Category Archives: Essay

‘The strange allure of the Progressive Insurance girl’

Oct. 20, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

She’s bubbly and beaming, high-volume, with a flip of dark hair and a face like a lollipop. She irks as she endears, bemuses as she bewitches. She’s a bundle of energetic contradictions, bursting here, retracting there. Her expressions blink and change like a neon sign. Her eyes are popping globes. And she just sold you a bunch of car insurance.

Flo is her name. She’s the spokeswoman for Progressive Auto Insurance, lighting up televisions in a series of commercials in which her perky cashier pitches the money-saving merits of Progressive to customers. She works in a sterile, all-white big-box store, and her florid makeup stands out like paint spilled in snow.

First she caught our eye; now she’s snatched our heart. Viewers are smitten. They’re crushin’. They want to know: Who’s that girl?

From a recent blog at, with the headline “The Cult of the Progressive Car Insurance Chick”:

“Am I the only one completely and totally enamored of the woman in the television ads for Progressive car insurance? You know, the ones starring that babelicious brunette named Flo with her ‘tricked-out name tag’ and her ’60s style eye makeup and her kissable red, red lips?”

No, sir, you are not. There’s more where that mash-note came from, out there in the blogosphere’s infinite confessional space: “She’s hot.” “She’s weird but, God, she’s fine!”

Others have naughtier ideas that they’re perfectly comfortable sharing with the world, even if we can’t do so here.

“It’s so weird,” says Stephanie Courtney, the actress who plays Flo. Continue reading

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‘Deep 6’

Dire predictions swarm around today’s date — 6/6/06 — but we’re ready to pitchfork them all

June 6, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

In the dark art of doomsaying, everything is rooted in everything, all of it entwined in prophecy and proclamation, raving from pulpits and mountaintops, the Internet and badly lighted cable access studios: The end is nigh.

Apocalypse, now. The End Days rear up to spew biblical yuckiness across the globe, leaving a big ball of smoking gristle speckled with the remains of those not righteous enough for the pillowy penthouse of heaven.

It’s hell’s turn, and it has your number.

Well, we have its number, too. Three sibilant digits — 6-6-6 — a tidy speed-dial on fate’s mobile, with a ringtone clanging like a death knell. 666, the Number of the Beast, the Mark of the Antichrist, as introduced in rumbling prose in the book of Revelation, that merry little bedtime story that has begat no end of frothing street-corner seers and bar-code conspirators, creepy Hieronymus Bosch paintings and mullet-head tattoo art.

The number is everywhere, and while it doesn’t happen every day, it does happen today, June 6, 2006 — that is, (cue Bach’s Toccata and Fugue) 6/6/06.

Revelation 13:17-18 decrees it with sulfurous portent: The tag of the beast is a “human number,” which Satan’s followers will bear on the hand or forehead come Armageddon. Teased from an ancient Hebrew numbering system, 666 is the numerical value of the name of the Antichrist, though some biblical scholars dispute this figure as a mistranslation, opting for the totally nonevil 616, the area code of Grand Rapids, Mich.

So freighted with diabolic prestige and shivering paranoia is this trio of modest curlicues that Fox is releasing its remake of the 1976 horror movie “The Omen” today with the soothing tagline “You have been warned.” (The film, of course, chronicles the arrival of the Antichrist in the form of a cherubic child named Damien, forever ruining that name for parents worldwide.)

Other wily marketing moves on this most damned of days include the launch of devil-thrash band Slayer’s Unholy Alliance Tour and — get thee behind me, Satan! — the release of Ann Coulter’s “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.”

All hell is breaking loose, and with it, a lot of screws. Y2K, anyone?

Scroll the Web and savor the bounty of 666-related predictions scheduled for today (is that Pacific or Central time?). Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, a renegade comet smashing Earth. The Antichrist will reveal himself and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will gallop forth, sporting black hoodies in place of cowboy hats. If you see a horse shooting fire from its nostrils, run.

Colorado authorities are watching for “demonstrations or violent activity,” says the Denver Post, noting that 60 global terrorist attacks have happened on June 6 since 1970. Austin police are taking no extra precautions, because “We’re not expecting anything,” says police spokeswoman Toni Chovanetz. She asks anyone who sees suspicious activity to dial 911, the number of the peace.

Most newborns, purply and scrunchy, look like spawns of Satan, but some pregnant women in Austin and beyond are trying to avoid giving birth today, lest they deliver Rosemary’s baby. Horns — never a good look on a child.

‘‘I’m going to be induced on the 4th or 5th,” expectant mother Carrie McFarland of Dallas told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. ‘‘If my doctor had offered to induce me on the 6th, I wouldn’t have done it.’’

Jittery residents in San Marcos want to change the city’s ZIP code, which is 78666. It’s a lighthearted movement, one that made the U.S. Postal Service chuckle, smile and say “no.”

Divine augur, or occult folderol?

“People can get hypersensitive and read too much into things,” says Randy Phillips, pastor of the nondenominational PromiseLand West Church in Austin. “I’ve had friends who changed their P.O. box from 666 to another number. I don’t see any significance in June 6, 2006. It’s just another day. It’s like Friday the 13th. I still show up and have a good time.”

Calls to local psychics yielded mumbled disinterest, ignored messages and a hang-up. What does Madam Ruth know that she’s not telling us?

Like the good pastor, we’re ready to 86 this 666. The number pops up on license plates, expiration dates, credit card bills and the lyric sheets of Iron Maiden, yet few of us feel its promised burn. It’s a stigma given its own stigma by the anxious and superstitious, who seek meaning in the cracks of old parchment and the furrows of inspired speculation.

Here’s another diabolic number: 7734. Remember as a kid punching the digits into a calculator, then turning the calculator upside down, so they spelled “hell”? We were little Damiens.

As far as real links between 666 and war and destruction, we leave that to the Scott Paper company. It notes on its Web site that the Pentagon uses about — you got it — 666 rolls of toilet paper a day. That sound you hear on this wicked day is a whole lot of flushing.

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‘Cy’s single amber eye peers deep into cyber souls, questions life’s fragility’

Jan. 17, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

Like a perfect amber marble smooshed into its forehead, the eyeball rests in the kitty’s face. With no eyelid to blink it, the eye glistens and stares, evoking a comic book Martian or, naturally, the Cyclops of Greek myth, a towering, fearsome beast that wore the largest monocle in recorded history. Wags on the Web have dubbed it the “cyclops kitten,” musing with by turns pity, laughter, skepticism and freaked-out fear about this botched job of nature. The solo orb, writes one poster, “peers deep into my SOUL.”

The kitty and its creepy eye are captured in a startling Associated Press photo, and it’s no hoax. Scientists say so, terming the facial mishap “holoprosencephaly.” Named Cy by its owner, it was born Dec. 28 in Oregon and died the next day. It was also born without a nose, making it look to some like a one-eyed monkey. Cy was one in a litter of two kittens. Its sibling came out normal and is presumably destroying furniture as we write.

With that impressive peeper, Cy was the kitten’s pajamas last week. Its image held Net surfers in the queasy thrall of morbid fascination. The photo of the pink and white feline — laying on a bed of horror and pathos, the outsize uni-eye centered in its downy head — shot through the blogosphere.

The picture was one of the most viewed and most emailed photos at Yahoo on Thursday and Friday, and “cyclops kitten” was one of the most searched keywords. Soon, a meticulous and loving painting of Cy, complete with the epigram RIP, was posted at Other sites ran poems to Cy. (I bet you woulda made a great pet/woulda scared everybody at the vet.) While sympathy reigned, nasty people let loose with monikers like “devil cat.” One poster wrote, “That cyclops cat scared the bejesus out of me.”

That’s glib stuff when deeper reflection is demanded. Cy represents the crazy fragility of life, the cruel caprice of Mother Nature. And it throws into question Cy’s mother’s taste in tomcats.

Cy is gone now. A fleeting oddity that ruffled us for a moment. A sideshow distraction that made us feel and think. Cy’s owner did what anyone would do with such a gift and learning tool for humanity. She put it in the freezer.

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‘South Congress tailor was thread in everyday life’

Jan. 5, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

Mei Wong was the sphinx of Austin garment workers. Expressionless, almost non-verbal, fussily businesslike, she ran Ace Expert Alterations and Cleaners on South Congress Avenue with joyless poise and snappy haste, like an antsy schoolmarm with a lot to do. She was sweet but stern, courteous but curt, and in that way, something of a mystery.

For 15 years she operated the musty old shop alone. Nearly every time I walked in — ding went the tiny bell on the door — she was in back, bustling. Talk radio blared. The wood-panelled front counter was scattered with pins, a random spool of thread, leaves of yellow carbon slips. That dry-cleany smell, like dusty clothing, like grandpa’s closet.

I’d set my articles on the counter and wait. Sometimes I’d blurt, “Uh, hello?”

And out she’d come.

Wong was tall and slender, pale and pretty, with waist-length black hair. Originally from Hong Kong, she spoke in splintered English with wobbly pronunciation. She spoke hurriedly. “OK. You pay now. Ready Tuesday.”

And out I’d go.

She had an air of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi,” merely misconstrued shyness, a quietness of bearing lost in translation. “She wasn’t really gregarious or outgoing,” a nearby store owner told the American-Statesman after Wong was found dead in the shop Dec. 12, the victim of an industrial accident.

You had to engage her just right to coax a smile and a laugh.

I liked to joke with her, ask questions, behave like a human. I told her I’d been to China and Hong Kong. (She was not impressed.) I asked if she actually liked Rush Limbaugh, who was bellowing from the back room. (Her response was in the ballpark of, “Not exactly. It’s just on.”)

Once, standing before the dressing mirror as she pinned my jeans above the hem, I mumbled how awful I looked as I mussed my hair.

“No, look nice,” Wong said. “Nice hair.” Then she reached out, patted my head and asked, “Is that a wig?”

It was too strange and funny to be offensive. I love that story.

One of my last exchanges with Wong was regretfully abrupt. The price she quoted me to patch up some T-shirts sounded too high. Protesting, I snatched the shirts from the counter and walked out. Behind me I heard Wong say in her endearing English , “Sah-wee.”

Of course I returned the next day, with a smile, and had her sew them up. She did great work, and I went to her for years.

Wong’s death shocks not only because of the cause – a gruesome misfortune involving her head and a spinning dry cleaning machine – but because so many people knew her as their clothing fixer-upper. It’s as if your mechanic or barber died unexpectedly. Someone you trusted to do the job right. Someone you encountered, one-on-one, with semi-regularity.

But we didn’t really know her at all. We flew in, flew out. She went to work on our pants and jackets, from which maybe she learned something about us.

(How in heck did he make these holes? … Now that’s a dirty neckline.)

It was impersonal mercantilism, not the forced familiarity, the “Hey, bros” and “G’mornings!,” dispensed at certain sandwich and coffee shops. She was the disinterested businesswoman, diligently executing her craft in the strict narrows between 9 and 5. Unlike my dry cleaner (Wong was only my tailor), she never memorized my name, never even uttered it.

A customer found Wong, 54, dead inside Ace on that bright Wednesday morning. Overnight, the familiar shop – yellow and rundown, with large cluttered windows and an old-fashioned sign with a big red arrow on it – became a sidewalk shrine. Notes and cards were taped on the glass, mounted flower arrangements leaned against the walls.

All of that’s gone now. What remains is a sign instructing customers where to pick up the clothes they left for Wong’s handiwork – some place other than here. Some place with a lot more personality, but probably not.

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The marvelously macabre Mütter Museum

Gross anatomy: At Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, science and the surreal combine for unforgettable experience

April 15, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

Pathologies are my thing. Twisted limbs. Fleshy protrusions. Faces swathed in nappy hair, Chewbacca-like. Conjoined twins. Horns curling from foreheads. Extra heads — those are always fun.

I don’t revel in the maladies of others; I revel in the Other. People are fascinating. People are more fascinating with three legs.

This foible of mine, this adorable morbidity, came early on, delighting my parents, who stood back, weighed adoption strategies and ever so gingerly catered to my wiggier curiosities. For my eighth birthday I requested and received the illustrated book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities.” Since then, many have believed I belong in this book.

These outré fascinations have grown to include death and the dead, and have led me to abnormal forays in my frequent travels. There I was at the Royal London Hospital, sleuthing with the grace and aptitude of Inspector Clouseau for the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. (Mission: failed.) At the Golders Green Crematorium in London I witnessed roaring ovens and jars of fresh ashes, some heartbreakingly labeled “baby.”

There was the blech-fest of the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where all squirm and squiggle of microbe-y monster were displayed in clear, fluid-filled cases, sometimes feasting on animal innards.

At the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok, medical students dissecting cadavers giggled when they saw me spying in the doorway, pointing my camera. I repaired upstairs to the musty exhibit of bottled fetuses, crumbling bones and full-length cadavers floating in dishwater liquid like humongous pickles.

My two noble efforts to see the freak show at Coney Island were thwarted by poor timing. Yanking on the bearded lady’s follicular abundance will have to wait.

Yet, for a constant traveler of my tastes and temperament, the Taj Mahal of the morbid has long been the famed Mütter Museum, a repository of anatomical horrors and shrine to primitive, rusty-tooled medicine in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is where, at last, after years gazing at its Web site, I recently visited. Disappointment was not in the cards.

Part edifying scientific journey, part powerful appetite suppressant, the Mütter is smack in Philly’s city center, a brisk walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inside, once through the deceptively donnish foyer, the museum is cool and musty, packed with old wood and glass cases revealing the historically pertinent — Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit — and the surgically slimy — a mammary tumor afloat in liquid, resembling a buttery dessert.

Human skulls — some intact, some cracked or bullet-pocked — checker an entire wall, each tagged with the cause of death, be it hanging, suicide or disease. The brownish heads came to the Mütter from Central and Eastern Europe in 1874, a major acquisition for the medical institute, which boasts 62,000 visitors a year, many of them children on school field trips. (I want to go to their school.)

Founded in 1849 and named 10 years later for surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum throws open in graphic, natural detail the ranging possibilities of the human body, and the havoc that can befall it from within and without. Diseases, injuries, birth defects — it’s an elaborate temple to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Much of it is not pretty. This is a given. It can be ghastly, grisly, unimaginable. (The “wet specimens” section is home to a jar labeled “Moist Gangrene of the Hand.” In it sits a human hand rotted black, the skin tattered like a torn leather glove, bones poking from the wrist.)

But to merely recoil at the exhibits is to shut out a world of contemplation, and to allow an emotional reflex to override a rare opportunity for understanding.

Not that emotions wither in the objective, secular hothouse of science and medicine. We are human, after all. And the museum unpeels the tangible layers of our humanness, down to the bones in many cases.

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‘September 11: A Nation Redefined’

Seared into memory:  Our minds still burn with images of unrivaled horror

Sept. 11, 2002, Austin American-Statesman

How does a skyscraper fall?

To start, it doesn’t fall. It sinks. The building gently buckles, relaxes in the middle, then all at once surrenders in a raging cascade of muddy clouds and billowing debris, sinking with vertical velocity into the earth.

Cartoons lie. Skyscrapers don’t topple over. They are not sheared in half or snapped like a pencil.

A skyscraper plunges, furiously telescoping to the ground, and when it is done, it evaporates into nothingness. Where it once stood is blank and serene, clear bright sky.

Down below, horror is unleashed.

On Sept. 11, we learned how a skyscraper falls. We watched the fifth and sixth tallest buildings in the world melt away, the twins’ shared 220 floors and 43,600 glass windows smashed into 3 billion pounds of smoldering grief on the floor of Lower Manhattan.

In the age of personal gizmos, even children tote video cameras, capturing all, from birthday revels to a jet piercing a 110-story building. And so we saw it all, every crumbling detail. The tragedy of Sept. 11 is the most recorded event in history. Thirty-two million tourists crowd New York City each year, most with cameras. Twenty-six thousand visitors daily drank in the view from the top-floor observation deck of the World Trade Center, where one could see for 45 miles on a clear day.

It was a clear day. That early September morning unfurled the shiniest blue sky imaginable. We saw it, in photos and on incessant video. Most of the roughly 230 million televisions in America were flickering with the instantly iconic images, which came swollen with meaning of all shades.

Sept. 11 spontaneously joined — and crowned — history’s loop of visually enshrined moments: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion. It’s been installed in the collective memory.

“We have our standard continuum of images that we journey through, refine and collect,” says Deborah Morrison, associate professor in the department of advertising at the University of Texas. “I can see Martin Luther King speaking on the Mall. I can see John F. Kennedy in the motorcade. I can see the first man walking on the moon. Those images became powerful emotional connectors for us.”

For many days, the pictures of the attacks and the aftermath bound a wounded nation. They dominated the media, which issued around-the-clock scrolls of live footage and replay. And we were mesmerized, with shock, horror, fear.

We watched because we had to. It was history writ large, live. The sheer scale of the event tapped into the darkest primal fantasies of the unimaginable, and the information was beamed out in the most pervasive source of entertainment, television. We were in thrall to the visceral power of the explosions, the destruction, the notion that the unthinkable was happening in the here, the now.

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After 30 years, the great debate rocks on: Kiss, or kiss-off?

Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter: Whether you think they’re great or they grate, the painted purveyors of rockin’ and rollin’ all night have staying power

August, 2005, Austin American-Statesman

In the stinky-bad television movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.

That’s odd. We thought Kiss was doing a pretty good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.

Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.

After 32 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be tin foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.

A pair of upcoming shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show premiering tonight on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) are multi-weekend screenings of “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” starting Aug. 26 at the Alamo Downtown. The professional hecklers of The Sinus Show are presenting the movie, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.

“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.

Simmons, who is 55, roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through unbudging sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.

The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”

But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the recent documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for metal band Motorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.

He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, the players in Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”

With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly met the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.

In the comics and the movie, band members become literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons — lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss — painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley — more silver sequins than a Broadway musical).

The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest plan ever in the annals of mad scientists.

So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.

When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000 Kiss Kasket. Right, a coffin.)

The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.

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