spaceport in the New Mexico desert. Please plan to arrive at least 90 minutes in advance for sub-orbital flights, and 2 hours in advance for orbital flights. Bring copies of your passport, and pack light, because it takes 200 pounds of solid fuel to lift that 3 ounce tube of hand cream into space.

Following lift-off, the commercial spacecraft will reach a cruising altitude of 62 miles. Here, you will be treated to the ultimate sightseeing experience. Of course, you have seen the moon before, but few humans have seen it like this! Specifically, it will appear a bit smaller, because you will be a little farther away from it than usual.

While my old house in Providence is no longer visible from space, some claim that The Great Wall of China is. At its thickest point, the Great Wall is only about 30 feet across, the same width as a beach volleyball court. This is probably why the U.S. diverted so much money to the space program during the Cold War... most of the early manned missions were devoted to counting Soviet volleyball courts.

Anyway, a Virgin Galactic ticket includes a 30 minute space flight, unlimited Wi-Fi access and a complimentary copy of their inflight magazine, Thermospheres. This will run you just over $200,000 including bag fees, so keep an eye out for a Groupon offer.

As you glide back to earth, the cars on the interstate will look like tiny little ants scurrying in a line. As you draw closer, they will look more and more like giant, freakish ants. Holy crap… how long were you gone? Come closer still, and you will see that they're just cars. Phew.

Now let's talk about the elephant in the room... SAFETY. (And I'm not referring to Safety the Elephant from that fire department coloring book.) I understand your propensity to perseverate on the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Let's try to keep this in perspective, though. For every space shuttle that exploded, there were 2 space shuttles that didn't explode whatsoever. That already-favorable ratio is even more impressive when you consider NASA's practice of subcontracting all 20,000 spaceship parts to the lowest bidder. Virgin Galactic has much better quality control, because Sir Richard Branson personally inspects all defective O-rings. More importantly, all components are manufactured at a single location by employees of Virgin Industries. As you would imagine, most of them are kraut-rock singers who didn’t read the fine print in their record contracts.

One last piece of advice: Don't waste your time visiting the international space station. That place is a rocketourist trap.

With warmest regards,