2006-08-03 / Sam Bari

You can't beat a system you can't understand

Diet pills, lab rats, and other weird stuff
By Sam Bari

The problem with being a newspaper columnist is that finding good subjects to write about is not easy. I know I'm not alone with this little glitch in my chosen profession because I've talked to other columnists, and they agree. It's a weekly dilemma.

The reporters get nice assignments where the subject matter is laid out for them - all they have to do is write the facts. They snooze at their desks until some wild-eyed editor storms into the newsroom and shouts something like: "A guy wearing a cape and blue tights just flew into town and landed on our roof! Somebody get up there and interview him!" That's what I hear happens at the big city dailies. Well, how hard is that? It's a nice tidy little assignment. A photographer takes a picture, the reporter bangs out 500 words - job done. But it isn't that easy for columnists. We have to be interesting.

Unfortunately, our quest for original material is often unsettling for editors. At our paper, we have a very nice editor, and I feel bad if the look on her face when she sees me says: "I hope he didn't write anything weird. Why does he always have to write stuff that is so strange?" I know I'm right about that look because I often receive e-mail that says: "Sam - this is weird. Why can't you just write something normal?" So I chose this anecdote from my checkered past to give her a break.

When I was a kid, I hung out with half a dozen other junior hoodlums that I occasionally write about when nothing better comes to mind. Like most groups of misfits, we had a girl tagging along who should have been one of the guys. Her name was - and this is not a lie - Muffin. Can you believe that any parents, even if they hated children, would name a kid Muffin? It's just cruel. However, we never teased Muffin about her name because she'd pound the living snot out of all of us if we did, something she enjoyed doing on a regular basis anyway. You see, Muffin was large. She could beat any of us at arm wrestling. We feared Muffin.

Obviously, Muffin was nothing like her name. She was neither cute, nor muffiny, to coin a word to adequately describe her. Muffin could easily eat a dozen assorted flavors of her namesake followed by breakfast - another regular occurrence.

One day, Muffin announced that it was time she found a boyfriend, a frightening thought. Before we had time to panic, she assured us that we were not likely candidates. She also decided that she should lose a little weight so she would be more attractive. We thought she should lose weight so she would stop scaring people. Attractive was another matter. Anyway, diet pills were a new product on the market at the time, and they were highly suspect. Anybody could buy them without a prescription. Muffin thought she should check them out.

Her only concern was: "Do they work?" Whether they were healthy wasn't a consideration. Pookie Grossberg said that they must work because pill makers tested everything on laboratory rats. Muffin wasn't convinced, so Kinky Boswell suggested buying a laboratory rat and testing them ourselves. I didn't think it was a good idea, but nobody agreed.

We bought the rat, the pills, and some rat food. We put a pill in the rat's food bowl and sure enough, the little guy ate it. In less than five minutes, he was flying around his cage at a zillion miles an hour like a parakeet on steroids. His little tail spun in circles like a propeller driving him from the rear. We had neglected to read the directions that said to take one pill for every 100 pounds of body weight. Since the rat weighed less than a pound, we figured that the experiment wasn't going to be accurate. We put rat food in the rat's bowl hoping to calm him down but he wouldn't touch it. "That's great," Muffin said. "If I take this stuff, I won't eat rat food."

Muffin abandoned the idea, but we got a pet rat. She continued to beat us up for lack of anything else to do. We were desperate to find her a mate. Then Nicky the Brain, our resident nerd, came up with a brilliant idea. "Sherman," he said. "We can fix her up with Sherman. They're perfect for each other."

Sherman Mueller was accurately named. Everybody called him "Tank." He was the largest member of the football team. I

used to hide behind him during games so opposing teams couldn't see me. Sherman was also the school bully. The concept was great. Muffin would have a boyfriend, Sherman would like us because we fixed him up with Muffin, and they would walk off into the sunset together and leave us alone. All our problems would be solved.

Not so.

Fix them up - we did. It was love at first sight. Walk off into the sunset and leave us alone - they did not. Muffin decided that Sherman should hang out with her friends. Then they both beat us up on a regular basis. We were quickly learning that we lived in a system we can't understand.

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