Writing and Self-Publishing Experiences: The School of Hard Knocks

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Now that I’ve been plastering news and pictures of my book all over the place, I was thinking that some of you out there might have stories about your writing process and your self-publishing experience you’d care to share. Maybe you’re just curious about the whole process. If so, please post on this here blog. Maybe we can get a dialog going, share some tips—or whatever. I’ll be blogging about how I started, picked up experience and went from lowly factory worker to creative director for a publisher to a self-published author, just to get things going

As you see, we can go in many directions with this, so please contribute and share your thoughts and experiences. I promise I’ll keep on top of this!

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It’s Here—Almost.

The long-awaited (by me, anyway) publication of my novel The Militarized Zone: What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? will take place at the end of October, 2016. I describe it this way: If M*A*S*H and Good Morning, Vietnam had an illegitimate love child, it would be this novel. The story is told by Will Jensen, a twenty-three year old, easygoing college grad, musician and business owner, intent on getting through life having a good time without causing problems for others. In 1969 Will is drafted but determined to make his time in the military pleasant. His determination is tested when he’s assigned to Eighth Army Headquarters in Seoul, Korea, where he experiences love and loss, joy and tragedy, and gets a true education about life.

I based this on my experiences in the Army at Ft. Hood and Eighth Army Headquarters. Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize in Fiction said—

             “Humor and believable characters…the author pulls them together…9.25 out of 10.”
—Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize in Fiction

It will be for sale on Amazon and anywhere else I can coerce a bookstore owner to carry it. The retail price is $14.95. I’ll eventually add a link to it on this blog. I hope you’ll take a look at it. If you like it, please tell others. If you don’t, please take your secret to the grave with you.


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The Incredible, Exploding, Jewish Santa Claus

Parents, grandparents—whatever. If your young ones are as bored hearing the same old “Night Before Christmas” as you are reciting it, here’s a heartwarming Christmas tale sure to have the kiddies buried under their blankets, screaming in terror. Enjoy!

Traverse City, Michigan marked the close of two weeks of Christmas magic shows performed twice daily by our itinerant troupe of magicians and clowns for the benefit of charitable groups across Indiana and Michigan. I was the Musical/Technical Director, doubling as Chian, Mysterious Prince of the Orient. Benjamin Hoffman and his partner Doug were the fat and skinny members of a clown team. Because Ben possessed the necessary corpulence he arranged with Hal, the show promoter, to portray St. Nick, or Santa Klausky, as he preferred to be called, for a few extra dollars. Hal provided him with a brand new, $400 crushed-velvet Santa suit.

Before each show Ben would circulate through the audience, mingle with the small fry, and accumulate Christmas wishes. In Santa attire, he delighted in broadening and emphasizing his mild Yiddish accent while performing sleight-of-hand. As clowns during the show, he and Doug did their slapstick routine. At the end, Ben was back in the Kris Kringle suit to hand out small gifts to the kiddies as they exited. Ben’s final appearance was always dramatic. As the curtains parted he entered at center stage in the midst of a small snowstorm, precipitated by a homemade snow gun. The gun was a short, triggered black pipe loaded with an explosive charge and packed with white confetti. When fired overhead, it looked like snowfall. Ben didn’t realize he was about to carve out his own niche in local folklore by way of a cataclysmic event that today is still recounted around crackling hearths over mugs of hot, spiced cider, throughout the great North Country.

From the onset of the tour, Ben had been having his share of bad luck. It snowed all the way on his drive from New York, making travel hazardous and slow. Somewhere in Ohio he had to buy four new tires for his used van he’d just purchased a week earlier. Then, late one snowy Michigan night as our caravan wound its way over icy roads to the next town, the reflection of Ben’s headlights disappeared from my rear view mirror. I swung around back down the two-lane road and saw a rather macabre sight. It was Ben, standing by the side of the road with his thumb out, his clothing in tatters. Blood dripped from various cuts and abrasions. I didn’t see Doug anywhere. I pulled over and rolled down my window. “Excuse me, but would you happen to have a three-foot bandaid?” Ben asked, grinning. I drove him and Doug to the nearest Emergency Room. Between the two of them, they sustained a sprained ankle, fractured arm, and required sixty-five stitches to close up new and non-essential openings in their bodies. The van had to be torched to pieces to remove the show equipment they carried.

Without further mishap, we arrived in Traverse City. I’d been warned that, for some unknown reason, the children here were always unruly—almost to the point of being bloodthirsty. Earlier I’d thought of using wolfsbane and a crucifix to maintain order, but missed the opportunity to pick up either. “Listen to those weird sounds, Santa,” I said to Ben. He peeked through an opening in the curtains, out into the audience. “Like something from Dawn of the Dead. I’m not going out there. That much of a crazy I’m not,” he said. “It’s showtime,” Hal called from the left wing of the stage. “Ben, you’d better get out front before they eat the seats.” “All right, already, I’m going.” He swung his trick bag up over his shoulder, smoothed his white beard, and cast a glance heavenward. “What’s a nice kosher boy like me doing in dreck like this?” he mumbled, and walked around the curtain, down the stairs, and out into the snarling, cloying juvenile mass. I took the stairs on the opposite side and seated myself at the organ. Ben squeezed through the rows of the auditorium seats while children clawed at his beard and red jacket. As he neared the end of the row close to where I played background music, one rampageous little girl kept jumping and grabbing at the hair on the back of his head. He finally wheeled around, leaned over and, in a pleasant tone with a sugary smile, asked, ”What’s your name, little girl?” “JOANNE!” she screamed. “Joanne, you little shmegegge, how would you like it if Santa Claus beat the shit out of you already, hmmmm?” She didn’t answer and slowly melted down into her seat.

The afternoon show with the out-of-control audience had tested the patience of us all and had now, thankfully, reached its finale: the always awe-inspiring reappearance of that Great Gnome from the North. Ben stood backstage next to me in my Chinese get-up, muttering and cursing the maniacal children out front, all the while stuffing gunpowder into his snowstorm cannon. “So those little creeps want to make a schlimazel out of Santa Klausky, eh?” he grumbled. “I should give them something they won’t forget. I should blow the whole bunch of them into August with this thing.” Ben stuffed in more powder, packed the pipe solid with white confetti, and walked to the center of the stage. He held the pipe in front of him at the ready and waited for the curtains to part.

The M.C. strode across the stage in front of the curtains. “Well, that’s about it for today, boys and girls. But wait a minute…What’s that I hear?…Is it sleigh bells?…Why, yes, it’s…it’s…” He was cut off in midsentence by a deafening, thunderous explosion, the apparent detonation of some unthinkable doomsday device. The front curtains ballooned outward, then belched a great cloud of white smoke and confetti onto the front rows. On cue, a stagehand pulled the rope that slowly parted the curtains. The smoke began to clear, revealing a hazy, blackened something that resembled a large, fuzzy lump of charcoal. The smoke dissipated further and I could see the fuzzy charcoal was actually Ben. He looked like a fat Wile E. Coyote whose latest scheme to catch the roadrunner in some devious trap had gone horribly wrong. His hat and eyebrows were gone. What remained of his Santa beard smoldered and stood out at right angles to each side of his head. The bright red Santa jacket was mostly a memory, save for the cuffs and some shreds around his waist, which hung down over the wide black belt. In front of his smoking chest hairs he held the charred remnants of the trigger portion of his snow gun. The rest of it had been vaporized. Burnt confetti drifted slowly down on him from somewhere up in the curtains.

The M.C. ran back to him. “What happened?” he cried to Ben. He turned to me then back to Ben. “Are you all right?” Ben cautiously began to move. His head went slowly downward as he surveyed the damage. When he saw that his chest hairs were still glowing, he dropped the trigger and frantically beat out the embers on his front. “Close the curtains!” the M.C. yelled, waving his arms. I had lost my Chinese hat and both my contact lenses in the explosion. I pushed the awe-struck stagehand out of the way and groped for the rope. I pulled the curtain closed as fast as I could. Again the M.C. asked Ben, “Are you all right?” “You should be so all right,” Ben sighed. “What happened?” “The meshuggena snow gun blew up!”

The crowd in front, dead silent since the big boom, began to murmur back to life. Gradually they started to applaud and cheer. Hal burst through the curtains, almost running into Ben. He took one look at Ben and stepped back. “My God! Are you okay?” In the instant before Ben could reply, the image of the once-beautiful Santa suit must have sprung to prominence in Hal’s brain. Reality hit. Tears welled up in his eyes. “My suit…my $400 Santa suit.” He turned to me with a glazed expression. “Did you know this suit wasn’t even two weeks old yet?” Out front, the children screamed, “Yea-ay, Santa! More! More!” Ben, still smoking, turned and painfully walked toward his dressing room. Hal followed, shaking his head, saying to no one in particular, “I picked out the fabric myself…my…my suit…”

Contrary to what his appearance suggested, Ben suffered only minor burns and the loss of some body hair. The last I saw of him was at the bus station as he and Doug boarded to head back east. “This tour was really a nightmare for you, wasn’t it?” I asked. “A nightmare? What nightmare? Just because I have a broken arm, cuts and burns from head to foot, no more hair on the front of my body, which hurts too much to grow it anyway, no more van with the new tires, and I’m about $2500 in the hole? Listen, a tour like this I don’t need every day. Not even every other day. I will tell you this. Never again will this Chiamyankel even utter the word ‘Christmas.’ And if I do, may my tapeworm develop constipation.” He stepped into the bus. “Travel well.” He smiled back at me.

I haven’t seen him since, but his legend, the legend of the incredible exploding Santa, persists. How ironically prophetic Ben was when he grumbled that he’d give those Traverse City kids something they would never forget.

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I’m Getting Tasered for Christmas

Another Black Friday is in the history books and we’re left with a lingering emptiness and a few hundred YouTube videos, evidence of the thrill and excitement of that day after Thanksgiving. I’m guessing that, for many people, standing in line for hours and then morphing into a cloying, snarling mob, similar to New Yorkers boarding a Manhattan subway at rush hour, getting punched, kicked, pepper sprayed and tasered in order to save $1.49 on some Christmas present that will be returned on 12/26 or never used, was worth skipping a crummy turkey dinner with friends and family. Obviously, these same people could have been getting punched, kicked and whacked by their relatives in the comfort of their own homes instead of by complete strangers and police in the vestibule of a big box retailer.

There were fights over toasters, towels, nose hair trimmers, catheters—you name it; if it was discounted, blood was spilled trying to get at it. Now I can maybe understand getting tasered by a security guard for using Wilshire Farms Genoa Salami to club an eighty-three-year-old grandmother in order to yank a 50” TV out of her arms, but for snatching a CD of love ballads by William Shatner? Give me a break. Many of the incidents happened in California (where it is a known fact that the majority of lifelong residents are a product interspecies breeding experiments by ancient astronauts), but no part of the USA except Disneyworld was immune. Walt had established the good-sense policy to never offer discounts, thus avoiding the unsavory spectacle of Goofy applying a hammerlock to unruly guests. 

Fortunately, Walmart announced it would soon resume selling rifles and handguns in fashionable colors with ammo for each, which will be especially useful when the firearms replace hard salamis on the next Black Friday. If you’re going to get shot grappling over a discounted Favorite Christmas Carols by Regis Philbin CD, it should be by a pink bullet fired from a Hello Kitty 9mm pistol with Swarovski crystals on the grip.

For the rest of this Christmas season, official Brawlmart greeters will now flash a smile and a stun gun just to let you know that their “Welcome to Walmart” is conditional and any person using a salami or any type of meat from the grocery department as a weapon will be mercilessly zapped as if he or she was an Amway salesperson. This gives new meaning to Flashing Blue Light Special. 

I personally observed Black Friday as Buy Not a Darn Thing Day and, glass of bubbly in hand, treated myself to YouTube videos of all the joyous shopping sprees. 

So Peace on Earth, good will toward men and 40% off to everyone else!


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Skewered by My Sewer

I’ve spent too much time in my basement these past couple of days. Basements are dark, scary places that flood and are inhabited by all manner of crawly creatures such as mice, rats, spiders that appear to be wearing Tasmanian Devil pelts, centipedes so large that when one scurries across the floor it sounds like a tribe of Zaporozhian Cossacks, and other miscellaneous alien life forms. Generally, I don’t spend my time there. If some object needs to be moved to the basement, I usually open the door and shove whatever it is down the stairs, as I did with our clothes washer and dryer, cat litter box, a dwarf, our phony Christmas tree, and assorted political canvassers. I believe that if God had wanted humans to have basements, He would have put them on the second floor where they wouldn’t flood.

But the other day, my wife said she had to tell me something that I wouldn’t be happy to hear, and she was correct. Once, again, the basement floor drain had backed up and spread its delectable contents all over the place. Now if the basement itself is nasty, the evil, foul-smelling stuff that comes up out of the sewer is about as welcome an addition as Rush Limbaugh at an Equal Rights for Women rally. Mostly it’s stuff that’s been flushed away, if you get my drift, plus other things such as random dirt, pieces of unidentifiable protoplasm and Jimmy Hoffa.

Because he’s made so many visits to our home, the sewer man is on our telephone’s speed dial. My wife called him, but he was currently indisposed since he was dressed as an artichoke in a local theater company’s production of War and Peace. Before going into full panic mode and calling another sewer man for an expensive rodding job, I thought I’d attempt to clear the blockage myself. After much plunging and performing an enema on the drain by shoving a hose down the pipe to try and flush it out, the drain cleared, just in time for my daughter to scream out from the upstairs shower that there was no hot water. With my extensive, specialized knowledge of plumbing, I figured the unclogged sewer had nothing to do with the hot water in the shower, so I wiped of my hands and checked out my hi-tech NASA-designed water heater and sure enough, the warning light was flashing away. I checked the error code in the troubleshooting section of the Owner’s Manual, more commonly known as the Answer-to Everything-Except-Your-Current-Problem Manual, and saw that the number of flashes indicated I didn’t have enough life insurance. I called a repairman and went back to cleaning up the sewer muck before it slithered away and applied for a green card.

I now have a new a new water heater, which only cost a zillion dollars because the replacement part to fix the old one would have cost me $3.00 less than a zillion, plus installation. The new water heater is gray and not as fancy as my old one, resembling a major component of a WWII German U-boat, but it’s made in America and built to last—at least until the day after the warranty expires.

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Waterline Writers Reading

For a fun evening that may be the high point of your holiday season, come to the Waterline Writers at 7:00 p.m. on Dec.21. I’ll be doing a heartwarming (!) Christmas-related reading along with some other fine authors. Waterline Writers is located in the Water Street Studios building at 160 S. Water Street (what a coincidence), Batavia , IL.  http://waterlinewriters.org


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Putting the Labor in Labor Day

The origin of Labor Day dates back to the late eighteenth century, when George Washington’s pregnant mother felt her contractions increase in frequency and, after many painful hours, gave birth to Abraham Lincoln. It was an especially difficult breech birth for her because of Abe’s tall hat. In spite of the way he entered the world, Abe went on to gain fame as a vampire hunter, whereas George’s mother just got old and spent her days reciting verses to chickens.

Later in the nineteenth century, after the body of George’s mother was discovered in an abandoned hen house, the holiday was adopted by labor and trade organizations. To show their esprit de corps, these groups celebrated with parades followed by festive events such as the Haymarket Riot (not to be confused with the Walmart Riot, which is celebrated every November on Black Friday) and the Pullman Strike. The Haymarket Riot began as a simple Tupperware demonstration but escalated into violence when the hostess insisted that all attendees change their underwear before sampling any of her cheese dip.

The birth of the Industrial Revolution, a song by the Beatles, directly led to the violent Pullman Strike. Young people with boom boxes blaring out the John Lennon tune were keeping passengers awake in railroad sleeping cars. When they were thrown off trains, these young people were intent on forming a large group sit-down strike. But railroad yards were quite dirty and strikers didn’t want to get their clothes oily, so it became a squat-down strike, which didn’t impress anybody. Jimmy Hoffa emerged to organize the strikers into a union, the AFL-C3PO. Violence erupted when police got involved by trying to sell tickets to the Policeman’s Ball and the mayhem didn’t end until the Pullman Company agreed to issue earplugs to all its riders, although there is speculation it ended because Hoffa went underground. One valuable lesson the strikers learned was that, no matter how firmly you believe in your cause, you should never waste your time reciting verses to chickens.

Because Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1887 by President Cleveland, today all working people celebrate by taking the day off—except doctors, nurses, airline pilots, big box store employees, police, retail workers, bus drivers, golf ball divers, quickie mart employees, car dealers, mattress store employees, etc.—which leaves 38 people across America to recognize the holiday by not working. This number doesn’t include members of Congress who, in order to be any more off, would have to be embalmed. No one would notice the difference, though.

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A Fracking We Will Go

I’m sure by now you’ve all heard about fracking. It’s the process where a dentist drills into your tooth until the drill pokes out of the sole of one of your shoes, inserts a small IED and detonates it, thereby eliminating any dead tissue and, if you’re lucky, only one-third of your head. Wait. I’m confused. That’s an enema. Fracking is where a gas company drills down into shale in the Earth’s crust, blows it apart with, and these are actual figures, millions of gallons of water and thousands of gallons of 600 different toxic chemicals under high pressure, thereby forcing out natural gas. According to the company, this is perfectly safe and harmless. It’s been going on for some time in Pennsylvania and other parts of the country, more recently in Texas. Texans have begun experiencing earthquakes by the hundreds with large sinkholes opening up in various places, the scariest things they’ve ever experienced with the exception of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Could this be linked to fracking?

Anyone with the IQ of a lug nut, except for energy company executives on the quest for bigger bucks, Fox News anchors, who are trying to identify their various body parts, or others not high up on the food chain such as members of congress, who are busy learning to eat without jamming a fork into their foreheads, could figure out that in some remote way, the result of fracking might be cracks in the world, which could end life as we know it here on Earth, where a large number of people happen to live.

If you have some spare time, try this simple experiment. Fracture the foundation of your house, maybe with rap music played at 140 decibels, then go outside and shove a garden hose in the ground, down along the side. Turn the water on full blast. The water will first seep through the foundation cracks, then begin eroding the concrete, along with the other underground stuff outside, such as dirt, dog bones, and Jimmy Hoffa. Then one night while you’re asleep, you and your bed will end up down next to the furnace and hot water heater, along with the rest of your bedroom, all of which is now about two stories lower than when you went to sleep because the whole foundation has given way. So what do these industry people and politicians think will happen when you fracture the Earth’s rock foundation that holds up everything above it, such as you, me, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Chris Christie, who could, if he so desired, create a sink hole all by himself without any help from fracking? Duh.

Negativity and pessimism aside, a positive result of fracking is that, and this is true, some Pennsylvania residents have water that bursts into flame right out of their kitchen faucets. Texans could eliminate their monthly gas bill from Texas Natural Gas because the gas is coming in at no extra charge right along with their H2O. Touch a match to the faucet, put a skewer through a brat or longhorn steak and it’s a barbecue every night. Fracking could also be a boon to the gaming industry; gamblers could place bets as to where the next sink hole will occur, how many houses it’ll swallow up and how long it will take those houses end up in China.

When I heard that Illinois is considering fracking in the state, I called a downstate legislator’s office to ask if we were going to get fracked. His assistant answered the phone and she said if I was going to use that kind of language, the conversation was over and slammed down the receiver.

Intelligent Texans should seriously consider all the negatives that may outweigh the positives before their state has so many sinkholes it resembles a giant Whack-a-Mole game or toilets that, when flushed, can blow holes in ceilings. But realistically, how many of us, other than the Bush family and a bunch of armadillos, would care if the whole state disappeared into giant sinkhole anyway?

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Send in the Zombies

There’s something that ‘s been bothering me for a long time and since it’s bothering me, I suspect it may be bothering a great portion of the American population, as well as other so-called civilized populations around the: What’s happening to our monsters?

 Let me focus on zombies for a start, since I’ve been thinking about this since I saw the latest Dawn of the Dead awhile back. Look at any movie produced in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Zombies, brought back to “life” by some form of voodoo, were just big numb, lumbering, slack-jawed things with the intelligence of a lug nut, wandering mindlessly, often mistaken for members of Congress. Mostly they just galumphed through fog, scaring the beans and other food types out of Abbott and Costello or Bob Hope. They were so slow you could jump on a Segway and run circles around them without getting snared. In the ‘60s, Night of the Living Dead gave us a new zombie version, brought back to life by some alien virus and, though still lumbering, now needed to eat people, since a diet of embalming fluid is nutrient-deficient. These Bill Gates Windows 2.0 zombies could only be stopped by 160-decibel salsa music or a shot to the head from Dick Cheney. Since the ‘90s, with further upgrades, zombies no longer lumber.  Some have even produced their own Pilates and Tae Bo videos. But why should it be easier for these people to do those things now that they’re dead when alive some of them couldn’t even generate new skin cells without being short of breath?

I’d sympathize with the old zombies, especially when they showed up at someone’s door selling Amway. But this new generation of zombies can run, jump and almost fly at you like smart phone contract salespeople at the mall. Some can even remember the words to “Disco Duck.” And what about Social Security? It wasn’t around when the old-type zombies were out networking. Many of these new zombies were already collecting it. Can they collect now that they’re active again or are they still considered dead? Is their state of decomposition taken into account? Could active decomposition be considered self-employment and subject to the tax? These people were supposed to be dead and buried. Do undertakers offer a money-back guarantee since technically they’re not because they’re obviously running around eating people’s faces? Is cannibalism considered a hobby or employment? If they were employed, are they entitled to get their old jobs back now that they’re up and about? What about life insurance? Are they obligated to get the payout from their greedy relatives and return it? If it’s already spent can they just eat the relatives and the insurance agent and be done with it? If prosecuted, are zombies entitled to legal representation? If so, would they be better off eating their lawyers and representing themselves?

I could go on with other monsters—the Mummy, Frankenstein, Ann Coulter—but my head is spinning and I’m sober, so I’ll save them for another time. Give us back the non-CGI monsters we knew and loved, the way we loved them. And if it’s not too late, let’s keep zombies out of elected office.

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We’re All in the Same Boat

I’d like to discuss the benefits of aging, but since I can’t think of any, that’s all for this post.

Surely, I jest. Of course there are innumerable benefits to getting older. The problem is that trying to come up with them is like trying to get a truthful statement about the Gulf of Mexico from bp. But since you could have been doing something valuable such as purging your lunch instead of reading this piece, I should endeavor to list some.

Maybe one comes to mind: If you’re aging, you’re not dead. I suppose that would be the biggest benefit. In an overwhelming majority of cases, death has proven to be highly detrimental to aging.

Maybe another one: Provided you are not dead or a member of Congress, you can impart valuable advice in life matters, based on wisdom gained through years of experience, to your children who will promptly disregard it and take the advice of their friends, who don’t know any more than they do, and make stupid mistakes all over again, ones they could have avoided if they’d only listened to you. For instance, don’t gargle bowling balls. Bocce balls are smaller and a better fit, but there is an increased risk of accidentally swallowing one. This will be soundly ignored by your children, leading to major tooth loss and cracked bathroom sinks. Hopefully by now they will have moved out of your home for the last time so you and your spouse can enjoy the winter years of your life in a nursing home, wiping the drool off each other’s chin as you sit in front of a television watching reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show.

Yet another: You get to have as many colonoscopies as you’d like, which is usually none. Being sentient life forms for the most part, we humans have an aversion to swallowing a 50 gallon drum of prep fluid and then having a scope the size of a dryer hose shoved into a place where things are only supposed to come out of. Fortunately, you’re asleep for this procedure, so you miss thrill of feeling that a horde of rabid weasels in track shoes is performing Riverdance in your intestines.

A final one: You’ll be eligible to collect Social Security, though collecting it will be purely fantasy since Congress will have us living out the self-fulfilling prophecy they created by reporting that the system will be broke by 2030 and doing their best to fulfill that prophecy for everyone but them. You’ll then be able to move to the Loop and into that refrigerator carton on Lower Michigan Avenue you’ve been eyeing for years.

One benefit of aging for me personally, even without a Social Security check, is that I no longer stick my fork into my forehead when I eat. I’ve learned how to easily find my mouth. This is especially true with the uncapped end of a beer bottle.

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