friday ledger

The ASS truck - On my way to work today, a van pulled up next to me with the logo “Affordable Sewer Service” on its flank. I thought I’d misread it, but no, I looked them up in the yellow pages and discovered that Affordable Sewer Service is all too real. Has no one ever pointed out that their company has ASS for an acronym?

I really want to phone them up and ask about it.

"Hello, Affordable Sewer Services? Yes... no, it's not an emergency. It's just... yes, I know it's two in the morning... I just thought you should know you've got ASS. That's right. ASS. See ya".

The food court – Today the food court was full of children, middle schoolers and up. I have no idea what they were doing there or why they wanted to ruin my lunch, with their braying chit-chat, their downy moustaches, their misshapen faces, but they weren’t successful. They tried to block my way no matter where I went, loose little knots of them tangling up traffic and putting out that goaty subsmell. Most of the kids had just hit that age when their bodies were shooting upward and outward in all directions, all uncoordinated growth that made them look like animated specimens from the Mutter museum. A few of the older children had cleared that Elephant Man hurdle and looked like normal human beings, but already you could see that they were calcifying into adult forms. There were the plain girls trying too hard for a style who would eventually give up altogether and collapse into dowdiness; jocko homos with artfully mussed hair who would end up running a Hyundai dealership or getting a business admin degree; and here and there, a young boy or girl who looked just a little bit stupefied or thoughtful, signifying the off-chance that they would grow up and do something interesting. It was to them that I raised my glass of green tea and took some muscle relaxants.

The locked door on American Idol – Cruelty has never been tempered to such a fine tone. On the opening episode of American Idol, the entrance to the audition is a set of double doors – one of which is bolted in place. Nothing gives you that blast of Schadenfreude like watching a humiliated contestant (who has already made it through two filters to stand before the celebrity judges) stumble out of the room, lost in a private agony of dashed dreams, only to propel themselves into a locked door. “Other door, honey,” Simon drawls. If the game weren’t already given away by the camera’s lingering takes of hapless wannabees finally figuring out that they’ve been strung along, that unmoving door tells you everything you need to know about the desperate need for fame. As yet, nobody has screamed (as far as I know) “Why’d you lock the door, you fucking sadists?” Instead, they back up, thoroughly beaten, and shuffle shoulder-first out of the room.

As always, it’s best to bear in mind that reality shows are edited carefully to portray everyone and everything to conform with the show’s creative mandate. Maybe the locked door provoked an outburst or two. But I’m always astounded at the losing contestants’ inability to perceive the joke - they’re the punch line, after all. I’ve noticed the same tendency on almost all reality shows: the strange willingness of participants to accept the rules of the highly artificial universe into which they’ve been plunged. Cover yourself in ground beef, say the producers, and jump into that hornet-filled tank. Okay, says the participant. And how do they express their misgivings to the camera? That’s the rules of the game, they say. No matter what the scenario, them’s the rules. So that’s the way we do it.

In most reality shows, the game is played for money and a brief bit of television exposure, a way for non-celebrities to get a little taste of the televised life, but in American Idol, celebrity is the prize. What boggles the mind is that so many kids, lining up in malls across the country, being herded into groups by weary production assistants brandishing megaphones and clipboards, seem to think that the Idol franchise is their best road to fame. Never mind building up your talent, courting other musicians, recording demos, or even getting on Myspace and selling your homebrew CD on Lulu – these kids seem to think that it only takes discovery. As if their own personality and (maybe) talent were reason enough to make them adored of millions.

Even in this age of manufactured singing stars (although what were the Monkees, the Sex Pistols and a thousand other bands if not manufactured?), there’s often a bit of history behind the act. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera had been plugging away since childhood; Jennifer Lopez started out as a dancer. But the masses of Idol contestants, the brace-faced girls and mirror-trained boys, in the hormonal fug of desire, hope that all that grunt work is unnecessary. Some people even claim that Idol is their only chance, their last chance at fame. How is that eighteen year olds from Sudbury or Fort Wayne or Tallahassee have run out of chances so tragically early?

The truth is that these people have even less of a chance than they think. Over the last few seasons, Idol finalists have displayed a professionalism and a maturity that the hopeful masses can only grow into over the years. Taylor Hicks has grey hair and a Joe Cocker shtick that seems decades out of date. Far from a democratic free-for-all, a dramatization of American mobility, Idol seems increasingly like an alternate route to fame for people who were likely going to get there anyway. Those people know instinctively which door to choose on their way out of the room.

My one-act play – I’ve had something approaching a breakthrough with my play. At first I feared that I hadn’t developed the characters thoroughly enough to give them enough dialogue to get through 30 minutes of stage time. But I don’t need to develop their characters – I just need to give the characters something to react to, an object that will frustrate or fulfill their goals. Their reactions will give me the nuances of character.

The object is a time machine that can get the doctors and their daughter Charlton back to civilization. Dr. Wilder wants to get back, but Dr. Savage has grown accustomed to the place. He enjoys living out the twilight years of humanity in their jungle lab as he pursues his projects as a gentleman scientist. Dr. Wilder, on the other hand, wants desperately to return. He particularly wants to get Charlton back to civilization, as he is a) a sort of scientific breakthrough himself, the product of same-sex reproduction; and b) like any parent, Wilder wants something better for Charleton. Better than composing horrible poetry and cavorting with the genetically degraded valley dwellers. And on this point, even Dr. Savage is willing to concede, although he’s more interested in Charlton’s happiness than having him accomplish something by the standards of civilizations past. Living at humanity’s end has given Savage a certain disdain for the notion of civilization, since he can see its ultimate product unraveling before him every day. Wilder entertains a notion that he can prevent this horrible fate by going back in time and taking steps to keep humanity on track.

The issue is that the time machine is not a passive instrument that will whisk them back to the past; it’s a thermodynamic propulsion device that bends the continuum to achieve its ends. If used, it will destroy everything within a sizeable radius. Which means, of course, that humanity will certainly cease to exist, and that the two scientists will definitely be responsible for the ultimate genocide. Wilder maintains that a trip to the past will ensure that humanity never has to suffer such a horrible fate. Savage isn’t sure that he’s right, and anyway, he’s not sure that humanity’s worth saving. It’s certainly not worth destroying utterly on the chance that it can be saved.

To Charlton, the notion of using the time machine is frightful and repulsive. He’s stuffed absolutely full of notions about the primeval innocence of humanity (which is odd, since primeval humanity is a thing of the distant past) and celebrates the lives of the valley dwellers in really, really bad blank verse. He’s also in love with Beckham, a young woman from the valley who speaks a crabbed English, bites the heads off fish and treats Charlton like an indentured servant.

Beckham functions more or less as the audience stand-in, the one who perceives the characters far better than they perceive themselves. She also takes full advantage of the others to achieve her own ends - which, in the interests of keeping some interest in the play alive, I'm not going to reveal.