December 31, 2006

Why I Love Being the Non-Drinker at the Bar

Here's a conversation between four of us (me, my friend "Dave," and two really drunk girls) last night at a nondescript bar at a beachside town in Southern California.
The conversation took place when one of the girls reached between my friend and me to grab two big glasses of water:

Me: "I think you need something stronger than that."
Girl #1: "Oh, we also have these." (Lifts up glass of white wine, the most incongruous-looking drink that could possibly be lifted in this joint)
Girl #1: "Are you guys together?"
Dave: "Together? Uh, we walked in together."
Girl #2: "Are you brothers?"
Dave: "Do we look like brothers?"
Girl #2: "Yes." (Note: Dave and I look as much like brothers as Alec Baldwin and Owen Wilson)
Me: "Are you two together?"
Girl #1: "Well, we walked in together."
Dave: "Are you two sisters?"
Girl #2: "Do we look like sisters?" (Note: Girl #1 is blonde, Girl #2 is brunette, they look like as much like sisters as J.Lo and Christina Aguilera)
Me: "As much as we look like brothers."
Dave: "Do you live around here?"
Girl #1: "No, I live in _____" (city about 15 miles away)
Girl #2 "No, I live in ______" (hick town about 40 miles away). "I'm visiting her."
Me: "What are you doing here?" (in this godforsaken bar at the beach that no one in their right mind would come to unless, like me, they live three blocks away)
Girl #1: (stumbles backward, steadies herself on ledge) "I don't know. Party."
Me: "I don't understand. You're having a party in here tonight?"
Girl #1: "No. I don't know. Oh my God!"
(Girl #1, Girl #2 and Dave laughing hysterically. I missed it. Apparently, Girl #1 spit out her gum on the floor and a guy nearby stepped on it and it's stuck on his shoe)
Me: "What are your names?"
Girl #2: (sticks out hand formally, as incongruous a move in this place as ordering white wine) "Hayley. Her name is Sheena." (Note: these are the real names they gave us)
Me: "China? Spelled like China?"
Hayley: "S-h-e-e-n-a."
Me: "Sheena, like the Queen of the Jungle?"
(Sheena looks pleased, as if no one else has ever said this)
Sheena: "Yes!"
Dave: "Sheena, what are you doing in _______?" (Sheena's home town)
Sheena: "I'm a vagina nurse."
Dave: "A what?"
Sheena: "A vagina nurse."
Me: "How do you like it?"
Sheena: "It's disgusting. Looking at vaginas all day long."
Me: (jokingly) "Now you know how we guys feel sometimes."
(Then the gumshoe and an elfin guy with a leather jacket and goatee come over. Hayley and Sheena are with these guys, but they don't tell them that the gumshoe stepped on Hayley's gum)
Gumshoe: "There's a table that just opened up."
Hayley: "Nice meeting you."

I so need to hang out in bars and not drink more often.

Happy New Year!

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December 28, 2006

What if they Held a Hanging and Nobody Came?

This is unpleasant to write, but it is the biggest issue of our time. Saddam Hussein is apparently about to be hanged. What will this hanging accomplish?
Will the hanging of Saddam satisfy a thirst for blood by Iraqi Shiites and Kurds? Will Saddam's hanging grant revenge to American neocons? Or will the hanging of Saddam give revenge to George W. Bush for Saddam's alleged assassination plot against George Bush Sr.?

Please tell me that George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, overthrow of Saddam Hussein and continuing occupation of Iraq, which has resulted in thousands of dead American troops, tens of thousands of wounded American troops, many of whom are horribly maimed, and hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqi civilians, is not simply a dick size contest between George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. Please tell me the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is all for something more important than that. Because the hanging of Saddam Hussein is probably going to exacerbate the civil war that is already taking place in Iraq, create even more new terrorists than the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has already created, further strengthen Iran's influence in the region, and make the possibility of peace, stability and democracy throughout the Middle East even more remote.

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December 27, 2006

Revelations From the Book of John and the Book of James

Every once in a while, we have a moment of great clarity. I have had two such moments in the past week. If we are lucky, the clarity involves something big, great or wonderful. This is not one of those times.

Clarity moment number one: I discovered that the little ditty at the beginning of the television show "The Osbournes" is the same melody as John "Ozzy" Osbourne's song "Crazy Train." Not only that, but I think most of the words of the two songs, including most of the the first verse (the tv show ditty seems to have only one verse), are the same. It took me over two years to figure this out.

Clarity moment number two: The German train tunnel featured near the end of the James Bond movie "Octopussy" looks to be the same one as in the movie "Von Ryan's Express" starring Frank Sinatra. Also, the Bond villain General Orlov (who played the bad guy in "Beverly Hills Cop" and who always plays bad guys because he is balding and has a big wart on his forehead) gets shot in the back running after a train at the tunnel, the same way Sinatra gets it at the end of "Von Ryan's Express." This has taken me more than twenty years of viewings to figure out.

I hope that I can somehow train my mind to achieve this clarity again regarding something more meaningful, something that might save the world, or at least make me some money.

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December 21, 2006

On the Seventh Night of Hanukah My True Love Gave to Me

A menorah. Only a week late. That's right, the People's Republic of Santa Monica, California, a week after the beginning of Hanukah and two weeks after installing a block-long set of life-size Christmas scenes, finally installed a Hanukah menorah.

It's nice to see a non-Christian religious display alongside the huge Christmas displays. However, the timing of the menorah installation, just a day before the end of the eight-day Hanukah holiday, smacks of an afterthought. I doubt the city elders read my December 15 blog post complaining about the prominent Santa Monica Christmas displays, set up a full two weeks before the beginning of Christmas. I have a feeling, however, that some of the citizens of Santa Monica raised the same concerns that I had raised. Either that, or maybe the Santa Monica City Council members read about the Christmas tree fiasco at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport and decided to get with the program before next Christmas rolls around.

Do these people really need to be reminded by me, news reports or local citizens that it is grossly unfair and discriminatory, and likely illegal, to use taxpayer dollars to favor one religion so prominently at the exclusion of all others? Isn't that common sense? As far as I know, no one is asking for any religious displays to be taken down. But was it really that painful to give other folks a token display of their own? In the words of the Apostles, Jeez Louise!

Have a happy holiday, everyone.

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Netflix Naughty and Nice

Three recent Netflix rentals have had wildly varying results.

First, there was The Squid and the Whale, writer/director Noah Baumbach's autobiographical tale of a family breaking apart. This one gets an enthusiastic thumbs up. The extensive use of hand-held cameras added a very personal, almost voyeuristic touch. Jeff Daniels as one of the most selfish fathers in film history continues to prove that he is a highly talented and somewhat underrated actor. He does silence better than almost anyone else. Laura Linney turns in another raw, emotional performance as a wife and mother who is beginning to achieve professional success but who has a childishly unrealistic view about her marriage commitment. Note: it is probably not a good idea to see The Squid and the Whale with family members, for several reasons.

Next up was The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard's film version of the ubiquitous Dan Brown novel. This one gets a middling thumbs sideways. Some of the quirks of the novel that many found endearing do not translate well to film. First, Tom Hanks is miscast as the academic turned action hero in the tradition of Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan. He is a bit old and puffy to be playing Robert Langdon, a professor in his early 40's who swims every day and has the nickname "the Dolphin." Second, why is it that, in the movies, the hero stumbles upon a giant trove of files, and is able to sort through them in just a couple of minutes to find the Rosetta Stone? In its favor, however, The Da Vinci Code co-stars Audrey Tatou, who is able to occupy a role so fully that not only her demeanor, but also her appearance changes completely from one film to the next. I did not even recognize her until halfway through the movie. And finally, there is Ian McKellan as British expatriate Sir Leigh Teabing. His piercing blue eyes and basso profundo voice are always riveting.

Then there is the downer of the bunch. Rosenstrasse is a critically acclaimed German production that finds a German family gathered in New York City for the father's funeral. Apparently, the mother's childhood as a Holocaust survivor in Berlin is revealed during the film, along with some family secrets. I say "apparently" because I found Rosenstrasse so moribund that I had to remove the dvd after about 20 minutes. The mother is practically catatonic, and the pacing of the film is painfully slow. It is also stagey and claustrophobic, much of it taking place in the mother's apartment. The other jarring aspect of the film is that the German language appears to be dubbed, and, worse yet, the actors appear to be speaking English. Unfortunately, there was no option on the dvd to hear the original English soundtrack that I suspect exists. Maybe Rosenstrasse was written as a play. Maybe it should have stayed a play.

Have a happy holiday!

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December 20, 2006

Music For Mismatched Christmas Stockings

It's common to make annual favorites lists. I want to do something different. Here's my list of all-time favorite music in unorthodox categories:

Favorite Song That Is Too Painful to Listen To
"Boys of Summer" -- Don Henley
"Wicked Game" -- Chris Isaak
I think I associate both of these songs with the same woman.

Favorite Record No One Else Listens To
"Radio City" -- Big Star
"Flip-Flop" -- Guadalcanal Diary

Favorite Record Everyone Else Listens To
"Franz Ferdinand" -- Franz Ferdinand
"Hot Fuss" -- The Killers

Favorite Record Revealing Wild Talent
"Franz Ferdinand" -- Franz Ferdinand
"The Carnival" -- Wyclef Jean
"Hot Fuss" -- The Killers
"Fallen" -- Evanescence
"Elephant" -- The White Stripes

Favorite Record by a Supergroup
"Contraband" -- Velvet Revolver
"Audioslave" -- Audioslave
"Damn Yankees"-- Damn Yankees (just kidding!)

and lastly, one conventional category

Favorite New Record of 2006
"Black Holes and Revelations" -- Muse
"Wolfmother" -- Wolfmother

I'd love to hear others' favorites in some of these categories.

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December 18, 2006

When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro

Just when I thought my trilogy of tirade against the dark side of Christmas was over, things have turned strange once again. The other night, in my supposedly secure apartment building, my doorbell rang unexpectedly. That is not supposed to happen unless it is a neighbor or perhaps a member of the building staff. I looked through the peephole, which gives a really distorted view even for a peephole, and saw two shadowy figures who resembled the Men in Black, or perhaps the Agents from The Matrix. So of course, I opened the door.

I was greeted by a young man with a black hat and a beard, dressed in black and white Hasidic Jewish garb, and a boy dressed the same. The young man asked me, in a thick Eastern European or perhaps Middle Eastern accent, if I was Jewish. I said no. He then asked me if I knew any Jewish people in the building. Again I said no. I was abrupt with him because I was still in mild shock as to how he had gotten into the building, and because he was asking personal religious questions without even having introduced himself. I explained that I had just moved into the building.

"Oh? Just thees week?"
"No." My turn at taciturn was not about to change at this point.

The young man sensed defeat and, just before walking away, said to me, "Stay strong." I had no idea what that meant, other than as a piece of advice that is so generic as never to be inappropriate.

After shutting and then double locking my door, I thought about calling the building complex's security office and reporting that we had uninvited solicitors roaming the halls. But then I thought of the Christmas stupidity that has been the subject of my three previous posts, and realized that it was the night of the second day of Hanukah. These young men simply may have been trying to spread some Hanukah cheer or a Hanukah message. As I have learned this season, in many locations that is impossible to do in an officially sanctioned way.

This season, those who are spreading messages alternative to the mainstream Christmas message may just be forced into guerrilla tactics including trespassing, breaking and entering, and acting like X-Men.

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December 14, 2006

The War on Christmas is Going as Well as the War on Terror

Defenders of Christmas, defenders of the faith, fear not. Your holiday is intact. It is immaculate. I have the ultimate proof. This proof can be found in the bastion of political correctness known as the People's Republic of Santa Monica, California. Here, along the same stretch of park that is used to feed homeless people from a truck each day, the City of Santa Monica has erected at least twelve shacks containing life-size Christmas scenes of the full-blown religious variety.

There are the familiar scenes from the story of Christmas, including Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem on a donkey, the Three Kings, and Jesus being born in the manger. All told, the birth-orama takes up about a quarter mile stretch of Ocean Avenue, and is highly visible to the many motorists and pedestrians who pass by. It is impossible to ignore without making a major detour. This is in a city named after a saint.

And the other religious and ethnic groups who may be observing important holidays at this time? For them, even in liberal Santa Monica, there is no room at the inn.

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December 12, 2006

Sick Transit Gloria

The Christmas madness continues. According to news reports, the Seattle-Tacoma ("SeaTac") Airport came up with a novel solution to a rabbi's complaint that the airport's holiday display -- a group of large Christmas trees -- should also include a Hanukah menorah. The airport's solution? Scorched earth. Instead of adding a menorah, they removed all the Christmas trees. This led to threats against the rabbi, a bit unfair considering that the rabbi had never asked for the Christmas trees to be removed. After numerous complaints, airport officials returned the trees, and agreed to figure out a better solution next year.

According to one news report, "Airport managers believed that if they allowed the addition of an 8-foot-tall menorah to the display, as Seattle Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky had requested, they would also have to display symbols of other religions and cultures, which was not something airport workers had time for during the busiest travel season of the year." No kidding. Did SeaTac's managers get stuck in a time warp back to 1962? Had they learned nothing during the past 20 or 30 years precisely about being sensitive to "other religions and cultures?" At a time when our troops are caught in the middle of a war of "sectarian violence" in Iraq, with targets painted on their backs?

Wasn't I talking about this just yesterday?

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December 10, 2006

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Am I the only one who hates the Christmas music piped in everywhere this time of the year? It's supposed to be bad not to be in the "Christmas spirit," but if "Christmas spirit" means enjoying the music that permeates every commercial establishment, then I must politely say a Dickensian "Bah! Humbug!" (whatever that means). The Christmas music is ubiquitous. It is insidious. And I would say that it is pernicious, and any other bad word ending in "ous."

This is the first Christmas I can remember that I have had such a negative reaction to Christmas music, and I am trying to figure out why. My first response was that the Christmas music is manipulative, and I don't like being manipulated. Stores play their Christmas music at a certain volume, just above audible, in order to put us in a certain mood, or to evoke certain special memories, so that we ... buy more stuff. Any retailers out there, can you back me up on this? I really don't think I'm being part of the aluminum foil hat crowd here.

The second possibility why I'm hating on the Christmas music is that I am not Christian. It is said that Christmas is a difficult time for non-Christians, who are reminded that they are different. It doesn't help when one is bombarded with songs proclaiming "Christ is Lord" while looking for shelves in Target. However, this has been the case my whole life, and thus does not explain why I am reacting so negatively this year.

The third possible reason for not liking the Christmas music is that this is my first Christmas in Southern California, and it is damn weird to be walking around in shorts and a t-shirt in December, while bathing-suited Santas cruise by on Rollerblades. But this still does not explain why I don't like the Christmas music -- I could just as easily be enthralled and amused by the whole scene.

There is a fourth possibility, and I think it is the most likely one. What set me off the other day was when I went to a local It's a Grind coffee shop that likes to think of itself as the anti-Starbucks. They have cozy furniture, free WiFi, friendly sales staff, and one does not have to speak cutesy Italian to order coffee there. But while I was there, every other song being played was a Christmas song. When I complained to the staff, they were sympathetic and even agreed with me, but they said that the music is programmed by "corporate," and that they are not allowed to alter it. When I hopped on the It's a Grind web site to tell them by email that I expect this atmosphere at Starbucks, not at un-Starbucks, I saw that that they advertise themselves as the "Fastest growing coffee house franchise in U.S.!"

And that is, I think, the crux, no pun intended, of my complaint against the Christmas music. It is a mindless bureaucratic mindset that has pervaded even smaller, up-and-coming companies, that says, let's do this because everyone else does it, and it is the way things have been done for a long while. In other words, let's "stay the course." It is the same mindset, I believe, that allowed slavery and institutional racism to exist in this country for so long. It is the same mindset that has gotten us bogged down in Iraq.

Now, I know it's a long way from Christmas music to Iraq. But perhaps it is not so far if one follows the bright star shining in the east, to lay gifts before the King pa rum pum pum pum.

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December 06, 2006

The Spencer Redemption Part II

Warning: this post is sentimental, so take out your Kleenex now. Having Spencer the retriever around is a life-changing experience.Although he isn't my dog, I help care for him, and spend time with him almost every day. Today was especially wonderful. He must have put his dog vibes out.

First there was the woman with the dog outside the coffee shop this morning. I struck up a conversation with her because I'm now a "dog person" and am interested in others with their dogs. It turns out that she had just adopted her dog, Dixie, from the same organization from which Spencer was adopted. The woman and Dixie were getting along great, doing lots of training, and the dog even stayed on the ground when the woman went inside. I showed the woman on a map where the best dog park was, the one where I take Spencer, and she was very thankful.

As I was walking Spencer this afternoon, feeling a bit sorry for myself because some things that I wanted to happen out here in California have not happened yet (a bit unrealistic, considering that I have been here all of three weeks), everyone around us starting responding to him. First it was a pointing toddler being carried by her mother. Then, at a nearby seaside park, we passed an old Black woman sitting on a bench with a walker. She smiled a knowing, closed-lipped, not too wide smile, the kind that you might expect to be accompanied with a "mmm mmm, child ..." When we circled around and returned a few minutes later, we stopped by to say hello to the woman. Spencer came over to be petted by her dry, puffy hand. The woman's face lit up, and she went on about how good Spencer was, and how much she likes Golden Retrievers. She was with a slightly younger man, possibly her son, who was talking on a cell phone, and he had to tell the party on the other end how much he liked Spencer too.

Then, a couple of minutes later, we passed by a young blonde-haired woman sitting in the shade against a tree, her back to the ocean. She looked very distraught, with a small backpack, a box of crackers and a jar of peanut butter on the ground next to her. We wandered nearby, and saw that she was crying. She smiled a bit and said what a pretty dog I had. She said that her dog, which she had inherited from a former landlord, had just passed away, and that she was still grieving. She pulled a picture out of her wallet, and I saw a very cute Beagle mix with bright eyes. I thought about Spencer, who is only about two and a half, as an old, grizzled dog, and told the woman that the only thing unfair about having a dog is that it doesn't live very long. I told her that, even so, I hope that she found her dog worth having. She said of course. Spencer did his best to make her feel better, rolling around in front of her and offering his tummy to rub. The woman also told me that she was experiencing further hard times, having been kicked out of her home, and being in graduate school with huge loans. I wished her well, and, as Spencer and I left, she thanked me for spending five minutes with her. In truth, she was the gift-giver, not me.

As we were walking home, a station wagon with a couple of small kids in the back passed by, and the kids started squealing and pointing at Spencer. He still had his doggie mojo going.

I suspect that, much of the time, we walk around somewhat oblivious to the things and the people around us. We are all simply starring in our own movies. I rarely approach strangers in parks and strike up conversations. But thanks to Spencer the retriever, who was rescued from a shelter two days before he was to be put to death, I made several connections today. We may even have helped to brighten the day of some folks whose movies might not be as feel-good, with endings possibly not as happy, as ours. Spencer helped me to realize how fortunate I am, and how much I have for which to be grateful.

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December 04, 2006

Classic Signs of Addiction

I am battling a new addiction. It's not crack, or the Crackberry. It's not whiskey or vodka. It isn't Starbucks or Krispy Kreme.
It's VH1 Classic.

I have this tv channel for the first time, courtesy of a digital cable promotion accompanying my new service. Oh, you cable fiends, you pushers of channels. You give me a promotion for a few months, get me hooked, then force me to pay full retail for my daily fix. I will use all my will power not to let this happen, but it will not be easy.

Here is a sampling of one two-hour period on VH1 Classic last night:
Joy Division
World Party
Sonic Youth
Echo and the Bunnymen
Iggy Pop feat. Kate Pearson
Violent Femmes
The Damned

In short, VH-1 Classic is chock full of music videos from my own Sonic Youth, and later.

So keep your "Lost," your "Heroes," your "Grey's Anatomy." I want my music video tv!

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December 03, 2006

The Spencer Redemption

This is the third law violation I have been a part of in three weeks, and it's becoming a fun habit.A couple of weeks ago it was the prostitution solicitation I received from a young woman at a North Carolina rest stop, followed, that evening, by a breaking and entering in Georgia. Today it was the run-in with the ranger in the mountains of California.

I went hiking this morning in a California state park. The woman I went with, "Sigourney," has a really sweet dog named Spencer. He also happens to have perfectly chiseled looks, so I call him Cary Grant. We had to drive way up a canyon road to get to the trailhead. When we arrived, we saw a sign that prohibited dogs. Sigourney decided to take Spencer anyway. I didn't say anything, but if it was my dog, I would have gone hiking elsewhere.

Along the hike, we had stunning views of the California Coast, the inland mountains, and some metro areas. This is what brings people like me out to Southern California -- to be able to hike in shorts and a t-shirt in December.

Some hikers along the way told us to watch out for rangers, who swoop down from neighboring canyons on unsuspecting dog-owning lawbreakers and write them very expensive tickets. The hikers all said that they had not seen any rangers. I was surprised that everyone seemed to be happy about having Spencer on the trail, and that they wanted to be part of the criminal conspiracy. It may have been due to Spencer's good looks, and his very friendly demeanor. I could just see hikers back in the Shenandoah citing some Rule 23.17(a) and saying to us that "no dogs are allowed here."

We got to the top of the hike, and were enjoying the spectacular views on the exposed hilltop, when I caught a glimpse of a tall, uniformed man in a ranger uniform headed our way on foot. We tried to hide Spencer behind our legs, but no luck. We were busted. Ranger Crowder questioned Sigourney about her identity. When she was unable to produce a driver's license, he asked her for her driver's license number. As if she would know that. He radioed in her personal information, received confirming information back, and then took out his ticket book.

Ever the negotiator, I requested that Ranger Crowder merely give us a warning. "I don't give warnings to dogs," he snipped. That was the moment that the Karma started to turn. The wind began to howl, and it became very cold. Spencer started barking at Ranger Crowder. We asked the Ranger to please hurry, since we were getting very cold. He seemed to enjoy taking his time. Finally, he tore the ticket out of his book, but he tore out both the original and the yellow copy, which I thought was strange. Maybe he was new to the job. He handed us the copy, and then the wind blew the original right out of his hand and onto the hillside. I told Crowder, "we're not waiting for you to write us another one," spun around, and left. I took one last look over my shoulder, and saw Ranger Crowder standing at the hillside, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, scratching his head, wondering how he would rescue his ticket from its breezy jouney to the sea.

I figure there is at least a 50-50 chance that he will not be able to report this violation without the ticket documenting it, and that, like the other lawbreakers I have encountered on my journey to California, Sigourney and Spencer will get off scot free.

The irony is that, to retrieve his ticket, Ranger Crowder could have used the services of Spencer, a very athletic retriever. We did not stick around long enough to make the offer.

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December 01, 2006

Depeche Mod

My third impressions of Southern California are reflections. The most extreme novelty has worn off, and I now regard California through the lens of my previous DC area home. Tonight's reflections are of the sartorial type:

1. People dress a bit differently in Southern California. Tonight I was in a shop and saw something that looked like a woman's hair band. I asked the sales girl if it was a hair band. She looked at me funny and said, "uh, no, it's like a, tube top?" It was maybe three inches wide.

2. The 80s are big again. I know this isn't limited to Southern California. There are lots of leggings with miniskirts and boots. If the best of 80s fashions (if that is not an oxymoron) are recycled this year, and the gaudiest and tackiest creations are not repeated, it just might work.

3. People here have small asses. Perhaps the smallest asses in the United States. Maybe even the entire planet. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one's personal taste.

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