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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

The first annual THIS IS NOT A TEST Christmas show and pageant of simpletons, a.k.a. episode #52 (transcript)

Published December 19, 2015

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Here we are again, here we are again, it’s so good and fine and wonderful to see you, to talk to you, to tickle your pickles with more THIS IS NOT A TEST foolishness and festivities. All brought to you by me, Michael Phillips, and the fine family of UNILEVER companies. What are the Unilever companies? I don’t even know. I know there are a lot of them, there’s probably some of their shit around here somewhere. But that’s neither here nor there, is it. That’s not why you’re here, to talk about huge multinational conglomerates like Unilever and THIS IS NOT A TEST. You’re here for something else. Something undefinable, indispensable and irrevocable. Something you can take with you out into the snowy cruel world to keep you warm and safe. Something to get out of bed for in the morning. Something…something. There must be something. Let’s see if we can figure out what it is. We’ll leaf through all the books and check under all the rocks. In fact we’ll leave no stone unturned. No. We’ll turn all the stones and wake all the worms. But don’t be scared, worms. We aren’t going fishing. We don’t need you for that. We’re just on a quest, sorry to disturb you.

There’s something about December that makes every journalist, TV talking head, pundit and prognosticator write a list. The lists could be about anything really, but they’re usually about nothing, just meant to sum up the previous year in a tasty little bite. “Look what happened, remember that? Boy, yeah, that was something, wasn’t it? I sure hope that never happens again.” Or, “I sure hope something like that happens again next year!” I like lists as much as the next compulsive person, but I can’t give you a list of what happened in 2015 because I’m not sure what happened. I could look things up and jog my memory, but I’m afraid that all I would find would be a few notable horrors or tragedies and not much else. I don’t recall anything great being invented or discovered. Even if something great was discovered or invented, what’s the point of talking about it now? December is a weird month anyway. Everything seems to stop, at least in the industry I work in. People around here in the U.S. take a lot of vacations and go to a lot of somewheres for Christmas or the new year, the only other activity that kind of increases is the buying of stuff. It seems that if you are going anywhere or seeing anyone in December you can’t avoid buying some stuff you wouldn’t usually be buying. Just don’t do any work.

I read that 100 million people were going to travel this year, for the holidays. Jamming up the freeways and airports, crying kids, sweaty dads trying to wrangle the extra suitcases that hold all the presents they’re taking to wherever. Everyone hits the road at the same time and bangs into each other and grits their teeth waiting in the lines of cars and lines of people and lines of planes and lines at toilets and muffin stands. I know a lot of people like that kind of thing, traveling in a mass of other humans, all of them sort of shuffling toward some destination somewhere off in the distance. If 100 million people are traveling they must be going to see another 100 million people, which still leaves 100 million Americans who aren’t going anywhere. Staying where they are and letting the world come to them. Or keeping the world away from them. Which is my preferred way to spend these weeks. I’m not sure what we’re doing this year, but I know we’re doing it here at home. Or at least in town. But I should probably ask Carol pretty soon, she might have some plans that I have to mentally prepare for. Get myself ready. For what may come. What may become of us 100 million others, waiting here for something.

Christmas is a great holiday because it has nothing to do with the Christ character who ostensibly inspired it. It’s been taken over by heathens and morphed into something so defiantly non-religious that you have to respect the absurdity of it. It’s kind of funny though that we’ve all somehow decided that this winter month here, around this Christmas holiday, is when we’re going to ramp up our social activity, see everyone and get drunk and wreck shit. Wouldn’t summer be a better time for that? When I get really drunk all my clothes want to come off and it’s definitely better to run down your street half out of your mind, breaking windows and puking in mailboxes when the weather is warm. I mean, I assume it is. I’ve never done that myself. But I can’t get particularly nostalgic about Christmas, because it was only really memorable when I was very young, and it was only memorable then because of the stuff I got. And anticipating the stuff I’d get. Sure, there was a big family party every Christmas eve, but that was just a chaos tornado of cousins and uncles and aunts that always wound up in a drunken fight in someone’s basement, cocktail glasses and acoustic guitars flying around and crashing into things, women screaming at the kids to “go upstairs!” Okay, I do get a little nostalgic for that.

But time is passing and we have to mark it somehow. I guess making an X on your calendar isn’t social enough, it isn’t a shared experience, the marking of time in a solitary way like that. But marking time in public was never my thing anyway, so it’s not really surprising that a lot of this goes over my head. Maybe you love your family and your family loves you and mom roasts a turkey and you all sing songs about Jesus and snow and hug each other in front of a fireplace. Well, good. I can see why you might look forward to doing that every year. If that was my experience I’d probably get really excited about Christmas too. But I don’t think that was really anyone’s Christmas, was it? That’s just a script we’ve been shown every year for the past half century, an unrealistic script that no one can ever live up to, and one that’s really kind of creepy when you get right down to it. What with the matching sweaters and the egg nog and all of that. No one is drunk in this script, no one is crying because they’re disappointed or defeated or just plain sad. No one is standing at the kitchen sink, staring out the window at the neighbor’s house, thinking that everything is probably better over there. It’s probably perfect.

I don’t know what Christmas was like back in ye olden dayes, those days that we’ve been lead to believe were the basis of the script that we see every year. The starting point. The font of Christmas-ness. Or is it fount? Anyway, I have to think, just knowing about the world in general 100, 150, 200 years ago, that things were a lot more low key. That there was probably a year-end celebration, but it wasn’t as scripted and commodified as the thing we do now. It was probably mostly enjoyed for being a day off work, which I’m sure everyone appreciated, even the kids, who would have to go to work the next day shoveling brains or peeling shit off coal with their bare hands or whatever else people did to survive back then. Not a lot of time for shopping and gift wrapping when there are hides to be tanned and some toxic stew of metals and chemicals to be boiled. I guess our Christmas, this thing we’ve created, probably doesn’t go back much further than the 1940s, right after WWII when everyone was amped up and had a pocket full of money and a house. That’s probably where this image of what Christmas is supposed to be started. That hyper prosperity and hopeful outlook didn’t last very long though.

By the 50s the kids were crawling under their school desks to keep from being crushed when the walls of the school collapsed because of the atom bombs going off everywhere. Then in the 60s we had another war to die in, and everyone got cynical and created the disco 70s that lead us to today. Yeah, we went right from the disco 70s to today. Did you think there was something else in there? If so, do tell me what it was, because I think I missed it. Anyway, we had those few years of glory and established a bunch of societal celebration rules and we’ve been failing at living up to them ever since. That’s kind of a rotten deal if you think about it. Who’s responsible for that shit, anyway? Probably those bastards in advertising. Those characters we loved so much on Mad Men. They are the ones who ruined the future by making everyone feel perpetually inadequate. They had some cool suits and dresses though. You have to hand it to them there. They knew how to look cool. I don’t think they were very comfortable, but they looked good. Maybe that’s why they invented all of those impossible aspirations, because they were uncomfortable. They were sweating in those things and just grumpy and figured why the hell not sabotage everyone who would come after them.

Ah, well, I’m sure it’s not their fault either. I’m sure every generation is left some bullshit thing that they can never live up to or enjoy quite the same way the previous generation did. I’m sure in that Christmas house where they were dreading returning to shoveling brains or peeling shit off coal there was an old man sitting in the corner, out of his mind on mead and cursing at everyone, repeating over and over that they didn’t know how easy they had it, and how they’d never be as tough as he had to be. How Christmas used to be a great thing and they’ve just ruined it, gutted it of everything that made it special in the first place. Same guy was probably at all the parades, grousing about the same thing, all the big communal meals, all the celebrations. He was there, reminding everyone that they weren’t as good as him, that they weren’t good enough, period. We all get to try to grow up with those kinds of things happening around us all the time. And we all make it, most of us anyway, and here we are, still trying to figure it all out. Still wondering why we don’t feel as good as we think we should feel.

It seems like it should be easy to feel good. About ourselves, about everything. We’ve got everything dicked, we have everything we want. I mean, as a race, as humanity. We’ve got it figured out. We have everything we need, I guess I should say. We should be able to make everyone everywhere feel good, but we can’t. It’s been really fucking cold here this week, and every night when the wind is winding and the freezing cold is freezing I wonder about the people who are out there living in it. What can they do to get out of the way of that cold wind? Then I think about how easy it would be to just make a place for everyone. But I can’t do that. I can barely make a place for myself and my weird girlfriend and weirder dog. But I know that WE could do it. I’m giving someone 35 or 36 thousand dollars a year in taxes to do things for others on my behalf. They aren’t interested in doing anything for those people out there in the cold wind though. Or anybody else, it seems sometimes. But we have to keep sending our money to them or they’ll put us in prison. Prisons they know how to do. No problem there. Always room for you in prison!

So there you go. There’s a Christmas story for you. Prisons and people freezing on the sidewalk. Hey, you didn’t come here for a Santa Claus story, did you? You know better than that by now. This is how a THIS IS NOT A TEST Christmas goes. In my family they ended in chaos, and here they end in prison. It’s the continuum of life, brothers and sisters. The glory of god, right here before your eyes. If the whale isn’t real, we’ll give you the truck! That’s funny, you know I say that a lot, “If the whale isn’t real, we’ll give you the truck!” and I always thought Carol knew what it meant. I thought I’d told her the story, but I never had. She’s been listening to me say that for I don’t know how many years, not knowing what it meant. She must have thought I was a little goofy. Well I know she thinks I’m a little goofy, but you know what I mean. And now that I’ve said to you, “if the whale isn’t real, we’ll give you the truck!” I suppose I have to explain it again. Okay. It’s not as cool as it’s been built up to be, by me, right here just now, but here it is.

Unlike Christmas, the Minnesota State Fair was a big thing to me when I was a kid. It was like a trip to the city, with all the filthy city kids and unsavory types and roustabouts and con men and grifters that used to travel with carnivals back in those days. The year that my friend Danny and I were 8 or 9 years old we hung around a guy on the midway for hours one day, one of the guys who runs the games, listening to his repetitive rap and just being in awe of him and all the stuff he said and did. He would talk to us when he didn’t have any customers, and he was so overflowing with bullshit it was amazing to be around him. After about an hour of watching him draw people in to the game, it became pretty obvious that the game was rigged so no one could win a good prize. I mean I’m sure every adult there assumed it was rigged, but if you stand there watching the mechanics of it long enough you can see how it’s rigged. And as soon as I caught on I said to the guy, “Hey, no one’s ever going to win this!” He looked at me and screwed up his face and he looked so mad that I thought he was going to murder me and leave me behind the pronto-pup wagon, but then he just laughed and grabbed a transistor radio from the game field, the most valuable prize in the game, and he handed it to me and said, “Not true, friend, you just won! You win when you learn to spot the fools, separate ’em from their money, and leave ’em smiling!” And I thought that was about the most profound and cool and secret thing I’d ever been told by anyone older than me. When I got the radio home and put a battery in it and it didn’t work, I learned the second part of the lesson.

Anyway, that’s one of the things that was great about the fair to me. Not the cows and the farm equipment, though that stuff was there, it was the Minnesota State Fair after all, but the dangerous part. the part that wasn’t nice, that wasn’t Minnesota. The fair was where you went to get a taste of what you couldn’t get in whatever little burg you were stuck in for the rest of the year, and I was stuck in a little burg, no doubt about that. Now the whale, to get to the point, that was an attraction at the fair one year. A dead Blue Whale in a semi trailer. The truck and trailer were all customized and shiny chrome and state fair-ready, a real showstopper showpiece to house a dead whale. If it seems odd to drag a dead whale around the country in a customized tractor trailer, you just don’t understand state fairs. We had a lot of water in Minnesota, but no whales. So I suppose that wherever they parked that thing, a lot of people paid a quarter to walk trough the back of the truck and look at the whale. I didn’t, a quarter was too valuable to me, but I did walk past the truck about 50 times a day every day we were at the fair, so I got used to hearing the recording that played on a loop.

It started with the sound of big engines revving, and it was loud. Just ear-splitting loud, like everything great was at the fair. It was meant to sound like the truck was always running and revving and being awesome, while it was just parked there, probably with three drunken carnies passed out in the back of the cab. Anyway, the truck sound would blast out and then a very serious guy would start yelling at you: NATURE’S NATURAL MONSTER OF THE DEEP, THE LARGEST LIVING THING ON EARTH, THE BLUE WHALE! A CREATURE SO FEARED BY MARINERS THAT IT WAS HUNTED AND KILLED JUST FOR ITS FINS WHICH WERE KEPT AS GRIZZLY TROPHIES BY THOSE WHO WERE LUCKY ENOUGH NOT TO BE MURDERED AND SWALLOWED WHOLE BY THE TERRIFYING BEAST! WHAT WE HAVE FOR YOU INSIDE THIS TRUCK TODAY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND! IT IS AMAZING AND IT IS REAL, A BLUE WHALE, THE ONLY BLUE WHALE NOT SWIMMING FREE IN THE OCEANS OF THE WORLD, AND IT’S RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW WAITING FOR YOU TO PAY IT A VISIT. SEE NATURE’S NATURAL MONSTER OF THE DEEP NOW, WHILE YOU STILL HAVE A CHANCE. A ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY TO STAND THIS CLOSE TO A MAN-EATING BEHEMOTH, TO BE WITHIN AN ARM’S-LENGTH OF CERTAIN DEATH AND LIVE TO TELL THE TALE. IT’S HERE, IT’S REAL, WE GUARANTEE IT. IN FACT: IF THE WHALE ISN’T REAL, WE’LL GIVE YOU THE TRUCK!

And that’s the story of that. Funny how things stay with you. Especially when you’re young and your brain is all gooey and impressionable and you think people like carnies know some kind of truth. Maybe they do, carnies. Or did. I don’t think we have those kinds of carnies anymore. Not the large-scale nomadic tribes that used to wander across the Midwest back in the middle part of the last century. I’m not sure what someone who was suited for that kind of life, someone who would have had a good traveling carnival job, I’m not sure what they do now. Maybe there are still traveling shows like that in other countries, I don’t know. All the carny jobs have been outsourced! That’s it. But when I was young it was all there, the freak show, the sideshows that were horribly cruel to the humans and animals involved. No one seemed to care about the ugly details of anything like that, they just wanted a good show, to hell with horror or danger or misery. I just caught the tail end of all of that though, not the golden era. What I remember as great was probably just the dying gasps of the really great carnival midways. And by the time I was 10 years old it all started to change into whatever fairs and carnivals are now.

If they still even have fairs and carnivals now. Do they? I know there’s a Los Angeles County Fair every year in Pomona, but I’ve never wandered over there to see what might be happening. Maybe I should. I’m pretty sure there’s no freak show though. But I don’t know if a kid today even needs a freak show. Everyone’s a freak now. I had to pay an extra dime to go behind the curtain and see the woman covered in tattoos at the fair, now you can just go to the grocery store and find one. No extra charge. Everything’s available all the time, no extra charge. That’s pretty cool, everything being available all the time, but where does a kid go now for a taste of the forbidden? The Internet? Maybe the darknet, the .onion sites selling herbal ecstasy and machine guns. But in the real, walking around, meat world – I don’t know. I suppose there is some ragged underground for kids right under my nose, but I don’t drive past it on the way to work every day. Or maybe I do. I wouldn’t recognize it anyway, would I. It’s not for me. Or you.

What will the next generation of misfits look like? What will they do? How will they disgust us and make us worry for the future of the world? Maybe they’ll dress like the characters on Mad Men. Maybe that’s the only way to be a misfit now, cut your hair and put on a tight suit. Or big hair curlers and a tight dress. The future non-conformists all walking fast to catch the train, wearing their Fedora or Trilby hats, squinting and smoking Lucky Strikes. I can see it now. It’s not that far-fetched. The kids who think they’re non-conformists now are all conforming to an 1890s kind of look, with the big beards and the rolled up sleeves. Like lumberjacks from a paper towel commercial. A paper towel commercial that was written by an advertising company. Maybe they’ll finally start wearing those silver jumpsuits that everyone in the future is always wearing in old movies. That would be pretty cool. I’d give a wide berth to any gang of 17 year olds walking down Colorado Boulevard in old town Pasadena wearing those shiny jumpsuits. I wouldn’t mess with them. Would you? No, you wouldn’t. You’d have to be crazy.

Well, this is episode #52, or this has been episode #52, which means I’ve been doing this for a year. Every week, like clockwork, like Rain Man needing to be in front of a TV at the same time every day to see Judge Wapner. A year is a long time to do something every week, at least it’s a long time to do something that takes a bit of time to do. Which this does. Over the year I’ve boiled the whole process down to the essentials and I can get through it a lot more quickly than I did six or nine months ago, but it still takes up a chunk of every week that I’m starting to think I need back. I need it back so I can finish my book, and a dozen other things that I want to finish. Or start. I need it back so once in a while I can just get home from work on a Friday and sit on the couch and go, “Fuuuuuck!” and drink a bunch of bourbon without worrying about getting an episode ready. I just need it. You get it, you know what I mean. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be back here on January 2nd. Or 3rd. In about two weeks anyway. I may change the release day for the show or the release time, I’m not sure yet. But I will return in 2016, tan, rested and ready for my Presidential bid.

It won’t be any better, this thing. You’ll just have more time to recuperate and reconsider your listening habits between each one. You don’t need to hear from the likes of me every week anyway. I don’t need to hear from the likes of me every week! I’m looking forward to a break from myself. From hearing my own voice. You know how weird it is when you hear your own voice? I’ll bet you think that goes away if you do something like this for a while, don’t you. But it doesn’t. I still put on the headphones to cut the burps and farts out of this every week and my voice starts up and I think, “What the fuck is that?!” And I’ve been hearing my own voice since I was 6 years old playing with tape recorders I wasn’t supposed to be touching. So if I’m not used to the sound of my own voice by now, it may not be possible for any human to ever get used to their own voice. I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to get used to it. As long as it can still make me cringe maybe I can retain a small part of my soul and not become a self-involved monster. A self-loving monster. If I’m not one already. What do you think? See you next time, whenever that may be!