It's Oscars time. Somebody wake the Grouch.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter VII (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has passed the 30,000 word mark, and is once again eating solid food".)

Friday came surprisingly quick then. I had almost begun to believe that Monday was some sort of elaborate practical joke, or perhaps even a vivid hallucination, shared by my family, my co-worker, and at least one waitress. The only thing that kept me from buying into this completely was the sight of the mysteriously loony DVD sitting on my desk at the office. Every time I sat down, it stood out like a marmoset at a royal tea party.

The thing had almost taken on a life of its own, in my mind at least. For a few days, I would come back from the loo or from lunch to find the disk moved to a different part of my desk or turned over. This was fairly disturbing until Stew admitted that he’d been doing it as a little joke to take the edge off of the tension. He gave it up when I revealed that each time it happened I became that much dizzier and the throbbing in my head that much more pronounced. I also did a bit of a stumble and complained of chest pains. That was my practical joke for the week.

Actually, I was feeling much better than I probably had a right to. I was even relatively nice to Heath when he called up and mentioned casually that the potential book deal with Manchester Technical Printing had fallen through on account that they had utterly no use for a humourous book on e-mails that might contain a tip or two about using Microsoft Outlook. I was feeling chipper enough to mention that I was writing a novel and I could hear him literally fall out of his chair on the other end of the phone.

“Earl, that’s fabulous news!” he said, a slight giddiness in his voice.

“Better get back to Pneumatic Tubes Press of Birmingham then,” I happily suggested.

“Man, it’s like you read my mind.” He replied and then excused himself to make several calls about this development to various publishers, all of which, I suspected would be headed off by devotedly zealous publishing secretaries, determined to keep any and all actual reading material away from their bosses.

In any case, the DVD sat on my desk occupying its own little space, scorned by the various pencils, pens, sticky notes, and paperweights disguised as golf balls. I was half tempted to watch it again, in case it was like one of those pictures that looks plain and meaningless at a first glance but stared at in just the right way reveals another completely different picture hidden underneath the obvious visuals.

I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the repetitive, deranged voice though. My nerves were just starting to come back around and I didn’t want to reinjure them. Instead, I wrote a piece relating to the election, and a long bit about how strange it is that you can find a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Victoria Station in London, but would starve looking for decent pub grub in most American cities outside of Florida, L.A., and New York. I availed myself of the opportunity to make as many “bangers and mash” jokes as were decent, which admittedly isn’t many.

So I stared at the DVD in its case instead. It seemed a happy compromise at the time, but I quickly wound up going back to research the number of times the phrase “finger lickin’ good” appears in the British press. Finding few examples, I spent an hour adding another 2,000 words to the novel, most of them having to do with the ex-model getting her skirt caught in a revolving door on a breezy day.

This relative calm was utterly shattered by two events that happened in the middle of the day, just after a hearty lunch of Carne Asada and Stew’s and my favourite Mexican bistro. The first was a phone call that greeted me just as I sat back down at my desk and brushed the tortilla crisp crumbs off of my jumper. Stew was hitting practice putts across the floor into a paper coffee cup.

“Hello,” I optimistically answered.

“Mr. Fando,” came a silky voice, with just a hint of Chinese diction, “Did you enjoy your burrito and cheese dip?”

I made a slight choking noise, although the only thing in my windpipe was suddenly very thick and dry air.

“I’m very disappointed that you haven’t taken the time to return my call,” the voice continued.

“Mr. Wang!” I sat so loudly that Stew’s putter slipped out of his hand and crushed the paper cup, which was a full 20 feet away.

“Well, I’m surprised to hear back from you,” I continued. “I thought you would have realised by now that I am as clueless as a former employee of a business firm can get, don’t you know.”

“Mr. Fando,” Wang replied, with great calmness, “You underestimate me as much as your pretend to underestimate yourself.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Wang,” I replied, “I assure you that I underestimate myself with great accuracy.”

Stew looked at me as though I had just spoken in Finnish.

“Mr. Fando, I think that you are not applying your imagination to the situation enough. This can all be resolved very simply.”

“So, you’re going to stop calling?” I suggested.

Mr. Wang laughed that damned annoying soft laugh of his. It was annoying because he was so good at it, and when I tried it, I only managed to sound like Barney Rubble from the Flintstones.

“Mr. Fando, I think you know what we want. It’s sitting on the desk right in front of you.”

“My PC?” I replied. “You can’t have that!”

“No, Mr. Fando.”

“My November’s Reader’s Digest?”

“Mr. Fando…”

“My lucky Neil Diamond coffee mug?”

“Now you’re just making that up.”

He was absolutely correct. It was actually a Doctor Who coffee mug, which I kept perpetually filled with ink pens and one neon green highlighter.

“Oh…,” I said with feigned realisation, “my special 118 yard holed shot golf ball!”

“The DVD, Mr. Fando,” Mr. Wang finally said, with the resignation of someone who has just lost a very hard fought twenty-seven hour game of Monopoly.

“Listen, Mr. Wang,” I replied. “If you’ve wanted this DVD so bad, why haven’t you just come up and nicked it whilst I’m out on errands or indisposed with nervous bowels?

“Mr. Fando, I am not about to break the law capriciously simply to speed along the inevitable,” he replied. “I am a very patient man and I know how to get what I want in the most effective and untroubled way.”

I had to admit that he was quite impressive. Many people, including a host of drive through window fast food servers, technical help personnel for computer manufacturers, and phone solicitors had been brought to tears or obscene invective by my “playing dumb” routine, even in its most lame incarnation, which was to be expected in the case of dealing with people packing large caliber handguns. In fact, the only people who have ever been completely immune to it were government workers, who were trained to begin any interaction with the public under the assumption that the average person was as stupid as a wet brick.

I suddenly realised that Mr. Wang was not simply a member of a Chinese criminal gang. He was working for the Chinese government.

“Let me think it over a bit more,” I finally replied.

“Of course,” replied Mr. Wang, with a trace of satisfaction in his voice, “A most eminently reasonable course of action. You have my number when you are ready. Please convey my best to Mr. Miller,” and with that, he hung up.

Stew had picked up the other line midway through the call and nearly fell out of his chair when he heard his name mentioned. At least that’s what I thought, but it turned out that he only fell out because he was trying to juggle two gold balls in the air and listen in at the same time.

“Well, I guess he’s not giving up,” Stew remarked.

“I’m not surprised,” I responded. “He’s playing this like a game of chess, without the little alarm clock to speed things up, and with a twelve-hour nap after each move.”

“Sounds like a Chinese government agent to me,” Stew observed. “A Chinese gang member would have blown your head off with a bazooka after that conversation.”

Somehow, that was a strangely comforting comment, if only for the fact that Stew and I were on the same wavelength regarding the affiliation of Mr. Wang. Also, if we were wrong, I had no evidence that Mr. Wang or Mr. Dong possessed a bazooka or could smuggle one through customs.

“So, they want the DVD,” I said in a conspiratorial tone.

“Well, I kind of thought it had something to do with that,” said Stew, with a sort of “didn’t you figure that out” tone in his voice.

“Well, I suppose the word ‘Yangtze’ left me thinking there was some connection.” I offered.

“Maybe you’ve just gotten a hold of some sort of kooky tourist commercial and they want it back,” Stew suggested.

“Except they sent it to me, whoever they is,” I replied.

Stew sat in deep thought for a moment. He then looked up suddenly.

“I’m out,” he announced, and returned to his putting with a new paper cup.

Almost immediately after this brief conversational debriefing, there was a commotion in the hallway. There was the sound of a door opening and then a squeal of surprise It sounded like someone in one of the other offices was accosting an intruder.

“What are you doing in that office?” pealed the trembling voice of an older woman. It sounded very much like the secretary of the private bookkeeping firm down the hall. There was an indistinct voice which addressed her. “No, I don’t care if it’s a mistake!” continued the shaky woman’s voice. “You’re trespassing and if you don’t leave now I’m calling the police!”

There was a door slam and quiet footsteps coming down the hall, towards our office. Another door opened and the indistinct voice spoke again and yet another nervous female voice came back, “No, I’m sorry, this is Mutual Insurance. I… I think the office you’re looking for is down the hall sir.”

Stew and I both looked at one another. We both seemed to have the same idea that this might be a surprise visit from our Chinese friends. Without speaking, I gathered from his look that he had the same idea as I. Mr. Wang had feigned patience and was not coming up to apply a charming bit of brute force.

Stew reached into his golf bag and grabbed his driver. He then looked at it more closely, looked at me, and then put it back.

“Toss me the club,” I hissed.

“It’s brand new!” he hissed back and reached into the bag, pulled out the nine-iron and tossed that to me, grip first. He pulled out a three-iron himself.

“Like either one of us could hit that club,” I whispered nervously, as the footprints grew louder.

Stew gave me a sour look and moved towards the doorway, positioning himself so that he would be behind the door when it swung open. I moved towards the other side of the door and pressed myself flat against the wall. We both raised the clubs into the air as the footsteps stopped right outside our office. We heard shallow breathing outside, but it only sounded like one pair of footsteps had arrived outside the door. I glanced around at the windows in case someone else was prowling around outside, or worse, taking aim through one of them.

The doorknob began to slowly turn. Stew leaned forward with the club high above his head. I held the nine-iron to the outside of my shoulder to as to swing it around and not get crossed up with Stew’s club.

The door flashed open.

“Surprise!!!” shouted a most un-Chinese baritone voice, with a flourish.

Stew and I stood transfixed with amazement. In the doorway stood a tallish male figure with dark hair, wearing a long yellow robe made of what appeared to be yak’s wool. He had a pair of indigo blue pants on underneath the robe made from the same soft-looking wool. Strangely enough, I recognized the robe as a traditional Sherpa chuba from Nepal, with the accompanying kanam pants. He wore yak’s hide kaza shoes and was carefully attired in a prized kata scarf. He stood in the doorway with his arms outstretched, holding a bright grass green cashmere blanket in one hand and an ornamental wood carving in the other.

“You guys going out for a round of golf?” he asked.

Stew and I lowered our clubs and looked at each other, jaws slack.

It was Nuffy.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter VII (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 28,000 words, and has taken to burning effigies of the founders of National Novel Writing Month".)

Chapter 7
From the Beyond, Just Near Kathmandu


I spent about thirty seconds explaining to my daughter the difference between Phoenix, Arizona and the Phoenix Corporation, after which she gave me a very well-organised lecture on the importance of detail and specificity in speech that lasted at least fifteen minutes.

I spent the time preparing supper explaining to my wife what I had been through that day, the eeriness of the empty facilities at the Phoenix Corporation headquarters, the fire at Jim’s place, and the smooth but apparently dangerous Mr. Wang and his tall, quiet, ladies’ man of an associate. For once, she observed, my day at work at the blog had been worse than hers.

We went over several possibilities as we ate, regarding what might have been behind all these mysterious events, but it was much like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube with two forks instead of your hands. Even if we’d have known where to begin, the process itself was distinctly unmanageable. Trying to do so in the presence of our daughter made it doubly so. We didn’t want to alarm her about any of this, but she was not only very curious, but as clever as an astrophysicist.

“So, why do you think no one was out there?” my wife asked.

“Well, with all the you know whos there, there must have been some kind of security concerns,” I replied.

“If the you know whos were in some kind of you know what,” my wife cryptically replied, “what’s that got to do with you know who… I mean you?”

“What are you people talking about?” asked our daughter.

I had no clue, either to why I should be involved after two years away from the bloody asylum or as to what kind of security concern was involved. We decided that we should keep our eyes open. I’d be especially careful going to work and back. I was worried for my family, but I realised that Mr. Wang didn’t seem particularly interested in involving them, so I decided to go with that. I told my wife to be very careful going to and from work and to avoid any places where there weren’t a lot of people around. Unfortunately, this was essentially the same advice I’d given her for years, so I wasn’t all that confident it would make a difference in this new and highly unusual situation.

After supper I called Stew and let him know what had happened that day as well. He mulled much of it over, but as I had never told him about the behind the scenes workings of the Phoenix Corporation, being prohibited by my exit contract, he was working under the assumption that this was a business-related bit of intrigue. The incident with the two Chinese gentlemen greatly interested him, as he was when any of his friends came in to close contact with armed people.

“That sounds like more than business,” he observed in a low, concerned voice. “Has Phoenix had any dealings with Chinese firms? Maybe they’re part of a criminal organization?”

He let out a long breath of air.

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think so,” I replied. “Let’s just say that Phoenix has had some government contracts in the past. I got the feeling that these two were operating on that assumption.”

“Still, even the government can run afoul of the Chinese Mafia.” He pointed out.

It was a fair point, but it didn’t explain my involvement. The only person I had been regularly associated with at Phoenix was Nixon, but he operated under the cover name Mudge Guthrie, Vice President Emeritus of the Corporation and although I was titled his Executive Assistant, I was little more than a glorified gopher and ex-President sitter. So, if the world believed Nixon dead, what would any Chinese men, criminal or governmental want with a reclusive semi-retired business leader?

I briefly considered the possibility that his cover had been blown. It seemed very unlikely because of the immense caution the Corporation took to keep him and most of the others under wraps. It was one thing if someone accidentally spotted Elvis on occasion. The Corporation counted on these kinds of events and the resulting paranoia helped to minimise actual security breaches. I wondered what Stew would have thought if he’d known that the Weekly World News was owned outright, if secretly, by Phoenix and that most of the Bat Boy stories were designed to cover up Bob Crane’s indiscretions with Jayne Mansfield in public, the randy geezers.

The other possibility was that Stew was on to something about the business. Perhaps, Phoenix had crossed someone in the Chinese Mafia with one of their various front transactions. That would explain why Jim would have been targeted, as the various celebrities all had security arrangements, when they followed them, that would make the people at Fort Knox blush with envy. As a public member of the Corporation, even a former one, maybe they thought I could give them some information on how to contact the actual administrators, not realising that they were all people who happened to be believed by the public to be dead.

“Whatever’s going on, you need to be careful.” Stew recommended. “Have you thought of calling the police?”

That was the furthest thing from my mind now, given Phoenix’s constant efforts to avoid police involvement. Still, it did raise an interesting question. If Phoenix were aware of my own activities, and if I went to the police, would that draw them out in someway, to where I could get help from them regarding Mr. Wang? I realised that if this were so, someone would have contacted me when I “breached” the grounds earlier in the day. Still, going to the police would complicate things and there would be much I simply couldn’t tell them or that they wouldn’t believe in a million years.

“You say you used to work for President Nixon?”

“Yes, just two years ago?”

“President Richard Milhous Nixon?”

“Right-o.”

“Didn’t President Nixon die in 1994, Mr. Fando?”

“Well, that’s what they told the media.”

My only comfort was that I’d be safe in the drunk tank until my wife came to bail me out. It was definitely on the backup plan list for now though.

After the phone call, my wife and I played a few games of Clue with our daughter. She was lobbying for Monopoly, but I explained that as the average game of Monopoly can take up to fifteen hours to play and it was a school night, that she should pick a shorter game. In the end, as usual, she and my wife won all the games. I was more distracted than normal, but still never would have imagined Colonel Mustard in the Billiards Room with the wrench. It just didn’t seem his style.

After the games I buckled down and really started to write on the novel. It seemed ridiculous to me to work on the thing with such worrying events going on around us, but it was also a great way to relieve the tension and escape reality.

I thought about that for a moment and realised that what I should be doing is writing a hyper-realistic and extremely mundane work of fiction. Given the events of the last few days, only that would have been a true change of pace.

Nonetheless, I managed almost 3,000 words before I popped off to bed. I was sitting at 8,500 words and my detective protagonist was only now just getting to know his ex-model companion well enough to spice up the dialogue with double entendres about how he liked to “keep a bullet in the chamber of his gun because you never know when you may have to shoot someone.” It was abysmal pulp, but I was writing. I tried to focus a bit more on the violence because it had a bit more of a moral dimension to it.

I suddenly realised that this was exactly why violence was often less of a problem than sex in the cinema. If two people shoot each other on film, not only can you argue that the shooting was somehow the outcome of a complex moral situation, such as the criminal activities of a desperate gang of international criminals posing as overnight delivery men, but you also generally understand that the two people involved are gong to get up and walk away after the camera stops rolling.

That was what made films like Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai so interesting. Almost everyone gets spectacularly killed at the end, but we know they all got up afterwards, brushed the mirror glass off of themselves, and then went to the wrap party, where Orson and Rita Hayworth made jokes about their recent divorce.

Sex in a film however is unavoidably real. No matter how much simulation is applied, the participants still have to get involved in rather personal ways. Nudity is also a big problem when you think about it, just in terms of character. When we saw Shakespeare in Love and the love scene between Gwenyth Paltrow’s character and Joseph Fiennes’ character was going on, you could hear the murmurs in the cinema as all the men and a few women said to ourselves, “So that’s what Gwenyth looks like naked. Not bad.”

I’m fairly certain that it took about twenty minutes for anyone in the cinema to pick the plot back up.

For the purposes of writing however, I had only my own moral conscience to contend with and lines about “bullets in chambers” weren’t soothing it. I went to bed consoling myself with the idea that, with an agent like Heath, no one outside of my wife, Stew, Nuffy, and the editors for the Institute of Police Technology and Management Press would ever read it.

The next few days were surprisingly uneventful. My trips to and from the office were unmarked by any kind of clandestine surveillance, so far as I could tell. Stew seemed extra cautious, frequently looking out of the windows at the parking lot, and insisting that we leave no food or drink unattended. My wife and daughter reported no strange observers or encounters themselves, apart from my daughter’s feeling that one of her schoolmates was creepy enough to be an international criminal. We explained to her that calling her a “nerd” and constantly making animal sounds when girls passed, while peculiar, was within the range of normal behaviour for most boys her age.

On top of all this, I got another 4,000 words added to the book between Tuesday and Thursday. The story was getting far more complex, with a subplot about smuggled cheese and a rival for the ex-model’s suspect affections, in the person of a muscular nightclub singer and roustabout named Reinhard.

In fact, the only peculiar thing about the entire week is that rather than not coming into the office and calling to make some mysterious excuse, Nuffy had simply ceased to communicate with us altogether. Meanwhile, both Zimpter and Linus called in twice each to ask if the other had posted anything. They seemed oddly dissatisfied by our advice to “read the fricking blog and find out yourselves.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter VI (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 26,000 words, and a surely permanent cramp in both hands and his bum.)

There’s nothing quite so strange as suddenly realising you’re in the middle of a dream. Dreams are usually fitful, mystifying, vividly real, nut-bar imaginings of the lower reaches of the subconscious and quite likely the lower reaches of the most recent beer bottle that you’ve drained. I usually dream quite vividly, and quite weirdly, after a pint. I usually wake up from these incredibly disturbing dreams wishing I had another pint to wash them away with. I can only imagine sometimes that if I were a heavy drinker I’d wind up writing long tracts of deranged gibberish, like the Unabomber or Ted Rall.

The worst dreams are the ones where you dream yourself doing things that you would never ever do in real life, even if you’d drank twenty pints, which is about 19 more than I can ever manage. Oh, I don’t mean something like winding up in a public place nude somehow. While those dreams are quite uncomfortable, I can imagine exactly how I might wind up in such a predicament (the 20 pints would be a contributing factor). No, I mean things like winding up in a public place nude somehow with the Gandhi family checking out your “package” or French-kissing a salamander whilst teaching a roomful of nuns - those sorts of things.

Anyway, usually one accepts dreams as real in the way that come to us and that whatever is happening is simply the way things are at the moment. We become immersed in that shadowy but convincing reality. We believe the howlings and rantings of our inner minds, no matter how deranged, peculiar, and uncharacteristic they are. However, there are times when our active conscious mind breaks through this clinging veil. We see suddenly as though we were awake and apart from the dream, yet we are still somehow in it. Most of all, we see just how plainly absurd the dream is and would be to anyone else, yet we can not awake.

It’s precisely at darkly epiphinal moments like these that we utter things like, “Oh, crap!”

In my case the exclamation was in response to the realisation that a hastily conceived and just as hastily dismissed plot idea of mine had actually found its way into a rather permanent, if generally inaccessible portion of my brain. I deeply suspected that, should I ever have a debilitating aneurysm in my skull, the exact brain cell responsible would be that one.

Even more distressing are when you can’t wake up during such dreams. You know it’s a dream, the flag has gone up, the alarm sounded, the big, lighted ball has dropped to the bottom of Times Square, and you expect that at any moment you’ll wake up in your bed, relieved and gratified that the measuring tape the Mahatma had pulled out of his dhoti and handed to Indira (who, strangely enough, was not related to Mohandas) would never reach you. Except that you don’t wake up. You’re left there complaining about Indira’s cold hands and explaining to the nuns that you thought the salamander had stopped breathing and you were trying to resuscitate it and, by the way, would they mind turning to page 186 of The Handyman’s Guide to Funny E-Mail.

This was one of those dreams. The young man had just announced he was The Nuclear Samurai and had changed history. I knew the back story instantly. He had travelled back in time to the era of Tokugawa and not only sealed the Daimyo’s conquest of Japan but also of China, Korea, Russia, and pretty much everything south of Elk’s Beard, Nunavut, Canada. Human history had been changed completely. The United States didn’t exist in the way we thought of it, but had instead been developed from the west, eventually overrunning the non-nuclear Spanish and English colonies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The cuisine had changed; the humble frankfurter had been replaced with a kind of unfrankfurterish sausage rolled with rice, which tasted more or less like uncooked fish anyway. The national sport of what would have become the United States was judo, only with an American football and cheerleaders. Britain was now in the Japanese Commonwealth. Knighthood had been replaced with samurai lordships and to top it all off, the entire world was slightly radioactive.

It was a bit of a shock, to say the least, even though I knew for certain it was a dream. Yet, the geishas who were now filing up the stairs in line, and who were somehow on fire, just like the young man, all sang happily as they served Kentucky Fried Sushi to one another.

Then the young man turned back to me and shouted one more thing to me.

“Yangtze!!!”

This properly woke me up. My wife was sitting across the room from me in our dark leather easy chair using the laptop computer. I suspected she was writing something herself, so I lay there quietly, until I was fairly certain she was at a good pausing point. After a few moments, she looked up at me.

“That must’ve been some dream,” she observed.

“Was it that obvious?”

“Well, apart from all the shouting, you did roll over repeatedly for about three minutes.”

I surmised to myself that it was during the part when I was going up the stairs. The strange thing about many dreams is that you have absolutely no sense of time. Just before I lay down on the couch, I had glanced at the clock and noticed that it was only 3:30 p.m. Now it was nearly 6 p.m. and my wife and daughter had surely been home for at least two hours. Yet, the time it had taken me to run up the altered-future-Japanese Nathan’s Geisha House and Sushi Dog Emporium hadn’t been but about ten minutes in my dream. Clearly I must have been completely blacked out for over an hour before anything even kicked in.

The other thing about dreams that I hate is when I do things during them, things in the actual real world, that I not only can’t remember doing in the real world, but that I can’t even remember doing in the dream. I didn’t remember rolling over again and again. I was going up that odd stairwell.

My wife likes to tell the story of how, one evening during the first few months of our marriage, I shouted out in my sleep, “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” then suddenly sat upright, extended my right hand out in front of me, with my outstretched palm turned away from me, and said, “Forward!”

To this day I don’t remember a bit of it. She says that I told her I had been dreaming about flying, but my flying dreams are all rather pedestrian in nature. Whereas some people go soaring about like Superman, I simply rise off the ground like an old balloon with weak helium on a breezeless day. “Forward!” surely must have been an exaggeration on my part.

“I think I was climbing a stairwell,” I finally replied to my wife, who was patiently watching me as my brain circumnavigated the basics of my dream life.

“It must have been very circular,” she commented.

“It was,” I concluded, quietly.

I paused a moment. Should I tell her what happened at the Phoenix Corporation? Should I mention that one of my former co-worker’s homes had suddenly gone up in flames? Should I bring up the two, mysterious spongers at the restaurant? I didn’t want to worry her, but at the same time, I didn’t want her to be unaware if there were any kind of danger. It certainly seemed as though danger was more than a remote possibility. Of course, other than the flash of a gun, there hadn’t been any real threat or even excitement, just tension slowly gnawing a fist-sized hole in my stomach.

“You’ll never guess what I did today,” I started.

“Went to the Phoenix Corporation, drove by a burned out home and met two suspicious Chinese gentlemen at the Chinese buffet restaurant,” she calmly responded.

For a moment there I wasn’t sure if I was still dreaming or not. I made a mental check of my nervous system. Eyes still blinking? Check. Shoulders still tense? Check. Stomach still mostly full from late lunch? Check. Groin still over sensitive? Check. Feet still itchy? Double-check.

Fairly certain that my wife has no telepathic abilities, I started to ask her just what the source of her amazing divination was, but before I could get word one out, she answered my question.

“A Mr. Wang called,” she said. “Stew did too, but he mostly talked about golf. They both left messages on the machine.”

I dragged myself off of the couch and wandered over to the answer phone. Sure enough there were two new messages on it, on top of all the messages that our daughter has left us over the years on visits to the grandparents or after she figured out how to use the cell phones. My favourite of these is the one that goes, “Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me, (pause) your daughter!”

Later messages became more elaborate. Frequently, songs or jokes were the central message. Listening to them is sort of the equivalent of watching your child slowly turn into a vaudeville player before your eyes. I fully expected we’d receive a message from her sometime in the next twelve months in which she was accompanied by a small theatre orchestra, a chorus, and a seltzer bottle spray through the handset.

She also likes to make clandestine calls to us while at her grandparents. These calls were usually a few hours after supper and relatively short. One could generally tell that my wife’s parents were unaware of the calls because of the conspiratorially quiet tone our daughter used, unlike her usual stage voice. They often went like this:

[Quietly] “Hi Dad, is Mom there?”

“Yes, she is. How are you doing? Are you having fun there?”

[Quietly] “Yeah! I love you!”

“We love you too! Do your grandparents know you’re calling long distance?”

[Quietly] “Well, I’ve got to go! Bye!!”

I hit the play button and quickly skipped to the new messages.

The first one was clearly Mr. Wang. The smooth voice with just a hint of Chinese in it was a dead giveaway.

“Mr. Fando, I’m calling just in case you forgot about my request from earlier today. I should think that after finding no one at the Phoenix Corporation, and seeing the results of that dreadful fire, that you would realise that there are some very strange things going on and that we might be of some assistance to you.”

He laughed the soft laugh again. He was quite good at it. I wondered to myself whether he practised it when he was alone; just to keep it in tip top shape for conversations like these.

“Please call me if you change your mind. I very much hope you will,” he continued. “Also, I must apologise for leaving you with the bill today. I’m afraid that was a practical joke on the part of my associate Mr. Dong. He does have a rather odd sense of humour. He told me to say hello to you for him, and that he will be happy to reimburse you when we next meet. Goodbye.”

“How decent of Mr. Dong,” I thought. I then realised that Mr. Wang said “when” and not “if” we would meet again. That couldn’t be good.

Stew’s message was a bit longer.

“Hey, this is Stew. I would have called sooner, but I played with Lukas this afternoon and you know how he plays. It’s a wonder that he can hit anything wearing that gigantic Stetson with all the medals and feathers. We spend half the day looking for his tee shots. Anyway, I shot an 85. I hit a really good approach on the second hole at the Country Club, right to four feet. The wind was crossing hard from the south, so I had to fade it back to the pin over a trap. Luckily the greens weren’t too firm and it settled nicely below the hole. The only birdie of the day, I’m afraid.”

I’ve often thought that if Stew ever gave up writing, he could have a lovely career as a golf presenter. He could practically do the job in his sleep. If I tried it that way, I’d just respond to every drive with, “Forward!”

“The greens were fairly slow, so the reads were pretty tough,” he continued. ‘Your machine is telling me I’m almost out of time so I’ll tell you more, later. Oh, yeah, how’d the trip to Phoenix go?”

My wife looked at me. My daughter had come into the room while I was playing Stew’s message as well and was also looking at me. They were both giving me looks of quiet concern, looks that signified confusion and uncertainty.

“What this all about?” my wife asked.

“Yeah and how did you get to Phoenix, Arizona and back so soon?” my daughter inquired.

At least I could answer the second question.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter VI (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 24,000 words, and has taken to talking to chipmunks...invisible chipmunks.)

Chapter 6
In Which the Plot Thickens and Earl Becomes Very Confused

I’m not sure which was more alarming to me, the fact that at least one of the Chinese gentlemen sitting across from me in the restaurant was armed, or that these blokes were clever enough to sneak a message into a fortune cookie and have it delivered to me here in the restaurant that I just happened to stop at today.

I thought about it for a moment and decided that the gun in the first bit had a great deal to do with the cleverness in the second bit. It also explained why much of the restaurant staff were huddled near the back, conversing loudly in either Mandarin or Cantonese, both of which I could never tell apart to save my life, which was a very real possibility at the moment.

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” said the shorter of the two gentlemen, speaking immaculate, if slightly accented English. “I am Mr. Wang, and this is my associate, Mr. Dong.”

Despite myself, I let out a brief snort of laughter. I managed to get this under control by imagining my obituary reading, “Earl Fando - killed by a man named ‘Dong.’”

“I assure you Mr. Fando, that this is no laughing matter,” said Mr. Wang, in a smooth voice.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I nervously responded. “It’s just that both your names are, erm… well, they have other connotations.”

“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Wang.

“Well,” I continued, “I mean… it’s a bit phallic… sort of like the opposite of a name you’d find in a Bond movie.”

“I don’t understand this at all, Mr. Fando,” Mr. Wang replied, bemusedly.

“Well… listen, do you have a first name, I could use… I mean a given name?” I added, suddenly remembering that in Chinese, as in many other Asian traditions, the surname was given first.

“Well, yes… I suppose I could tell you that,” Mr. Wang replied, smiling slightly. “It’s ‘Hung.’”

“Erm…better just go on a formal basis, then,” I quietly replied, after a very short pause.

“Do you know why we are here to visit with you?” asked Mr. Wang.

“You really like Chinese food?” I offered hopefully.

Mr. Wang laughed quietly.

“Well, I do love Chinese food,” he said, “but my first choice would be American barbecue. I very much fancy the dry rubbed baby back ribs. No, no, we are here on important business.”

“Ah, important business,” I repeated. I tried to do the quiet laughing bit thing myself, but it only sounded like gas seeping out of my esophagus.

“You do know what business I speak of, Mr. Fando, yes?” continued Mr. Wang, in a voice that was smoother than a pound of whipped margarine.

“Actually, no, I don’t,” I replied, feeling certain for the first time in the conversation. I glanced over at Mr. Dong. He was either coldly staring at me or asleep. I couldn’t tell from the sunglasses.

“Mr. Fando,” continued Mr. Wang, “We know that you have received a special package from a government courier, and that you have only today visited the Phoenix Corporation headquarters, even though they have completely shut down operations in the last 72 hours, and we know that you visited the home of one of their security guards, which was most regrettably destroyed by fire. Surely, this is not a coincidence?”

“Well, I mean, it could be couldn’t it?” I replied. This sounded fairly lame, so I tried the quiet laughter thing again but only managed a soft wheeze.

“Perhaps you should take a drink,” Mr. Wang helpfully suggested. “Mr. Fando, we did not come all the way here to play games,” he continued.

This sentence seemed to pick up Mr. Dong’s lagging attention. He sat up a bit straighter in his chair. However, as I looked around, I realised he was just trying to get a better look at one of the waitresses, the attractive young woman, who was now nervously circling the restaurant, trying to wait tables and possibly collect my bill without getting too close to the two armed gentlemen.

“Not even a bit of Parcheesi?” I finally asked. That sounded barely cleverer, so I tried to relax in my chair, but my muscles would only agree to a nervous cramp in the pit of my back. I couldn’t help but admire though how easy James Bond made this sort of banter look.

“Mr. Fando,” said Mr. Wang, his voice almost imperceptibly sharper, “We are patient men, but we do not have all the time in the world.” He nudged Mr. Dong and the taller man got out of his seat and stood up. I braced myself for any potential violence. Being six-foot and one inch myself, I figured that, if I was shot, I could at least fall on one of them and that my corpse might pin them until the police arrived. I also briefly contemplated trying to hit one of them in the temple with the sharp end of the remaining half of the fortune cookie, but I concluded that they were skilled enough to simply block or eat this tactic.

Mr. Wang stood up. He held out a card with the word “Wang” and a cell number on it.

“Please call me if you decide that you have any information you would like to give me,” he said, in a polite voice. “I can be reached at this number at any time. I do hope you will call.”

Then, they both turned and walked out the door. Mr. Dong gave a slight bow to the attractive waitress as he passed.

I sat in my chair and let out a long breath of air. The room seemed to spin just a tiny bit and so I took another sip of my drink.

The waitress quickly walked by and picked it up to be refilled. Considering all this, I sat another 20 minutes finishing it before I set my credit card down on the bill tray. The waitress came by to pick up the bill. She was holding a small slip of paper.

“They left you this also,” she said in a tentative voice. I looked over the document carefully.

It was their bill for a bunch of takeout. They were playing hardball now.

After I got back in my car, I gave a quick call to my wife, but she was away from her desk. I then called Stew at the golf course, but his cell phone was still off. By this time he was well into the back nine, if not in the clubhouse sipping on a nice lager. There was nothing for it but to head home.

When I got home, amazingly I was able to go right to the computer and add 4,500 words to the novel. I concluded that nothing inspires writers like the presence of death. I also concluded that I would aim for being just a little less inspired than, say Hemingway.

The story was starting to shape up a little. The buxom ex-model had revealed that the package delivery men were foreign spies, who had a nasty habit of stiffing their enemies with their bills at restaurants. At first, I had her revealing a few other things as well, but decided that she and the detective should get to know each other a bit more before they got to that.

The plot unfolded with a bit more suspense in that I let on that the detective had a bit of a past with the CIA, including a stint as an agent, and a shorter stint as Chuck Barris’s handler. I left the work at a scene where the detective and the ex-model were examining the remains of the ex-model’s boyfriend, who had gotten to close to the truth about the package delivery secret agent blokes, whatever that truth would ultimately be. Frankly, I hadn’t a clue. I just liked the idea of ending a scene with the sentence, “He was as charred as a plate of dry rubbed baby back ribs.” I figured that if Mr. Wang was going to have lunch on my account, then he could at least earn it.

At that point, I was so stressed out, that I did the only thing my body could. I laid down on the couch and closed my eyes.

When I next opened them, I was sitting in the middle of Coney Island. I’d never been there before, but I knew exactly where I was because of the huge roller coaster and the large Nathan’s sign over the big hot dog stand. Only, it didn’t quite say Nathan’s. My eyes squinted as I focused harder, trying to make out the lettering, which seemed odd and angular. I’ve always had extremely good vision, even to where I could read motorway signs from up to 600 metres away. However, this sign would simply not come together for me.

I was strangely unalarmed at the prospect of suddenly being a couple of thousand miles away from my home, without any plausible explanation whatsoever. It was even weirder that I was unfazed by the glowing plumes of blood red fire that were shooting out of the top of what I thought was Nathan’s. The clouds in the sky were red too, taking on the peculiar light of these strange flames.

Although I am normally a cautious bloke, I decided to go up on the roof of this eatery to see just what the hell was going on. I went in the main entrance and made my way to the back, past hundreds of diners, who were all hunched over large plates of food, with a packet of mustard in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other.

I found a stairwell in the back of the restaurant and began to make my way towards the top. The stairwell rose up and up at an increasingly steep angle. Halfway up to the top, it began to spiral around and around like one of those circus performers who hang on to a rope by their teeth and spin. My teeth were beginning to hurt just thinking about it.

I kept climbing upwards and upwards to the top. As I spun slowly upwards, red smoke began to thickly wrap itself around me. Strangely, I was not coughing, even though I have allergies and smoke irritates my throat as though I’d swallowed a sheet of sandpaper. Around me I thought I could see eyes and voices as I climbed those ruddy awful stairs. The eyes seemed to be wild with pain and the voices kept crying out something that sounded an awful lot like “Order up!” only in Japanese accents.

Finally, I reached the roof. There, standing in the midst of this riot of smoke and flame, was a young man holding a sword. He stood silently observing the scenes on the street below. I walked up to him slowly, the fire and smoke dancing around me as though really loud and driving music were playing, which it wasn’t. There was only the crackling sound of flame and smoke and those bizarre short order cooks. I moved closer. The young man was wearing some kind of elaborate ancient armour and a helmet that tapered as it reached the crown of his head. The armour and helmet had layers like scales, and some kind of script symbol on them. I stood and stared at them for a long while.

Suddenly, the young man spoke.

“I never should have done it!” he shouted above the flames. “It’s all gone wrong!”

I finally was able to speak and asked, “What in blazes, no pun intended, are you on about?”

He slowly turned towards me and his eyes were fire. Flame was seeping out of his mouth. He took a deep, searing breath and then spoke again.

“I am the Nuclear Samurai and I have destroyed history by using my powers!!!”

My first reply, if I remember correctly, was, “Oh, crap.”

Monday, November 13, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter V (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed nearly 22,000 words, and has come to believe that he is Winston Churchill.)

The whole notion of an all-you-can-eat buffet is a strange one when you think about it. At the risk of sounding maudlin, there are many places in the world where people have to work tremendously hard just to scrape up enough to eat in order to live. Yet, in developed parts of the world, for the price of just over an hour’s work, federal minimum wage, one can walk into a large restaurant and eat until the button on your trousers pops, not that I’ve personally ever damaged my trousers in this way. I prefer to stop at that point where the belly just starts to distend the waistband.

I suppose the world’s hunger problems could be solved if only, in addition to stopping the wars and oppression that so often incites famine and poverty, we could set up a worldwide chain of all you can eat buffets and price them according to local cost of living. I realise some would consider that a simplistic view, as even a middle class family of three like my own cannot afford to eat out every evening, but just imagine the looks on the faces of a family, stricken with poverty, walking into one of these food palaces. It would be the equivalent of a child walking into Hamley’s toy store in London, or me walking into the Paxton and Whitfield cheese shop on Jermyn Street in London for the first time. My wife complained about the odour after we left, but I can’t see what anyone would find offensive about the smell of a little bit of heaven.

Anyway, obviously there must be some very complex logistical problems with putting buffets around the world. Still, they wouldn’t have to be Chinese buffets. I could see how the twice cooked pork and siu mai pork dumplings wouldn’t go over well in Israel or Muslim countries, but certainly someone could franchise a falafel, couscous, and kebab buffet for some regions of the world, and for others, say Hindu parts of India, an all chicken, lamb, vegetable, and curry buffet.

My favourite part of going through a buffet line is finding something I’ve not had before that turns out to be quite special. Indian buffets always seem to yield a newer, hotter, and more flavourful curry each time I’m lucky enough to visit one. Unfortunately, the ones in our area have a habit of closing down within six months of opening. Then they seem to reopen again in the same places, after another year or two. It’s almost as though the owners have complete faith in the ability of the local population to fall in love with Indian cuisine, but not the cash to tide themselves over until this fait accompli occurs.

It’s surprising to me that my fellow American citizens haven’t caught on to the delights of a really good curry. Americans have fallen in love with a variety of cuisines and traditions. You can regularly find not only Chinese, Mexican, and Italian food in the United States, but also Japanese – sushi and teppanyaki, Thai, Korean, and even Vietnamese. Yet, the likelihood of finding a really good Indian place outside of a large city is sadly dim. There’s a nice little place on the Gulf coast where my mum lives, and they serve a Chicken Korma to die for, but for the most part, Americans seem to view Indian cuisine with the same indifference that they regard traditions such as Russian, Finnish, Portuguese, Algerian, Tahitian, and Klingon. Only French cuisine seems to less regarded outside large American cities, but this has more to do with French waiters than anything else, I suspect.

In England, curry is the most popular food in the country, even rating higher than the noble banger. Curry shops and Indian restaurants can be found in most every part of London and in most towns throughout England. People eat curry there the way Americans scarf McDonalds. If English diners, who for ages had the reputations of being amongst the most unadventurous and taste-challenged in the world, could accept the noble curry, why then do Americans regard it with such suspicion? Curries have a magnificent blend of flavours. They’re both hot and mild. They’re outstanding with a pint of the right ale. They do right by rice as well.

I briefly and unconfidently considered whether this sentiment were a good topic for inclusion in the novel.

“The bloody novel!” I’d forgotten about it in all the confusion over this bizarre DVD and the connexion with Phoenix. It was now six days into November and I’d only managed 3,000 words. I could feel a cold sweat coming over me as I shuffled through the buffet lines, picking out the mostly left over bits of sushi and dim sum from the main lunch rush. I should just abandon it, I thought. There’s too much going on, and too much unexplained. However, I am far too obsessive a person to let a little thing like a 50,000 word book go by without a titanic mental struggle.

“There’s only one National Novel Writing Month a year,” I reasoned. “I can’t simply give up, or I might never write a novel.”

That kind of simplicity sounded utterly daft to me, so I began to wonder why I wanted to write one in the first bleeding place. As I scooped a rather over-moist bit of Sesame Chicken onto my plate, I realised that as a writer, the novel is, after all, the pinnacle of fiction. I fancied myself like a composer of songs who dreamt of writing a symphony or an opera.

I also briefly considered whether I was simply mad. All kinds of writers are mad in some way or another. Hemingway was clearly mad, running off on Cuban fishing trips, and that whole awful business with the shotgun. Virginia Woolf took her own life as well through drowning. Nietzsche ended his life a complete nutter, although many of us would argue it was not a long road to travel for him to get there, and he was a philosopher, which is a role in society not vastly different from the role of a ne’er do well distant relative who spends a great deal of time talking about getting rich, but precious little time doing anything about it except hitting you up for a few notes at family reunions. Tolstoy suffered from mental illness. Sylvia Plath was out of her gourd with depression as well, but she was after all a poet.

After a few moments of this, I concluded that I was not mad. I also concluded that much of the world’s great literature would not have been written had Prozac been invented in the 1,500’s.

It was coincidentally just as I sat down to my lovely little feast that I got a call from my agent, Heath.

Yes, I’ve never written a novel before, and the blog was only paying the bills because we were being sponsored by a local magazine publisher, but I did have an agent, more or less. Stew and I had written a book a few years before, the subject of which was a series of loony e-mails that we sent back and forth. We shopped it around for quite a while and after a long series of rejection letters, of which my favourite is still the one that begins, “Dear Amateurs,” we met Heath.

Heath was short for Heathcliff, which he absolutely hated to be called, not the least because Wuthering Heights was a book he utterly despised, having been named after the leading male protagonist, and having it read to him by his Bronte-obsessed mother, who named her other unfortunate sons Rochester and Shirley.

Anyway, Heath loved our book and seemed convinced that he could sell it to a major publishing house. What he didn’t tell us was that his primary clientele were authors of technical works. So, he had never actually sold a book of humourous letters or a novel or anything that didn’t have “The Handyman’s Guide to…” or “How to Fix a ” in front of it. This does explain why he at one point asked us to consider renaming the book to “The Handyman’s Guide to Funny e-Mail,” which, having some sense of dignity, we only considered for a fortnight. Heath always called me these days, as Stew simply told him more or less to sod off and then hung up.

“Earl, I think I may have a publisher interested in the book,” Heath began. This was the way that almost ever single conversation with Heath started. Even on my fortieth birthday, Heath arrived at the party, shoved a small, badly wrapped box containing aftershave into my hands, and announced in a loud voice, “Earl, I think I’ve finally sold the book!” As it turned out, the publisher had, through some confusion in their conversations with Heath, mistakenly believed that the book was a manual to using Microsoft Access.

“Who are you talking with now?” I hesitantly asked.

“Manchester Technical Printing in New Hampshire,” responded Heath, brightly.

I took a slow sip of my drink and a quick bite of spicy chicken.

“And just why would a printer of technical books in New Hampshire be interested in a three-year-old book of silly e-mails by a couple of unpublished authors?” I continued.

“Well, I didn’t sell it like that, Earl,” Heath said, laughing. I could have sworn I heard him slap his knee with his free hand, but it might have been a pencil he was holding being snapped.

“And just how did you sell it?” I continued, after a quick California Roll, containing a fairly large amount of wasabi.

“Well, I pointed out how your and Stew’s book gets at the heart of how technological communications affect the relationships between people of different cultures and backgrounds, particularly depending on the applications used,” he announced.

I didn’t bother to gird myself with intense food this time.

“So, you’ve sold it as a primer on Microsoft Outlook, then?” I asked.

“Outlook Express actually, but I don’t think it’ll be that big of a rewrite. You and Stew have a bunch of stuff that could easily be shaped around a few helpful tips on organising mail folders and messages.”

“Call me back when you have a real deal, Heath,” I responded, hanging up immediately afterwards. I learnt to hang up on Heath at this point in the conversation because he would simply continue the sales pitch to me if I didn’t. Once, whilst talking with him, I mistakenly put the phone at home on hold instead of disconnecting. A half hour later, my wife attempted to place a call and announced to me, “Heath’s called back, and was telling me how your book would really adapt well to a how-to manual on rebuilding a ‘66 Mustang.”

I decided to enjoy my meal and tried to think as little as possible about the novel or Phoenix or anything else as I ate. I was surprised to discover that this was relatively easy, as the only interruptions to the mix of spicy entrée’s and cool sushi was the regular visit every 3.5 minutes of an attractive young waitress, who seemed politely determined to refill my drink even though it was still almost two-thirds full.

Soon I was comfortably full myself, and ready to leave. The waitress brought the bill and with it, as is the custom in Chinese restaurants around the United States, the ubiquitous "fortune cookie." The fortune cookie is a marvel of cuisine, regularly being the blandest item in any Chinese restaurant. Presumably, it’s there at the end of the meal to cleanse the palate. Given that it’s a crusty little biscuit, it has the added effect of scraping the palate, as well.

As any regular reader of Wikipedia could tell you, the fortune cookie wasn’t even created in China, having been invented in America, which may explain the blandness, since American cuisine of the early twentieth century was rarely more adventurous than the cheeseburger.

The idea of finding your fortune in a biscuit is, to me, quite ridiculous. Being a Christian, I’m very sceptical of ordinary superstitions, believing that if God has something to say to us, He’s much more likely to engage in some kind of spiritual communication, rather than a cheaply printed bit of ticker tape inside a tasteless baked tart. The average fortune inside one of these cookies usually says something like, “Your drive to succeed will bring you success,” or, “Tomorrow brings new challenges – Be bold in them.” …Crap like that.

Still, I’ve had my share of interesting fortunes inside these cookies. My favourite was the one that said, “A nice cake is waiting for you.” I’m still wondering just which cake it was.

My wife likes to tell the story of the night I first asked her on a date. She was dining earlier in the evening with a good friend and her fortune said “Today is your lucky day.” Many far more cynical people have suggested to her that this is absolute proof that fortune cookies are complete bullocks.

I’ve often thought I’d enjoy the job of writing fortunes, although I certainly wouldn’t work within the constraints of the tradition. My idea of a really cracking fortune cookie message would be something like, “You hair will turn green on the 4th,” or, “Avoid driving in reverse this week,” or even, “Sitting down this month could bring disaster.”

I broke the cookie in half, set the message on the bill tray and made a half-hearted attempt to chew up a piece of the cookie. After about 30 seconds of laboured chewing, my sudden boredom overwhelmed me and I picked up the fortune and glanced at it.

It said, “We are watching you. Do not move.”

My first thought was, “Here is a fortune cookie writer who has a bright future!” This happy idea was quickly overcome by the realisation that this, of all weeks, was not the time to receive a fairly menacing fortune cookie, even as a joke.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a joke. I discovered this when two dignified Chinese gentlemen, who were most definitely not waiters, suddenly sat down opposite me at my table. I’m not sure whether it was the dark suits and sunglasses that tipped me off, or the semi-automatic that one of them flashed from under his coat as he seated himself.

Why Internet Explorer 7 Sucks

As someone who works in a technology-based field, I can make this pronouncement with some authority. Internet Explorer 7 truly does suck like a Hoover. Avoid it like the plague and if Microsoft tries to force it onto your PC, move your favourites, download a version of IE 6 or even that bloated bugger Netscape, and delete version 7 as quickly as you can.

I was going to entitle this post the beginning of the end of Microsoft, but I think I'm a bit late on the "beginning" part.

Here are just a few reasons why IE 7 is crap. Use it for just a short amount of time and you will see what I mean.

  1. The menubar is not at the top of the screen. Think about this for a second. Microsoft and pretty much every other computer applications manufacturer have based their software on this simple design feature: The menu of selections can be found at the top of the screen. Apparently, the collection of weasels that Microsoft pulled together to design IE 7 thought it would be a great idea to break people out of over a decade and a half of computer practise, just because. Why they are allowed to design software at all is one of the great mysteries of the age. Apparently, Bill Gates must too busy off counting his massive piles of money somewhere in his gargantuan home to put a halt to people making a mockery of his company.
  2. The menubar isn't even visible by default. See #1. Everyone uses a menubar at some time or another. It's inevitable. However, IE 7 users will have to turn theirs on first - if they can find them. (FYI - It's in the Tools drop down selection by the icon, which for some strange reason they felt the need to put a text label on. I wonder why?)
  3. The toolbars cannot be moved. This means that the address bar is stuck over the toolbars and the menubar, which again, most every human being on the planet is used to finding at the top of the window, you stupid Microsoft bastards.
  4. Tabs suck. IE 7 uses them. Tabs are of course an idea borrowed from the Mosilla Firefox browser, a browser that many people love for no good reason. Microsoft "borrowed" the idea (read "stole") simply because that's what they're good at. They needn't have bothered though. Tabs create an unnecessary extra level of clicking that users have to do. It's simple really, if the tab you want is not at the top when you click on the IE button in the Taskbar, you have to mouse your way to the top of the menu to get to the right tab. With seperate windows, you simply select the Taskbar button with the window you want, or CTRL-TAB until you get there. I know some people like tabs because they think they are "cool" or somehow help organise the pages better, but it's based on silly reasoning. Microsoft already has a windows based OS.
  5. The CTRL button no longer allows non-contiguous selections in IE 7. This feature of windows, the ability to select different items that are not directly linked, including text, was one of the most useful shortcuts in Windows. In IE 7 it doesn't seem to work. What baboon decided that was a good idea?
  6. Too many "helpful" messages. When you first start up IE 7, it asks you how you want to configure your browser and chides you if your security settings are the "recommended" ones (I suspect the ones that give Microsoft unlimited access to your machine, but I have no hard evidence on that one). In other words, Microsoft doesn't think you're very smart. I happen to disagree. I think the average computer user would never have built a browser this pathetic.
  7. Clear text. Microsoft has built in an anti-alias feature to IE 7 that, when turned on, smooths out the text on the screen. In theory, this is actually an interesting idea, except that it's been available since Apple started doing it on the McIntosh back in the mid-nineties. Also, the time and energy IE spends smoothing out your browser text, is time and energy and system resources taken away from other, actually useful things your computer could be doing. Also, the Help menu in IE 7 has a section asking what to do about blurred text. Gee, I wonder what could possibly cause that?

That's just a sample of the most obvious things. In short, IE 7 is a royal pain in the derriere, despite some honestly good ideas, like an anti-phishing filter.

Unfortunately, Microsoft is trying to force it on everyone, and as a result I suspect Netscape and Firefox are about to make inroads into the browser market. If those two browser makers would trim down their own software, they could do it. As it is though, all the browser makers seem determined to make our online experiences as hellish as possible, a little bit at a time. If this keeps up, I expect IE 8 to come with an electroshock generator, one that gives the user a jolt anytime they don't go to Microsoft-approved sites.

Hmmm... I probably shouldn't be giving the stupid gits any more ideas.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter V (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed nearly 20,000 words, though not all of them may be coherent English at this point.)

Chapter 5
A Nice Cake Is Waiting for You

As I drove back to the blog office, I ran over the eerie landscape of the now deserted Phoenix Corporation in mind again and again. What on earth could have caused them to pull up shop? It was obviously a quick move, given the still relatively immaculate condition of the grounds. The grass did seem a tiny bit taller than usual, but not by much, and given the autumn weather, it wouldn’t have grown much anyway. The secrecy with which they would have had to move was also unfathomable, but then again, I wasn’t in government work.

Still, they had nearly 250 famous people in their employ who were supposed to be dead. It did occur to me that none of them actually lived on the grounds itself though. I know that most of them lived in special gated communities that the average person had no access to, but I’d never been to one of them. In fact, I’d never seen anyone from Phoenix outside the compound, except for Janis once, at a Cracker Barrel, and then she insisted that I refer to her as “Debbie” and left hurriedly afterwards, with her “Uncle Hershel’s Breakfast” hastily stuffed in a take away sack.

I suddenly remembered that I had bumped into one other person outside the facility, a security guard named Jim Williams, who, like me, was neither famous nor presumed deceased. I saw him at a local grocery in front of the deli section. I was waiting for the clerk to slice up some hard salami and liverwurst (you’d be surprised how good they are together) and Jim stepped up to the counter to order eight ounces of Baby Swiss cheese and a pound of Virginia Baked Ham. We chatted a bit about how strange it was to see each other outside of work, both of us scrupulously avoiding any mention of the job itself. Jim did mention that he lived a few blocks down the street and gave me the street name and address, suggesting that I come by some time to catch a college football game on television. Apparently, he had a number of the other security guards from Phoenix over to watch games as it was one of the few times they could chat about work and not worry about anyone overhearing them and thinking them as mad as Lyndon LaRouche.

The funny thing was that I could remember exactly what Jim ordered, but hadn’t a clue which street he lived on or what the house number was. Still, I knew where the grocery was, so that was a start. I turned my car west towards the section of town I lived in.

I called Stew on my cell phone to let him know how my search was going but got nothing. He had no doubt turned off his own phone, so as not to be disturbed in the middle of a backswing. I called my wife’s office, but she was out to lunch. I called her cell phone but it too was not answering. I surmised that the battery in her phone might be out of juice and wondered why on earth she hadn’t charged it. She’s a lovely and brilliant woman, I thought to myself, so what could be so difficult about charging a cell phone. I tossed my own phone into the passenger seat and noticed the charger for the phones, sitting half covered by some papers. I shifted them with my right hand as I drove. Right next to the charger, was my wife’s phone, which I suddenly remembered I had borrowed the day before because I couldn’t find my phone, which later turned out to be in my jacket pocket. I would have banged my head on the steering wheel if I didn’t think the blunt trauma would cause me to lose control of the vehicle.

I passed the store and suddenly remembered that Jim had given me directions to his house as well.

“Just go up Maple two blocks,” he said, “and make a right onto Wheeler Lane. It’s the third house on the left. There’ll be a navy blue Mazda Miata in the driveway, along with a grey Chevy mini van.”

I drove up Maple Street and made the right onto Wheeler. Three houses down, I jammed on the brakes and sat in the car staring in disbelief.

Where Jim’s house should have been there was now the still burned out wreckage of what once must have been a lovely middle-class, three-bedroom, two-story home. The frame, only half-standing, was as black as coal, and ashes and charred wood were piled in the centre of it.

An elderly gentleman was in the garden next door. I rolled down my window and called out to him.

“Excuse me sir!”

He turned in my direction.

“Do you know what happened to the house next door?” I asked.

“Burned down,” he called back.

“Yes, I can see that,” I said in as pleasant a voice as I could muster. “However, do you know why it burned down, perchance?”

“Arson is what the police said,” he shouted back.

“What about the family that lived there?” I asked.

“They were on vacation when it happened, but nobody’s heard anything from them since then.” He answered. I was watering the flowers for them, but I don’t suppose there’s any point in that since they all burned up like fireworks.”

He told me that the blaze had happened only a week ago, and that most of the neighbors were shocked at how fast the home went up in flames. I asked if any other people had asked about the fire, other than the usual crowd of investigators, insurance personnel, and news reporters. He shrugged his shoulders.

I briefly thought about going door to door but I figured that would raise too much suspicion. I thanked him and drove off. This was too much to take. I couldn’t even remember seeing a story on the fire in the news, but that was what I got for not watching the local broadcasts. I wondered if maybe it was just a coincidence. Jim could have moved since I left the Corporation. Perhaps it was just an unrelated arson that afflicted some poor strangers.

I realised even as the thought crossed my mind that it was utterly ridiculous. There were no coincidences when you worked for Phoenix. During the period I worked for them, I never once ran out of fuel or had a flat tyre. Someone later told me that they regularly ran checks on the employee vehicles in the parking lot to make sure they were in excellent working order. This way, they could avoid employee encounters with the police or repair workers who might ask for work addresses or phone numbers. I tested this several times by driving into work low on petrol. Sure enough, each time I left the building, my car had a full tank. I had to stop this though when I realised that the company was docking my pay every time they filled the car up. I suppose after two weeks of using their parking lot as my personal petrol station, I had it coming.

Phoenix even employed special security personnel to add unique security equipment to the homes of employees, again, to keep down the encounters with police or other official or private entities who might fancy a call to the employer or a visit to follow-up on the investigation of a burglary or assault. It was like having our very own invisible bodyguards. Once, there was a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood. After a robbery just three doors from our home though, the burglar suddenly turned up outside a local police station with two broken legs and a typed confession note in his pocket. Reportedly, when the police asked him who did it, he said “Elvis and the men in black.” Of course, he was also completely drunk when they found him, but simply assumed that to be the work of Phoenix as well.

Knowing Stew was still on the links and Nuffy was somewhere apparently watching grown men dance around future beefsteaks with elaborate capes and Mickey Mouse hats, I decided to head home. It was still early afternoon and I hadn’t had lunch yet, so I decided to stop off at the Chinese buffet we had eaten at the Friday before, as it was on the way. After such a strange and nerve-wracking morning, the idea of all you can eat sushi and Szechuan Chicken sounded comforting.

We interrupt Earl's novel with this relatively unimportant news...

...Houston 1836 won the MLS Championship today.

Yes, I know that everyone else refers to the club as the Houston Dynamo, but it's original name was Houston 1836, before a local group of cynical, race-baiting politicians claimed that the name was somehow racist to Mexican-Americans because it referred not only to the date in which the city of Houston was founded, but also to the date of the Battle of San Jacinto, which solidified Texas' independence from Mexico.

It should be noted that the city of Houston was named after the general who won that battle, Sam Houston. So, if any reference to the battle is offensive, why haven't they called for a change to the name of the city, hmm?

How the history of Texas is racist and offensive to Mexican-Americans, who presumably live in America because they want to, is an opinion that one can only hold if they are either:

A) Ignorant, racist peons who value their personal heritage over the objective history of the land they live in.

B) Cynical politicians, such as Sylvia Garcia, who can only maintain political office by appealing to the base prejudices of some of their constiuents, and through the use of dishonest appeals to a twisted and historically ignorant (see A) sense of political correctness, something we at DOUI, who generally strive to be non-political, have little tolerance for...though I speak for myself primarily in this matter.

C) Cynical sports franchise owners who are willing to abandon the fan base that innocently named the team based on the history of the city, and who are willing to abandon that history itself, and who are willing to rename the franchise a name that was the name of the KGB supported club in the Soviet Union, the KGB being that lovely instiution of Soviet government that assisted in the murder of millions, and the imprisonment of millions more. If I were a Russian American, I'd slap the GM of the Houston franchise with a wet noodle.

Of course, most Mexican-Americans understand this and were not a party to Ms. Garza's ridiculous, disgraceful campaign. I imagine many of them were embarrassed by her ignorance and self-serving hypocrisy, but that's a politician for you.

So, you will never hear me refer to the club as that other name, if I can at all help it, and I will never support them. I was pulling for New England today, a franchise that clearly has a fine sense of history and pride in that history.

1836 won today as far as I'm concerned. Houston had some fine players and a good season. I'm sure old Sam Houston would have been proud, if he could stomach the current totalitarian nickname of the franchise, which I sure he wouldn't.

Quite frankly though, the players and coaches aside, it's more than the rest deserve. As long as they keep that loathsome name, I hope they never win another one.

Rant concluded... but I hate it when football and politics mix, and I have no respect for those who mingle the two deliberately.

Earl's Novel - Chapter IV (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 18,000 words and is wearing a bib to control all the drooling.)

Unfortunately, Jack and Bobby wouldn’t tell me anything because my security clearance was too low.

Phoenix was a very bizarre place to work, and there it was again, coming over the hill outside the massive compound. There were actually seven buildings at Phoenix, but all I ever saw the inside of was the main one. The compound was set up so that the main building formed the locus in the centre, the others neatly and evenly placed around the outside. Each building was fairly broad and covered a good amount of ground. The main one was the tallest, at five stories. The others were of varying heights but all about the same size in terms of the foundations. They all were covered with dark glass on the outside, which made all the buildings look black and reflective, like dark pools of water, or a really shiny chocolate bar.

I drove up to the gate, knowing that the security guards were likely to let me in. When I worked there before, they always provided employees with a special password, one which identified us individually and could be used if we lost our pass card. I didn’t think there was even a chance that mine was still active after two years, but as Phoenix was in reality a government facility, I thought there might be a slight chance that someone bollockeds it up.

As I approached the guardhouses I frantically tried to remember it. “Chess?” “Cheese?” I knew it was something that began with a “C” but the sheer terror of being within sight of this madhouse had scrambled my brain.

While I worked at Phoenix, there was a rumour circulating around that anyone who left the company had their brain scrambled a bit so that all the memory cells containing Phoenix were wiped clean. The process wasn’t supposed to damage other memory or brain functions, but like all technology of an advanced and new nature, they said the device wasn’t as precise as it should be and that some previous employees, in particular Charlie Callas, had bad reactions.

On the day my resignation took effect, I walked down to the Personnel department for my exit interview. Janis and Jimi were waiting there, along with Bruce Lee from security. There was a large metal device on wheels that stood next to them, humming menacingly. It had lots of lights and buttons and a cap shaped metal piece at the end, hanging from a coil of cable.

“Last day, Earl,” Janis said, in a very serious tone.

“Been nice knowing you, dude,” Jimi added, with a slight nervousness in his voice.

“Be like water, my friend,” Bruce added with a smile and a slight bow.

Janis rolled her eyes because Bruce said this about five times a day, whenever some profound statement was required. The rest of the time, he was pretty laid back and had a goofy sense of humour.

“It’s time,” Janis said, with deep sense of finality.

She pointed to a chair, directly under the metal cap thingy. I dutifully sat down in it and closed my eyes. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and looked up. The “cap” was alight, a bright bulb in the center of it. Janis handed me a clipboard with a long form with extremely tiny print on it. It was so small, I couldn’t make it all out, but part of it appeared to be in Japanese.

“Just sign there, Earl,” she said, pointing at the line at the very bottom. “It’s a form indicating that you won’t reveal any information about the Phoenix Corporation to anyone on the outside, that you won’t attempt to recreate any of the technologies or innovations, etc. etc.”

“Or we’ll have to kill you,” Bruce added.

“Stop kidding around, Bruce!” Jimi chided him. Bruce snorted a laugh and went into a mock pose of attack that was quite impressive looking for being done by a man of 64, although all the denizens of Phoenix seemed younger than they should be. Jimi once suggested that it was because of the energy given off by Walt’s life support device.

It’s pretty standard,” Janis finally added.

“What… no brain scrambling?” I muttered. Janis rolled her eyes.

“Has Duane Allman been telling that story again?” she exclaimed.

I signed the form, said my goodbyes and that was that.

Suddenly, the password came to mind.

“Checkers!” I thought to myself.

However, there would be no need for it. As I pulled up to the gate, I realised it was wide open. I craned my head to look in the guardhouses, but they were empty. No sign of life could be found in them at all. It was a sight I’d never seen before in all my time spent here.

“Has everything been moved to another site?” I frantically asked myself. No, that didn’t make sense. Phoenix had been in the news just a month ago when they donated a large sum of money to a local charity. They did this on occasion to keep up the front of being a private firm, ostensibly involved in marketing, securities, bonds, and even some retail chains in the southeast. Mama Cass was even at the ceremony, having lost 80 pounds from her days in the Mamas and the Papas and being considerably older and wearing an extremely dark wig and sunglasses. Also, she went by the name Sophia. She handed out an enormous check and stifled a smile as one of the local high school bands, just by coincidence, belted out a slightly out of tune version of California Dreaming in the background.

I slowly drove past the gate, wondering if this wasn’t some sort of new drill. As I eased down the lane towards the main building, I kept expecting a horde of angry guards to pop out of the ground with semi-automatics and Dobermans large enough to bite the fender off of my Maxima. I pulled forward steadily but slowly, doing no more than 10 MPH. The large central building began to grow in my windshield as I approached, but still no one was to be seen. The phalanxes of cameras were still posted outside the building and down the drive and just about anywhere you could put a camera and still leave room for people to walk and drive about. Strangely though, they were frozen in place, pointed down to the ground, whereas normally they would have moved back and forth in a steady dance, as though tracking a rather dull tennis match.

I pulled into the main parking lot and parked in a space marked “Visitor.” There was no use trying to pretend to be an employee now. I figured that if the entire population of the facility were hiding just out of sight, I could at least pretend to be clueless and perhaps catch a break.

The sun was high in the air on this November morning. Since it was Monday, the place should have been teeming with security personnel, groundskeepers, gardeners, secretaries running errands from building to building, and camera-repair personnel, who were kept constantly busy keeping the army of surveillance equipment in working order.

I got out of the car slowly, so as not to attract attention. That would have been impossible though as mine was the only car in the lot. The place was emptier than an MK Dons league match. It was emptier than a Jeffrey Dahmer appreciation banquet. It was almost emptier than, well… emptiness.

I decided to chance walking up to the main entrance. I carefully glanced around and then slowly made my way up the central pavement, taking care to look around nonchalantly as I went. I watched the cameras, to see if any of them main any sudden or even subtle movements. I watched the pavement and grass, lest something pop put of it sudden-like. I watched the building, lest some sort of death ray streak out of it, and I knew for a fact that they were working on adding a death ray to Walt’s arsenal just before I left. I even looked up at the sky, because I read once that when people are surprised they almost never look up, and also just in case a sudden swarm of paratroopers decided to drop in on me.

Nothing… There was no movement at all except for the occasional bird in the distance. The air was cool but not particularly chilly for November. The main doors loomed ever closer. The grass was not as green as it usually was, as the gardeners constantly pumped chemicals into it to keep it looking just slightly greener than natural grass ever gets. In fact, it looked as though it had all gone just a bit off, not so much as normal grass a month and a half into autumn, but still not normal for here. The sky was relatively clear and quite blue. The cameras continued to stare at the ground like the lead guitarist in a shoegazing band.

I reached the front door, nothing having happened still. I assumed it would be locked up but it opened electronically, just as it always did. I paused for a second. Did I really need to do this?

There are points in our lives where we find ourselves in situations and wonder just what on earth led us to get that far in the first place. I’m told that skinny dippers have this sensation, just as the large church groups suddenly pull up to their secluded swimming hole and immediately start disembarking the students and senior citizens. I’ve also been told that fraternity pledges have had the same sensation, right about the time one of the upperclassmen mention “snipe hunting.” It’s even been relayed to me that some women have had this feeling, just after their engagement to Tom Cruise, but that magazine writer could have been lying about how much access he had to Katie Holmes.

At this point, I was feeling much like someone who was stark naked, sopping wet, and surrounded by gawping teenagers and their grandparents. I knew just how secure this place normally was, and how secret the contents. I was fully aware that it would be nothing for the government to vaporize me and deport my wife and child and anyone else who knew me to a secret island chain in the Pacific, although good luck them tracking Nuffy down, that was certain.

Yet here I was, standing on the threshold of a highly secret government building, masquerading as a business firm. I had driven and walked at least a half mile from the main gate to get to this point. I was as vulnerable as a person could be on dry land and not surrounded by tigers, crazed suicide bombers, or a presenter at the American Rap Music Awards. Clearly, I was out of my mind to be here.

So there was nothing left for it but to walk inside.

The second door opened up as well but I couldn’t believe my eyes once I saw what was behind it. Whereas there was normally a very large waiting room in front of the third set of doors, the one that led directly to Walt’s greeting station, now there was nothing. No plush chairs and sofas, no televisions suspended from the ceiling, no copies of People, Sports Illustrated, Redbook, and Field & Stream strewn about the mahogany coffee tables; there was nothing. Even the third set of doors was gone, replaced by fresh-looking drywall and a rushed layer of slate grey paint. I marveled at all this, even as I suddenly realized how much the place used to look like the waiting room to my doctor’s office.

I looked up at the ceiling where there were usually about a dozen cameras. They were all gone. Even the metal rods and brackets that held them in place were nowhere to be seen.

I had nowhere to go and no one to whom I could ask what had happened.

I tried all six of the other buildings and found the same thing there.