Thursday, January 24, 2002


OK! Just what all of you have been clamoring for! For all of you LIANT fans who can't get enough of this blog or who have too much time on their hands or who just want to know with what kind of stuff I fill my head each day that makes me the babbling blogger I am, I bring you...

The Life In a Northern Town Book Club! Sponsored by, well, nobody! This is not a marketing stunt! I don't care whether you buy these books or check them out of your fine local library (if you can ever find it open! Ho ho!)! Actually, I don't care if you read them at all! But I guarantee that at least once a month from now on (and possibly more often if Writer's Block again rears his ugly head), I will write an essay of some length about a book I think should be more widely known – if not by my readers, at least by somebody out there.

For my first entry, I am shamelessly promoting a fellow Bard graduate. Matt Taibbi ('92, just like me) took off to Russia after some ambling about the world and joined his equally twisted friend Mark Ames to bring Ames' paper The eXile to new heights of obnoxious journalistic "emperor-has-no-clothes-ing" and new depths of depravity and death porn.

Then they wrote a book about how they pulled it off. And it's a dandy.

The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia
by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi
(New York: Grove Press, 2000)

As the subtitle might indicate, this is not a book for the faint of heart, nor is it a straight-up history, though the portrait it paints of post-Soviet Russia from the early '90s to 1998 is pretty vivid in all its pornographic, bloody, vomitous, sexist glory, making it a pretty damned good history anyway.

The book is divided into eight chapters, four written by Ames and four by Taibbi. Many readers have complained that Ames' sections of the book are Warhollianly dull, too petty, personal, splenous, what have you, while praising Taibbi's sections for their directness, adherence to and expressed admiration for basic journalistic principles and (false, false, false) relative modesty. But I will go on the record as admiring both.

Ames... poor Ames. Poor, poor Ames. After reading this book I really want to meet this guy and tell him he's not alone, that he's no more an epic loser than are most of the people who have walked this earth (though his Chapter One case of scabies in which the mites had transformed into "the Albert Speers of the arachnid world," constructing "about thirty or so bunkers on my ass: hardened, red modules which rendered the Kewell lotion and Elimite lotion useless" might argue for at least minor epic-loser status). But were I to do so, I would be subject to invective on a grand scale; this guy has clearly read Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground too many times.

(Not that I think that's a bad thing.)

But that's okay. For every self-pitying narrative about scabies or his inability to get laid in Prague or his dependence on speed whenever left to get an issue of the eXile out by himself, there are still gems of hilarious realism like the following:

"What people forget in every article ever written about drugs is one simple, basic fact. PEOPLE TAKE DRUGS BECAUSE THEY'RE FUN. That's it. There's no mystery to the drug thing. Peiople drink water to quench their thirst, they have sex because it feels good, and they do drugs because they're fun...

Even Hunter S. and William Burroughs couldn't state it that plainly;: they elevated drugs to the mythical level, keeping mum on the single most obvious, dangerous fact. So I'll repeat: PEOPLE DO DRUGS BECAUSE THEY'RE FUN. It's no different from alcohol or roller coasters except that drugs are A LOT BETTER."

Co-author Taibbi observes later in this book, after a brief reflection on his childhood growing up in the newsrooms of Boston and New York, that "If, as a consumer, you want good newspapers, you're not going to get them if the reporters are people who only reluctantly tell you the truth. Ideally, you have a bunch of people who are outcasts, even sociopaths, who get off on telling people the whole truth because that's the point: The other parts of society – government, business, etc. – have to be able to function while trusting the public to know the worst."

In these two quotes we can find the eXile and this book in a nutshell. Ames and Taibbi are two people who get off on telling the truth, and make no bones about the fact that they do get off on it. Hence their infamous "Death Porn" section, their version of a police blotter, in which the goriest crimes they could find in Russia that week (the eXile is a bi-weekly paper, for the most part, though the dummies occasionally convince themselves to try to be weekly with hilariously disastrous results) are recounted with mocking slapstick horror, in true tabloid fashion, complete with cartoons illustrating basic, recurring story elements, i.e. a little Thanksgiving turkey to indicate the victim was "carved up like a turkey", a piece of Swiss cheese to indicate "riddled with bullets," a hamburger bun with a human haand sticking out of it to indicate cannibalism (quite prevalent out in the provinces where people, still waiting lo these many years for the goverment to pay their back wages, have little to do but hack each other to pieces and eat each other) and, my favorite, a squad cap next to a vodka bottle to indicate an "investigation ongoing."

But Death Porn and little drug and scabies excursi notwithstanding, why should you, my comfortable, mostly middle-class and American readers read this book? Because it also tells the story of a newspaper that has been a huge pain in the ass to an expatriate community in Moscow that has done little to actually help convert Russia to a free-market economy or to prepare its citizenry to live in such an economy. Those whom Ames and Taibbi have skewered over the years in their paper have been both highly-placed Russian oligarchs who have taken state corruption to unbelievable new levels (I would refer readers especially to Taibbi's in-depth look at Anatoly Chubais and his loans-for-shares program which should have been a global scandal but was deemed "too complicated" to cover in the western press), and American and British consultants who lived the high life spending foreign aid money on luxuries for themselves, investing it with each other's mutual funds, and creating scandals like the Investor Protection Fund, meant to bail out poor Russians whose first forays into private investing led to their being defrauded (to date the IPF has not paid out one rouble to any bilked investors – but it made one mutual fund manager a lot of money for many years!).

But this book is not to be read as an exercise in schadenfreude: most of the worst villains in the eXile's hall of shame are Americans, and it is a theme throughout the book that once Americans are in any way freed from the usual constraints on their behavior, they are the most corrupt, scaly lizard-beasts one can find anywhere. Even an ordinary suburbanite, once she lands in Russia, winds up threatening gangland hits on the authors once they piss her off with one too many dick jokes.

And it could happen here, if we ever cease to keep an eye on each other, on our elected officials, and on our press. For, as Taibbi notes with dismay, the age of those outcast sociopaths is gone; today's "reporters," at least in the western press in Moscow, have become "a bunch of corrupt, cheerleading patsies," largely because there is no longer any competition between papers, magazines, networks, what have you, and thus there's no one paying attention to the accuracy, fairness, or relevance of what is coming out of those Moscow bureaus - and thus no reason for western journalists in Moscow to work very hard at all.

The authors leave open the question of whether this might not be true in other parts of the world or back home, but it does make me wonder about what I'm reading about what's going on in Kabul, in Israel, and in Cheyenne.

I know too many Wyoming reporters to be able, truthfully, to say that nothing like that can happen or has happened here. I've done it myself, run stories without double-checking facts, accepted sources' words as gospel because of my personal fondness or respect for those sources, left out story elements I didn't think my readers would understand... I just never got called on it.

I fervently wish that there could be more papers like the eXile in the world, while knowing that there can't be: it is only Ames and Taibbi's unique position – out of the reach of American libel laws and unread by the officials whose corruption they expose in Russia because they print in English – that makes the eXile possible. But in a perfect world, there would be an eXile in every city, Death Porn, pornographic club reviews and all.

By the way – you can read the newspaper itself online! Every few weeks, surf on over to and see what they have to say. They've been especially entertaining in the many creative ways they've called for Osama bin Laden's blood since 9/11 – while also, in one of their less tasteful running columns, using him as the mock-voice of their weekly NFL picks column.

Wednesday, January 23, 2002


OR - Cold Medicine 2, Electric Boogaloo

As I knew would happen since I was home today hacking up a lung and trying to wake up from my drug-induced coma, I appear to have missed another memorable, epic-level debate at my mid-morning coffee klatsch.

Thank goodness I have my dear friend the Sewer King (I have to call him that or he doesn't realize I'm writing about him) (at least I think this will work, since he gave himself that name, unprompted by any of us – but he claims to have a poor memory) (but he should at least recognize himself now by the predicate to this sentence I have now parenthetically interrupted three times) (make that a gratuitous four times) (how about five) (or even... but I'll knock this off now and finish my thought) to fill me in on the good stuff I missed.

Sad but true, my coffee hour is probably the best hour of a typical day (at least of a typical day that doesn't end with the Artist or the IFB or my New Darts Partner or the Minister of Fun knocking back Guiness with me somewhere downtown), and it is largely because I never know what the guys there are going to be talking about on a given morning – or to what flights of fancy, foolishness or philosophizing they will fly in response to a stupid remark of mine.

Today, I am told, the argument centered around which of two businesses, the hardware store or the bank, has the best popcorn, the best popcorn machine, and the best popcorn servers.

I feel I may safely weigh in on this subject because, apart from coffee, popcorn is my favorite food. I can also approach the matter with an unbiased judgment and a clear conscience for having missed the banker's and the hardware man's no doubt very entertaining but quite possibly damagingly biased arguments.

I must first, however, lay all my cards on the table. I am a girl, and, moreover, a girl who does a lot of accounting and bookkeeping and general mucking about with money. I am therefore in the bank much more often than I am in the hardware store and so have had greater exposure to the bank's than to the hardware store's popcorn. It is simply the way of things; especially this time of year, I am in the bank most every day, while I am in the hardware store only occasionally, and that usually to discuss the sewer system and pending ordinances and other actions pertaining thereto with its king.

Some might argue that these facts might prejudice me somewhat in the bank's favor, already demolishing my supposed objectivity on the matter. BUT, there are more disclosures to be made.

Outweighing any bias toward familiarity is a little matter of long-dormant childhood fears that wholly distract me from the quality of the popcorn at the bank.

You see, one of the primary popcorn ladies at the bank is an old enemy of mine, one whose very voice once filled me with such fear as to keep me, Kate Sherrod, perhaps the most deeply addicted bookworm ever to stroll the halls of Saratoga Elementary School, right out of the Saratoga Elementary School Library.

She knows this of course, and we laugh about it from time to time as I nervously accept a sack of popcorn from her hand, but as I do so, my own hand shakes in memory of years of fear that bordered on hatred from back in the day when this sweet old lady towered over me.

She terrorized me in the library, where fear of her kept me from having the temerity to check out the "big kid" books my teacher had encouraged me to read – after one attempt to check out The Hobbit in first grade I meekly darted into the little kid stacks whenever the Aide was present (and felt very foxy one morning when I came into the library before class started and the true librarian let me have it without a remark).

Fear of her also has left me with a distinct gustatory and olfactory memory shared only by my immediate contemporaries at SES. It was a guarantee that if the lunchroom was serving spinach, the library aide would be the lunchroom monitor – and she was a firm believer in Cleaning Up Your Plate, and never mind that the spinach on that plate was boiled, swimming in vinegar, looking like the devil himself had thrown up a little pile of nori and left it rotting there about six months ago.

We tried everything to get away with not eating that spinach, but six-year-olds are not that cunning, and she was wily and experienced, could nose out where we'd hid our spinach on our plates without fail.

And that is why, to this particular refined and educated palate, the popcorn served up by the bank, while in and of itself very fine popcorn, fluffy white and warm and cheerfully served, has unpleasant notes to its flavor, notes of spinach, vinegar and sour milk that no amount of liberal applications of popcorn salt, no assiduous cleaning s of the gleaming metal of the machine, no trips to the therapist could ever really remove or disguise. It's unfortunate, but true.

The hardware store's popcorn, on the other hand, just tastes like popcorn, though perhaps not quite as salty as I like it. That is a point on which the hardware store does deserve praise, however, for it is far easier to add a little extra salt to one's own bag than to take away too much salt from the bag.

On all other points, I would have to declare them more or less equal. Both are offered in a spirit of customer appreciation and generosity and are an effective appeal to customer loyalty in a way that nugatory rulers or calendars are not.

So I applaud both parties, and encourage them to keep up the good work.

And keep on cranking out those groovy free pens. They really cut down on my office supply expenditures at the chamber.

(Though the ones I acquired for use at the fishing derby proved considerable disappointments, as not being able to stand up to the cold at all! Fortunately, I also stole, quite by accident I assure you all, a somewhat pricey gel pen from the Hotel Wolf the night before the derby. It proved our precious savior, a pen that wrote when all others choked up, and I would have returned it to the Hotel with gratitude after the derby had not some goofy fisherman walked off with it after signing his prize affadavit late Sunday afternoon)

But I digress. As usual. Must be the Nyquil.

Tuesday, January 22, 2002


Ladies and gentlemen, my first ever Blog post on cold medicine!

Yup, the wage of derby dame-dom is apparently a visciously virulent virus (the old-fashioned, semi-living kind, not the kind about which hoaxes are spread via e-mail every week). One hour I'm running all over town rejoicing at getting the last huge wad of disgusting, grimy, oily, smelly money (a possible vector for my current troubles... but more likely it was one of "my" kids on the speech team, several of whom trooped on valiantly through their symptoms trying to get ready for their first varsity tournament of the year) (or maybe I got it from one of the fish we measured. Maybe I'm the first case of whirling disease in humans! Certainly I'm a little off balance as I type...) out of my keeping and into the bank where it belongs, the next I'm feeling a little tired at my desk as I write tons of press releases (which can be read at the chamber's blog site,) and the next my assistant is commenting on how I sound a little wheezy and look a little stoned and did I maybe have something funky with my lunch?

Then this bug came down on me HARD AND FAST.

I barely made it up to the grocery store to buy a box of Nyquil gel caps (and all hail the inventor of the gel cap, which allows me a full dosage of Nyquil's floor-hugging, drool-spreading, coma-inducing goodness without my having to choke down that horrible, viscous semiliquid) and a gallon or two of OJ. I'm lucky traffic was light and there was enough snowfall to force everyone to turn on their headlights or I might have involved myself in a spectacularly silly crash of some kind the likes of which no car of mine has seen since I was 16 and decided to try to beat up a fence post with my daddy's pickup truck whilst exiting the airport.

And that's BEFORE I drugged myself.

Now I'm home and waiting for the Nyquil to kick in. I think I only have a few more minutes of what now passes for lucidity before I sink into blissful semiconsciousness, the weight of my head pulling me down, my head so dense it might implode or at least permanently deform my pillow as the force of it actually rearranges the pillow's component molecules... and my arms turn into useless, flapping appendages dangling loosely off the side of my futon... my legs disappear... my eyes melt... God I love Nyquil.

And so, though it's not yet 4 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, though the sun is still in the sky, though time and tide wait for no man and a day's, a year's, a life's work still waits uncompleted before me, though many in the world suffer far greater pains each day than I do with my little viral aches, for today, I surrender. Today I let the fever and the dextromethorphan hydrobromide (ah, bromide! by my side! which like a tide! carries off pain and dulls my pride! takes me for a sleepy ride! with thee always I'll abide! as off to dreamland now I glide! ah, bromide!) carry me off, not caring anymore what becomes of anything. Others will be there to push up the sun in the morning, and as for everything else, well, it will still be there when I return.

And since I caught this early and had the luxury of tackling it in this proactive manner, ready to wrestle this bug down with vitamin C, zinc and pseudoephedrine hydrochloride, that return should be tomorrow.

Good afternoon, evening, and night!

Monday, January 21, 2002


It's not every day that my ultimate purpose is finding a guy who has reportedly set his ass (arse, to my British readers, who still think an ass is something with long ears that brays) on fire, but it's not every day that I'm in charge of distributing prizes in an ice fishing derby, either.

The time was mid-morning this last Saturday, the place, Saratoga Lake, the occasion, the 23rd mostly annual (we skipped one year when the lake got drained) Saratoga Ice Fishing Derby, and the person in question was, in my opinion, in the lead for the Hard Luck Fisherman Award, a tradition I'd decided on the spot to resurrect when I came into possession of a really dumb board game called "Gone Fishing."

The incident in question had reportedly happened in the predawn chill and may not have happened at all; elements of the story smacked of what passes in Saratoga for urban legend. Our unfortunate angler had had a bandanna sticking out of the back pocket of his Carhartts when he bent over to retrieve something and bumped a little too closely to the flame of his propane heater. The rag, then the seat of his pants caught on fire and it took a while to put it all out; he was reportedly still about on the ice with the ass of his pants burnt out.

I received word of this while huddling in a dark, tiny trailer, hawking derby tickets and cheerleading my crack team of fish measurers. We all agreed it was the best story we'd yet heard in the derby and would be hard to top. I told the fisherman who shared the anecdote with us to keep an eye out for the assless Carhartts and advise their owner he had not suffered in vain...

...But alas, he was never heard from. A pity. It looks like a really fun board game. I'll save it for next year. Unless I hear a better story as I conduct the derby post-mortem.

There were some strong candidates. No fewer than three teams of fishermen told tales of losing their poles down an ice hole, with two of those later recovering said poles when the fish who'd sucked the things down bit again on other bait and earned a trip out of the hole, their earlier prize still attached.

The preponderance of this story or variants thereof has led me to form one conclusion: the fish may be fairer and more honest than those who go after them; no fewer than eight derby contestants approached me during the two-day tournament with plaintive questions - "Has anyone turned in a pole?" "Has anyone seen my folding chair?" "My auger was missing when I came out of my hut; has anyone turned it in?" "I lost my keys; if somebody finds them could you bring them out to the green Shappell over by the dam?"

Nothing at all was turned in during the two days of the tournament, leading me to conclude that the prevailing ethos among ice fishermen may well be an especially harsh form of finders, keepers, or at least a powerful belief that a found pole/auger/bobber/bottle of eau de minnow has come to them in karmic repayment for a pole/auger/bobber/bottle lost many years ago at a fishing derby far, far away.

Fishermen are nothing if not superstitious, of course, witness the locals of my acquaintance who have been fishing this derby every single year in the exact same place, and who would not budge from it even after not even seeing a fish for an entire day.

My cadre of volunteers and I were actually very amused at the concentration of locals on the supposedly "hot" end of the lake and the number of them (ZERO) who were bringing in fish to be measured.

"So much for local knowledge," one fish-measuring wiseacre observed.

"Maybe they just think everyone is bringing in bigger fish and they don't want to get shown up," a more charitable ticket-seller countered.

Actually, I have to doff my hat/scarf/earwarmer to my volunteers, especially those who measured the fish for the big fish contest, who endured the cold touch of alien flesh (even through rubber gloves thoughtfully provided by our valley's medical clinic this was still a funky experience for many of them, most of them non-fishermen even in the warmer months), the oozing and sometimes squirting of fresh Saratoga caviar (brown and rainbow trout eggs), and the determined flopping and flipping of the fish they were trying to measure (indeed, on two occasions the damned things jumped right off the measuring tray, getting lost on the counter, inside the trailer, or in one memorable instance, flying out the window to thump against a neighboring trailer!).

Maybe now said volunteers will believe me next year when I tell them the real fun is out on the ice, as my special guest derby official, the famous Dan Brain of Laramie, and assorted other friends of mine discovered, as they trudged (or in Dan's case, skied) out onto the lake for an afternoon's hob-nobbing.

At his concert at the Cantina that evening, Brain observed that he was the less fortunate of the day's ice judges because while a young friend of mine stumbled across a tent full of fishermen who gave her Crown Royal to drink "All I got was... Watermelon Pucker."

But it was Brain who got to see perhaps the most entertaining tableau of the tournament: several guys who'd managed to get their camper out on the ice and who'd surrounded it with ice holes. In between bouts of jigging, they were ensconced inside said trailer... watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

Now that's fishin'!

Nor can I complete an account of this banner weekend without mentioning its crowning moment, its high point, it's incident of maximum greying (for my hair): that time around high noon on Saturday when a guy from Colorado came in to our booth with A TAGGED FISH!!!


Honestly, I think I was more excited than he was. I'd been praying for weeks that someone would catch a tagged fish this year. It would be so cool to finally get to give away the big money ($25,000 this year) on my watch.

Unfortunately, when the gods grant prayers, they tend to get annoyingly specific.

I had not prayed that someone catch the $25,000 tagged fish, you see, as was verified some 15 minutes later after I'd navigated our insurance company's hideously involved and code-ridden automated phone verification system. After 15 minutes of punching in and verifying identification codes, a cheery voice informed me "Sorry; that is not the winning fish" and disconnected me without so much as a by-your leave.

Fortunately, the man in question was pretty cool about it all. He was already something of a hero for actually having caught one; a small crowd had been around to watch the proceedings and many of them were heard to express surprise that there were actually tagged fish in the lake.

And he did go home with a decent prize anyway: a nice new ice hut, a really good power auger (recent events have taught me to appreciate the value of a really good, well-behaved power auger. As to why, well I should only have to indicate that my ice fishing buddy's own power auger has manifested such a personality that she [not it, SHE] has earned the name of Bitch) and a sled to pull the rest of his gear in. Not bad for landing a trout with a piece of plastic sticking out of its dorsal fin.

There was more to the weekend, of course... much more... moments of unexpected lyricism (a young angler from Fort Collins emerged from his tent just in time for Brain to hear him observe that Southern Comfort tasted "Like an Angel Pissing on Your Tongue" - an observation that Brain had made into a short country song in time to serenade that angler when he came into the Cantina that night), gustatory glee (our local American Legion Auxiliary really knows how to make fry bread) (and the Knights of Columbus make pretty good pancakes), technological innovation (a good pair of neoprene Cabela's gloves with the rubbery traction grip are damned near perfect for holding down a wiggly fish that doesn't want us to know how long it is), scenic beauty (the only thing prettier than one sunrise seen over Saratoga Lake is two in a row), childish charm (one little girl from Green River one the Small Fry hourly "big fish" prize three times, and her eyes got wider and her smile bigger every time she came up to have a fish measured), and that special funky state of mind that comes with extended sleep deprivation (who needs drugs?).

And then there was that joy, greater than any I have ever known, that came when I staggered into my apartment at 5 p.m. Sunday evening, peeled off my 17 layers of clothing, turned on my electric blanket, crawled into bed, and slept for 16 hours.

Bliss beyond compare.