part twenty-four


Riverfest is this weekend. Toad Suck Daze was two weeks ago. There's going to be a festival somewhere in the state ever weekend from now until Thanksgiving. Part of attending a local festival means eating the usual stuff, corn dogs, barbecue, fried chicken, catfish. It's the same basic menu, even the same vendors a lot of the time from one festival to the next.

I had mysef an inspiration last Friday in Hot Springs. I went into a diner for a hot dog, and while I sat at the counter I was just looking at the stuff they had on hand, just the usual stuff found at a fountain and grill. Paper napkins. Condiments. Ice cream cones. Corn chips. Candy bars. Hard candy. Potato salad. A toaster. White bread. Stuff they had. Stuff they didn't have. Mentally I was going over their inventory, mixing and matching when I had this great idea for a new festival food.

There's only one problem. The name. Every name that accurately describes this new confection is pretty unappetizing.

Here's the idea. You take an ice cream cone and pack it with cole slaw or kraut or potato salad and top it with a meatball.

You see the problem. "Meat cone! Get cher meat cone here!" Doesn't work.

The concept is great. Meat plus bread plus vegetable plus desert in one self-contained, handheld unit. It's got all the convenience of a corn dog but more dietary variety. No utensils. No plate. Nothing to throw away. It can be prepared far ahead of time and quickly assembled and served on the spot, so you can do lots of volume and keep the line moving. Only the meatballs have to be kept hot, so you have only one skillet to power. Customers are already familiar with ice cream cones, so the novelty won't create any confusion about how to handle the product.

My favorite thing about this concept is that people percieve meatballs to be meat, when they're actually half bread. You can serve a half pound meatball on top of this cone for the cost of a quarter pound of meat. You could build this thing for a buck and sell it for two and the customer would think he was getting a lot for his money compared to the competition. Another advantage is that because it's a novelty item there are no traditional condiments. You don't have to keep up with ketchup and mustard and relish and salt and pepper and the million little details that jam lines and distract you from your next customer.

Still, there is the thing about the name.

Suppose instead of a meatball, you served cones topped with alligator croquettes or catfish croquettes. Cat-a-cone. Gator cone. How about making the meatballs with emu or ostrich and coming up with an entirely fanciful-but-aboriginal-sounding name. Diggery-doohickey. Dingo-licious. That ain't right. I'm confident that the concept is sound, but without a good product name on the cart the customers just won't find their way to the window.


I've had some time to think about the meatball/coleslaw cone. Make the meatballs with kangaroo meat to justify an Australian theme and call it "Dingo - Berries."


Even if all the campaigns are financed with tax money, the politicians are still going to do what the rich people tell them to do.


So Thanksgiving dinner was over, and all had moved into the kitchen except for me and my sister's boyfriend, Bernie, a psychologist for the Arkansas prison system. He says to me, "Rusty, behind you, leaning against the door is a picture that was hung in our bathroom. I find the picture disturbing. Help me figure out why the picture is disturbing."

Who writes your dialogue? I turned and picked up the picture and looked at it. It looked like an impressionist painting. A woman dressed in dark colors standing in a doorway. There wasn't much to it, and I told Bernie so. I said there was nothing disturbing or even interesting about the picture.

"Look again," he said, and informed me that the picture gave him the creeps and would I please help him figure out what was so unsettling about this picture.

I looked again and came to the same conclusion. This is just a portrait, probably of interest only to the woman's immediate family.

"Look again," he says and tells me that if I could decipher the underlying source of the unease caused by this picture I could bring him a great deal of psychological relief.

I can solve your problem, all right. If this picture makes you pee shy, get rid of it and get yourself a nice landscape. Are you offering me the picture? Is that why you brought it over here? "No," says Bernie.

This went on a total of four or five times, each time Bernie insisting the picture was disturbing and each time me insisting that I found nothing disturbing about it. Finally I decided to solve the problem by putting the picture back where I found it and changed the subject. "So what bowl game are the Longhorns going to?" Bernie has many good qualities and many bad qualities. One quality he has is he's a Texan and he went to UT. Normally such a person will drop what he's doing to discuss Texas Football, but Bernie wanted to talk about the picture. It must have been very important to take precedence in his mind over Texas football on Thanksgiving day.

"Pick up the picture and take another look. Look at the arm. There's something about the arm," says Bernie.

"Like what?" says I.

"There's something wrong with it." says Bernie. "It looks deformed," says Bernie. "It looks mutilated," says Bernie. "It looks mangled," says Bernie. "It's just cut off there," says Bernie, "It vanishes."

"Into her sleeve," says I, "It's artist's perspective," says I, "She's wearing a wrap and it passes in front of her arm," says I.

"Look again," says Bernie.

At this point I was very confused about why this picture was so damn important, but I've also known Bernie for several years and I do know that some very peculiar things will completely unhook him. He was hanging a clock on the wall. The clock slipped, fell and broke and he sat down and trembled for a few minutes. In some ways he's a fragile flower and you never know what's going to set him off. I didn't want to give him an answer that would feed the disturbance, that would justify his unreasoning revulsion for this picture. But he wouldn't let me distract him. He was absolutely relentlessly determined to get some kind of answer out of me, and no matter how many times I told him there was nothing disturbing about the picture and the arm looked just fine, he would come back with, "Look again." The simple truth was not going to end this time-wasting exercise.

So after a couple more iterations of "Look again" I said, "Maybe it's because it looks like a person who is looking back at you and you don't like to feel like you're being observed in the bathroom. Any picture with eyes might make you feel observed. Like those pictures of the cats with the big eyes."

Bernie squinted at the molding on the far side of the ceiling. I think I scored. At least he didn't say, "Look again." There was definitely the aroma of relief in the air.

I tried again to put this thing away by reminding him that it's just a picture and whatever he percieves comes from him. "Look, I could say it looks like the mean old aunt who wouldn't give me a cookie, but that's projection." Bernie's a prison psycologist for the State of Arkansas. He knows what projection is.

At that point he seemed greatly relieved and he allowed me to put the picture down and not Look Again. I guess I finally gave him something he could use, although I still marvel at how he would under no circumstances accept my answer that there was nothing disturbing about the picture.

RTJ -- 7/2/08


A year ago Jim Cramer went on TV with the rant heard round the world and demanded that the Fed Chief ease rates. The Fed didn't want to because that would be inflationary and would weaken the dollar thus increasing the cost of imported goods, particularly oil. The market turned down and kept going down until the Fed eased, and which point the market turned up.

A few months later Jim Cramer went on TV with a proposal to solve the mortgage crisis by having the Fed buy up bad loans with treasuries. The great paper swap. The administration didn't want to do this, but the market turned down and kept going down until the Fed adopted a measure almost identical to the one proposed by Jim Cramer. The market turned up.

So here we are again, the market threatens to crash unless the federal government does something huge. True to the pattern, Jim Cramer presents an idea that the government should buy up the worst of the loans. Seven hundred billion. The government balks. The market goes down. The government gives in. The market goes down. Wall street demands the Fed ease rates. The market goes down. The Fed eases rates. The government begs to know what else the taxpayers can give to Wall Street. The market goes down. The government boosts the insured deposit amount. The government offers insurance on money market accounts. The government guarantees more kinds of loans. And so on and so on and so on. And the market goes down.

This is like a kid learning to control his parent with tantrums. The worse they behave, the more they get from us. By now they must have been given enough government cheese to pay off all the loans in default. The national debt clock has had to add a digit.

The Europeans scoffed at the American economic problems until they saw how much money their governments would give them if they pushed the market down. Now they're playing the same game and it's paying off for them.

I've got a suspicion that none of this would have happened if Ben Bernanke had not allowed Jim Cramer to bully him. Every time we give them more stuff the market goes down. If you want the market to go up again, stop rewarding them for pushing it down. Call their bluff. I'd rather let them wreck the economy than live as a hostage to Wall Street.

Whew! So much for the conspiracy theory.

Okay, so it's unlikely that a TV pundit is setting national monetary policy or that every institution on Wall Street is holding down the stock market while they themselves go bankrupt. Still, the measures taken by the government might be making the present situation worse.

Putting things in a more conventional light, the banks aren't going to start lending until the rules are set. They aren't going to lend today if they think rates or insurance rules are going to change tomorrow. Therefore, stop making changes and tell these guys to get back to work.

RTJ -- 8/8/08

Want to argue about it? Send me mail.

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