Disgusted By Modern Life

A few weeks ago I saw a beautiful picture in the local weekly paper. A happy couple, dressed up in their finest attire, kissing with passion. I’m pretty sure it was these people:

2018-04-07
http://nostalgiaphotographystl.com/weddings

Now, I don’t have anything against weddings. Hell, I had one myself. Flowers, pretty dress, booze, rain, fraternity brothers hitting on sorority sisters, pictures in a book, tears, dancing, falling asleep before you could consummate, the whole works.

Weddings are fine things. They’re fun, they’re exciting, they’re a momentous occasion. I think they should be special.

I also think they should be reasonable. And what’s unreasonable about the picture I saw, in that newspaper, was that it was a full-page advertisement. For a bank.

Your Perfect Day

We’ll help you pay for it.

Wedding Loans as low as 4.99% APR

Special Rate through March 31

Ugh. Disgusting. We have now sunk so low as a society where this is acceptable. Where going into debt for an experience is considered reasonable. Where people who don’t have enough money to support themselves somehow think borrowing money is going to solve that problem.

Where bank executives, driven by profit targets, see an untapped opportunity and instead of counseling people to, perhaps, I don’t know, LIVE WITHIN THEIR MEANS!, reach out and collect interest from those who would likely be better off delaying the party for a year in order to save for it properly.

Where “investors”, a.k.a. you and me in our 401(k)s, seek ever higher and higher returns, driving bank executives to predatory practices, driving advertisement that indebtedness is a good thing to people who really shouldn’t be borrowing and are too naive to know better, driving dissatisfaction with life and the marriage, driving, ultimately, a negative cycle of emotion and action.

Don’t get me wrong – borrowing can have its good uses. Mortgage on a house, college loans, even auto loans are all using money to create more value for those who borrow. But borrowing to have a party? Putting yourself even further behind as you start your relationship? Seems ridiculous and short-sighted on the part of those who are taking out the loans, seems predatory for those who are making them, and seems negligent for those friends and family members who are sitting around and encouraging it.

Please stop this modern merry-go-round. I’m sick, and I want to get off.

Extremely Bad Advice – Parental Finances

Dear SJ: I learned recently that my mother’s retirement funds are gone. She has been scammed by the home health agency she hired a few years ago. Apparently they got her to sign a financial power of attorney form, authorizing one of their company employees to make withdrawals from her accounts. They drained over $200,000 in just the past 6 months. The employee posted Instagram and Facebook pictures from her trips to Cancun and Ireland, which I’m certain were taken with Mom’s money. (When I confronted her, she said “Prove it”. Ugh!) Not only retirement – that was supposed to be my inheritance!

I asked a lawyer, and he said that the forms are legit. Police can’t do anything. Better Business Bureau doesn’t really care about these small businesses – they sent my mom a flyer called “How to Avoid Senior Catfishing” after all the money was gone. What should I do? FRUSTRATED WITH FINANCES

 

Dear FRUSTRATED,

All right, I’m going to do the hard work that nobody before you has cared enough to do. Frankly, I don’t really care about you or your crusty, “she-had-it-coming” mom, either, but I do get a bit of a chubby when thinking about people respecting my brain, so I keep doing it.

Here’s the deal: you’re the one at fault here. If your mom had 200k in liquid assets that this flimsy mooch could access at the stroke of a pen, that’s a big black mark on your abilities as a responsible child. I mean, what intelligent, forward-looking heir leaves an aging, senile, incontinent grandmother in charge of her own money? Old broads like that should have a debit card with like a hundred and fifty deposited every week, just enough for a half-dozen cups of coffee and a couple of bowls of “medicinal” marijuana down at the VA. Access to any more than that is just stupid. Why? Well, I think the fact that you’re asking me this question should be Prosecution’s Exhibit #1.

Anyway. Too late to get that back now. Money’s spent, tan’s faded, hangover’s dissipated, the Irish bartender has returned to folding towels instead of folding his lips over some sweet health care aide’s nips. Sucks to be you, because for 200 large you should have at least gotten to watch.

But – you want to get something for your efforts, don’t you? Warning: you’re gonna have to play the long game on this one.

First, you have to find a dirty insurance agent. One that will allow your mother to buy a huge policy on herself at such an advanced age. You’re gonna need about a half a million, to do 2 things.

You’re replacing the 200k that should have been your inheritance, and you’re covering her living costs while she stays with you over the next two years. Yes, this has to happen. Suck it up and deal with it.

You are probably going to have to second mortgage the house in order to make the premium payments while this is going on. Ask the agent if you can gross up the policy to cover this amount, too. If he’s as dirty as I think he is, he’ll be all over it, because, remember, more premium = more commission!

Then, all you have to do then is wait out those 2 years. That’s the usual length of a suicide exclusion. And when time’s up? Make sure you get a “terminal illness” rider early withdrawal approved by your doctor, who should also be on the take already. Then you can use that money to pay for some fake test results to convince her she’s got cancer, or liver disease, or some kind of “heavy metal poisoning” that’s gonna just leave her bedridden and shitting herself on the daily. Then all you have to do is offer her a chance to do the right thing, go out “on her terms”, and call the good doctor for one last ‘script.

And if she doesn’t? Remember, county medical examiners don’t really know how to distinguish “suffocated under a pillow” from “died peacefully while sleeping”, anyway. I’ve seen the handbook, they’re not that competent.

Hopefully some of my other readers take a lesson from your imbecility and start their financial planning a hell of a lot sooner. Best of luck, I hope never to hear from you again.

Extremely Bad Advice – Office Interactions

Dear SJ:

My boss at work has been giving me a hard time about a new hire recently. I was assigned to be her mentor and “show her the ropes”. Since I’m a thirty-something married man, I’ve tried to keep my distance from the young, naïve, pretty little girl who could almost be my daughter. But my boss keeps insisting I spend more time with her outside of the office, to “build rapport”. I think it’s dangerous; especially since she has hinted that maybe she doesn’t have the best of morals. One time she let slip that she would “do anything” to get ahead in this company. And she admitted to me that she cheated on some tests and bought essays instead of writing them herself so she could get better grades. Oh, and another thing – my boss is another guy even older than me, and I suspect that he might have hired her simply for her looks. What do I do? Should I approach HR? Call out the boss? Just go with it?

HESITANT HARRY

Dear HESITANT,

I don’t get it. I mean, I really don’t. You’ve got a young, attractive girl practically throwing herself at you, you’ve got your boss’s approval, and you’ve got permission from HR to get close to her. Yet you haven’t yet gone for it. Why not?

You know HR isn’t really bothered by this kind of thing. Why else would they assign you to be her “mentor”? Everyone who’s anyone knows that “mentor” is just code-speak for “hit your quarterly sales and profit goals and you can do whatever the hell you want.” Including banging in the office. Especially banging in the office. Happy employees are productive employees, am I right?

I know it’s on your mind, since your letter concluded with “Just go with it?” I mean, if you were serious about not having sex with this girl, you’d have asked me, “How do I say no? I don’t want to cheat.” But, clearly, that’s not your angle. So we’re working under the following assumptions.

One: she’s DTF. Two: you’re DTF. Three: Your boss is down with you making the beast with two backs. Hell, he’s practically throwing her at you, encouraging you to “build rapport”. You’re going to have to get over whatever performance anxiety or antiquated guilt trip still holding you back in order for this to happen. Unfortunately I can’t be there to smack you upside the head and knock this kind of sense into you. You’re just going to have to man up on your own and decide to do this thing, for your own good, for her good, for your boss’s good, and for your company’s bottom line.

So here’s what you do.

Start with an early “performance review”. This should happen, ideally, on a Thursday afternoon, after most of the work is done for the day. [Why Thursday? Because I want another story to get me excited when I open up my e-mail on Friday.] When she comes in to your office, make sure you’re sitting behind your desk with your pants pulled down. You don’t have to be spanking it or anything, but it would be good if you had a hand in your underwear.

Mention how good she looks. Be specific – don’t just say, “You look nice,” use a direct compliment. “Your blouse really makes your eyes sparkle,” or some other drivel that women love to convince themselves is true and not just an inroad to her panties. Tell her, “Here in the office, things have been going good, but I think they can go better, don’t you think?” And use your eyes to indicate your crotch. Based on her reaction, you can decide whether the banging happens on your desk or in the bathroom at the local dive bar. If she starts touching herself and complimenting you, it’s on like Donkey Kong. If she is a little bit shy, that just means you’ll have to “take the meeting offsite” and call your cousin Jagermeister to wingman for you.

And as this is corporate America, they like to have documentation of everything. Make sure to wear your Google Glass and get some POV videos for your boss. Like you said, chances are good that he hired her for her looks and her willingness to sleep her way to the top. So you’ll need to have adequate evidence for your official written review coming later. Best would be if you save the condom too as evidence of your participation – they’re going to want to match the semen and the vaginal secretions later to make sure she’s not conspiring with a competitor. And when it’s all over? Don’t forget to “cycle back” with regular “action items” about every two weeks.

Best of luck, we’ll look for the resultant bump in your company’s performance to push you guys into the Fortune 500 in the near future.

Writing Practice – 3/18/2018 – Concerning Happiness

Prompt: How far would you go to achieve your happiness?

I admit- this may be limiting me. But I won’t push past the boundaries of another’s satisfaction or happiness in life to achieve my own. If it requires me to leave a wake of destruction in my path to achieve that “happiness”, then I have the wrong idea of happiness or the wrong idea of the ideal.

I should not have to go to such great lengths, either. I should be able to find happiness wherever I am, whenever I am, without needing to search and seek and journey. I should be able to get to a level of happiness by my everyday interactions – by the things I am doing for myself, for my children, for my community, for my nation, for my world.

I should not need to look far. I am and should find happiness in the alarm clock – in the running shoes. In the dirty dishes, that transform themselves under my great care and safe tutelage into sparkling clean ones.

I should find happiness in a well-folded shirt. In an empty e-mail inbox. In a to-do list completely crossed off. In watching my son hit a double. In reading a story my daughter has written. In throwing crusts of bread, in throwing the whole piece out for the squirrels and the chipmunks and the sparrows and chickadees.

I should find happiness in the pen – in using it dry from my words on the push. I should find happiness win a well-covered page. I should find happiness in a well-read book. In a philosophical insight. In a historical lesson I can only now understand.

I should find happiness in ladybugs – in empty wine glasses – in watermelon rinds and runny noses on a winter’s morning. I should find happiness in a lit candle, burning to fend off to ward off to beat away the darkness of night.

I should find happiness in a hug from my mother. In a smile from my brother. In the touch of my lover. In the morning wind, in the stinging rain, in a subway car too full for me to squeeze in. I should find happiness in an evening newscast, and in laying my head on the pillow at night.

And – I should – So I Do.

Extremely Bad Advice – Unhappy at Mealtime

Dear SJ:  I’m 8 years old. My parents are giving me really bad food and I don’t like it. Like mushrooms and onion soup and stale bread and whole milk. They say it’s good for me, but I don’t believe them. I think they are lying. Should I believe them? How do I get them to give me more of the things my friends have that I like, like pizza and macaroni and cheese and hot dogs?

HANGRY IN HARRISBURG

Answer:
 I’m so glad you asked this, HANGRY. I’ll go out on a limb and say that you’re likely not the only one wondering the same thing.

Who gives a fuck whether you eat your vegetables, right? It’s not like that has any bearing whatsoever on your future life. We all know obesity comes from just eating too much, so I’m sure you’ll figure that out on your own in a couple of decades and be just fine. [Yes, I wrote “fuck” to an 8-year-old. I’m sure he knows that word already. I mean, the kid goes to public school, so he’s probably had that on his spelling list for 2 years. And even if not, you think that pandering YouTuber trying to get past the last level of Super Mario Clitlicker really gives a flying one how old or innocent his audience’s ears are?]

Anyway, here’s what you have to do. You probably don’t remember it, but a few years ago, there was a sure-fire way for you to get any goddamned thing you wanted. It’s called a “temper tantrum”, and by age 2 you had mastered it.

When you want something, just start shouting the thing you want really, really loudly, over and over at the top of your lungs. Don’t bother asking, just demand from the first offense. When they put down a bowl of rice and veggies, but you want pizza, it goes like this: PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! Don’t stop till you get it. Or pass out trying. If that happens, take a lesson from your future college self: wake up, throw up, and get right back at it.

Want mac & cheese? That’s easy. MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! You didn’t mention popsicles, but what fart-sniffing booger-eater like yourself doesn’t want one every day? PA-SICKLE! PA-SICKLE! PA-SICKLE!

Accentuate your demands by demonstrating your complete contempt for what they’ve already provided. Dump whatever swill they tried to pass off as food on the floor. Stale bread? Wipe your ass with it and dump it on their plate. Onion soup? Looks great in their bed. Mushrooms? Try this: put one in your mouth, swirl it around to get it good and slobbery, then just drool it right into Mom’s purse. Shouldn’t take more than two or three of these incidents to train them in the new order of things.

And remember: when they try to object, you’ve got leverage. They’ll try to say something like “Now, HANGRY, stop misbehaving or we’ll give you a spanking.” Your best, first, and only response is simple, since you’re now old enough to read a phone book and, I presume, have achieved the hamster-level IQ to use a phone: “Do it and I call Child Protective Services on your lazy asses, you bastards. Now where’s my raspberry Ring Pop?”

Restaurant Review – The Tenderloin Room

The Tenderloin Room is an independent, family-owned restaurant in the middle of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. It has that old-style city steakhouse feel: dark wood, dim lights, white linens, and an overly-aggressive waiter in a tuxedo scooping your breadcrumbs off the tablecloth every three minutes.

My girlfriend treated me to dinner there for my birthday. It was certainly an experience. 

First impressions: Knowing that there is still a dress code, even if it is “business casual”, is refreshing these days. So many places just say “come as you are”, that having to put on a collared shirt for dinner made it a step up, which enhanced the sensation that this was something special. And as we walked in and took in the dark wood paneling that’s been there since the beginning in the 1940s, the soft lighting, and the wall of wine accented by the stained glass above the bar, it really felt a step up.

Source: Tenderloin Room

Settling in: Our waiter was Mick, a New York-sounding gentleman who we learned is actually a St. Louis native. He was professional, well-attired in his tuxedo, and competent at what he was doing. However, I felt like he was either in a hurry or somewhat dismissive at times. He would not quite finish his sentence before turning to move along. This was the only negative from his otherwise high-quality demeanor.

The food: We chose not to have wine or cocktails, nor any of the appetizers. Mick presented them well, with full knowledge of each option and a great style. However, we really just wanted the steak, so we chose not to indulge.

She had the Cowboy Ribeye. I chose the Pepperloin a la Tenderloin, their signature preparation of filet. Both came with mashed potatoes and a steamed broccoli bunch.

The steaks were well-seasoned and quite tasty. However, I believe they were slightly undercooked. She ordered medium-rare, and it was plated more like rare. I ordered medium, and mine came out more like medium-rare. Not a bother, as we both would rather have it less done than more. The steaks were very good, but not out of line with any other fine steakhouse dinner I’ve had before.

It’s hard to mess up broccoli, and they didn’t. We both agreed the best part of the meal, though, was the mashed potatoes. I believe they were red potatoes, twice-baked, and there was some skin left. In combination with copious garlic and seasoning, this portion of the meal made an impression on the both of us. We felt that the potatoes were far above anything comparable; and that’s what really set this dinner apart.

Full by that point, we couldn’t even take a look at the dessert presentation. Perhaps another time when we have a bit more room.

The $$$: It’s a steakhouse, and it’s inside the Chase Park Plaza hotel, so it’s going to be on the expensive side. However, I received this dinner as a treat, so I didn’t have to pay! From the menu prices, though, I suspect that the meals are  on the  high end of reasonable. 

Overall rating: While the evening was excellent, I give the Tenderloin Room 4 stars out of 5. The food was top-notch; the host, as I said, was just below that with his attitude. I would have only been able to rate the Tenderloin Room 5 stars had we gotten our steaks cooked more to our request. Otherwise, I heartily recommend it for a special evening.

Book Review – Gravity Box and Other Spaces

Mark W. Tiedemann is a St. Louis, Missouri native and current resident. He’s been professionally published in various markets over the years, and had a couple of novels shortlisted for awards.

Stephan James is a Wooster, Ohio native, transplanted to St. Louis through Indiana. He’s been paid only a few dollars from his speculative fiction, despite racking up an impressive rejection catalogue. What audacity would he have to have in order to write a review of a book by a working author?

Well, to be honest, I think anyone can write a review. Isn’t that the point of literature and of storytelling? That we make it accessible to anyone, and we don’t require them to be exactly on par with us in order to have an opinion. Should he take my comments to heart as strongly as his editor’s or his agent’s or his writing group’s? Clearly not. But does that completely disqualify me from judging how I feel when reading these stories? Not at all.

Therefore:

Gravity Box and Other Spaces, by Mark W. Tiedemann

I picked this up from the library based on the title alone, not knowing that Mr. Tiedemann is from St. Louis, so what a happy surprise it was to learn that I’m in pretty close proximity to a man who has made his living from writing the kind of stories I like to read and write. I began to read, then, with earnest.

As stories go, then, the 11 tales within this volume are complete stories. They have characters, in places, doing things. They’re clearly speculative – a pretty even split of fantasy and science fiction themes. No horror, that I could tell. Space travel/time dilation, artificial intelligence, dryads/land spirits, fossil “awakenings”, etc.

I skipped around a bit, so if there was any intended continuity from reading the stories in the order presented I missed it. There are two, “Miller’s Wife” and “Along the Grain”, set in the same world. They have different sets of characters, though, which allows for independence between the two. And in the second, “Along the Grain”, Tiedemann did a good job of not assuming that the reader was familiar with the world. He provided enough details and descriptions that the reader never felt out of place or confused.

Pros:  As above, these feel like full stories. The characters are fully fleshed out, with names, backstories, desires, needs, and flaws. The places are described enough that we get a feel for the setting, without overkill that would otherwise distract from the flo. And these are all character-driving stories, rather than sci- or fae-driven. That is, the stories are about the people in them, not about the technology or the magic of the world. As such, this was a good way to organize these stories.

Cons:   Many of the main characters in these stories “lack agency”, which is just a fancy way of saying they don’t really do much. That is, they may be the main character, but the climax of the tension often does not revolve around such characters and their actions. For example, in “The Disinterred”, Thomas Auerbach is searching for his departed wife. She is with a traveling band of religious fanatics protesting the excavation of dinosaur remains. And yet, at the end of the story, Thomas didn’t really do anything. He went to the dig site, he observed, he argued with a few others, and then just sort of… watched the events unfold around him. It’s hard to feel like he either triumphed or failed in his quest at the end of this story, and at the end of most others.

Perhaps this is why most of these stories were previously unpublished. A few were, with appropriate credits. But maybe the lack of main character power to decide their fate is why the rest were not.

And this may be picking a nit, but I noticed a style convention that eventually rubbed me the wrong way. In almost all of the stories (9 of 11), the first sentence begins with the main character’s name. “Egan Ginger pulled into Saletcroix…” “Bruce held Ro-boy tight against his chest…” “Jen Cable awoke before the alarm sounded.” While it is always better to name characters early, so the reader can begin to picture him or her in the mind sooner, this felt like too much all the time. I would have preferred some variety in how the stories began. Because once I noticed it, I couldn’t not notice it again, and that may have distracted from my reading pleasure.

Favorites:  Because these two had characters taking charge of their situation, I found “Along the Grain” and “Forever and a Day” to be the strongest stories. Their main characters didn’t just watch; they tried. They strove for something. They may have failed, depending on the definition, but at least they didn’t just sit and watch as the world passed them by. For that reason, I would put these two at the top of the collection.

Rating:  Overall, I would give this one 3 of 5 stars. Enjoyable read, but nothing I’ll want to pick up again or have in my permanent collection.