Monday, January 23, 2012

The Cola Wars

  (published in the UB Post on Monday January 23)

The bell sounds.
The hiss of a Pepsi can sprays its carbonated glory into the rafters surrounding the ring. The snap of its opponent, a muscular Coke can with bulging red biceps, sends shivers down the spines of all in attendance. The cameras surrounding the ring flash as the Coke can takes the first swing. The Pepsi can ducks, coming in with a hard right.
The war between Coke and Pepsi is the new Hundred Years’ War.
 It will last well into the 22nd century and beyond, from coast to coast, mountain to mountain, villa to villa, couch to couch, and if we are lucky (or should I say, if the space tourist industry is lucky), from planet to planet. The war started at the turn of the 20th century with blind taste tests, massive marketing campaigns, catchy slogans and ample buzz words. The goal? To be the number one cola, the number one caffinator, the number one can of sugar and carbonation. To win the cola wars.
We are witnessing the start of a Cola War in Mongolia and no one seems to be paying attention. No one is building barracks, no one is stocking up on water, no one is running to the countryside for cover.
Opening a small plant through local bottler MCS in 2002, Coke and its popularity have soared in sales for ten years now. In 2008, MCS opened a USD 22 million dollar Coke facility in Mongolia just to meet demand. When the smaller Coke factory first opened its doors in 2002, Mongolian consumers chugged four eight-ounce servings per person. Six years later as the new factory was opening, a typical Mongolian consumer drank 70 servings per year. Odjargal Jambaljamts, Chairman and CEO of MCS added, “Both the bottling company the Coca-Cola Company have exceeded all projections of profitability and sales. Our investment in the new plant is just our first step to bring world class manufacturing to Mongolia.”
Translation: the cola war is far from over.
At the end of the last decade, Pepsi too stepped onto the battlefield to wage war against Coke in the land of the Mongol Empire. Realizing they’d better catch up quick, Pepsi signed a deal with GN beverages to produce Miranda, Pepsi and 7-Up to compete locally with Coke. Setting up a factory with the latest German and Japanese technology to ensure quality, Pepsi has wasted no time in laying a solid foundation for their tactical operations.  
To better train their cola soldiers, Coke has been sending Mongolian workers to the Coca-Cola University in Shanghai. One can only imagine the type of strategic planning, quality control tactics and rigorous boot camp that must go on there:
“What is this soldier!?”
“A bottle of Pepsi, sir!”
“Who is your target?”
“Pepsi, sir!”
“Do you drink Pepsi soldier!?”
“Never, sir!”
“Soldier, how many grams of sugar are in a Pepsi!?”
“Forty-two grams, sir!”
“Wrong! Forty-one grams! Drop and give me twenty push-ups!”
Other Coca-Cola boot camp ideas? The trainee must crawl on his or her belly across a field of crushed Coke cans. The trainee must be able to open a glass bottle of coke with his or her teeth. The trainee must be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test between a can of Coke and a can of Pepsi. The trainee must do push-ups with four cases of Cokes stacked across his or her back. A background check must be performed on the trainee and his or her family to weigh their Coke vs. Pepsi consumption. If over the course of a single year, the trainee’s family has consumed more Pepsi than Coke, the trainee is automatically disqualified from attending the university.
Pepsi appears to be a bit more laconic about their training procedure for potential cola warriors. Does Pepsi have a secret underground base (possibly in Russia or China) where they train future factory employees? Is there secret cola military base underwater off the coast of Japan? What is the Pepsi Challenge and what are its true implications? The debate keeps conspiracy theorists across the globe up at night trolling Wikileaks for information. Only the cola gods know what sorts of weapons of mass consumption Pepsi has in store for the steppe.
As it stands right now, MCS group and their Coca-Cola warriors seem to be winning the race to provide popular mixers and afternoon pick-me-ups to a growing economy of cola connoisseurs. Further, MCS owns a number of bars and retail outlets, which only increase their chance of winning the war. Even Santa Claus has weighed in on what beverage he prefers. But the war is far from over. Lying dormant like a sleeping blue giant, Pepsi seems to be preparing for a large assault across the cityscape of Ulaanbaatar. By opening a factory in Mongolia, Pepsi is one step closer to infiltrating the cola masses and filling their minds and stomachs with carbonated goodness. Is Pepsi up for the challenge?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

From Time to Time

From Time to Time
By Cooper Baltis

“Will you read me that story?” he asked, closing his eyes and adjusting his head on the pillow.
“Which one?”
“The one you have been working on. You know, the one loosely based on us.”
“But it’s not finished yet,” she replied, turning her body towards him and tracing her finger along the outline of his chin.
“But you’ve been working on it for almost a year now,” he said, yawning.
“I know. I just…it’s just that, well, the story is still in a developmental stage. It’s still premature.”
“Developmental stage? Premature? You writers are so crazy. How are other people supposed to read your work if you’re afraid to read it yourself?”
“I’m not afraid to read it. I’m quite proud of it actually. I just want it to be perfect, that’s all,” she said, dropping her hand and rolling to her other side.
“Alright, if you say so. I’m tired anyway.”
The next morning came and went.
The next week came and went.
The next month came and went.
The next year came and went.
Still, she never revealed to him the story she had been working so diligently on.
“Well can you at least tell me the name?” he asked one cold winter day, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“The story is called Two Lovers,” she replied.
“And you say it’s loosely based on us?” he smirked as he added creamer from a plastic container with a bright red top. “Sounds like it’s tightly based on us.”
“I’ve never heard someone refer to something as ‘tightly based.’”
“You’re a writer. You should be used to new phrases.”
“Antimeria and neologisms?” she asked, leaning over the kitchen counter on her elbows and smiling.
“If you say so.”
As he slurped from his cup of coffee, he reached out to graze her elbow with his fingers.
The winter changed to spring.
The spring changed to summer.
The summer changed to fall.
The fall changed to winter.
It happened all over again.
Time passed quickly and slowly, as it is prone to do from time to time. The days merged together, the seasons blended, the arguments came and went, friends appeared and disappeared, the actors on television aged, clothes grew tight and threadbare, newspapers yellowed.
He proposed to her one evening after taking her to a small sauce-stained Italian restaurant on the edge of the Bronx.
 He had thought to call ahead and have the restaurant participate in the proposal but quickly tossed the idea out. She was a consummate critic of excessive sentimentality, a minimalist with a disdain for kitsch. She was the type who didn’t want to live in some fantastical movie existence, didn’t care for a Disney ending. According to her, those things existed only in fiction. He knew her well enough to know that. At least he thought he did.
The dinner went well, the food came and went as if it were on wheels, the wine in their glasses stayed full, the bill continued its steady climb up the credit card ladder to an unknown peak. He didn’t mind, money comes and money goes.
She wondered why he’d decided on this restaurant, wondered why he was wearing his best suit, wondered why he’d shaved, wondered why he’d put on cologne. He seemed nervous, glancing back and forth across the restaurant as if an ex-girlfriend sat in a booth nearby. As if there was something she couldn’t see. He kept wiping the sweat off his brow and readjusting his posture, harrumphing and looking down at his watch.
She took the last bite of tiramisu and watched in slow motion as he dropped to one knee.
A ring was procured, her hand was softly grasped, a black velvet box snapped opened, she found herself saying ‘yes’ before the question could escape his mouth, she found herself giggling, she found herself with a sparkling ring on her finger. She found herself with a husband.
Time continued to slide by as if someone had hooked it to a rope and dragged it through the warren streets of transient memories.
They moved in together, they married, they honeymooned, she published her third novel, he got a job promotion, they redecorated the apartment, his father died, they prepared a room for the baby, they had a girl named Elle.
One day, after putting Elle to sleep, she cuddled in next to him on their living room sofa.
“You still working on that story?” he asked suddenly.
“Which one?” she replied.
Two Lovers.”
“You haven’t asked me about that in quite some time,” she said. “What made you think of it?”
“It just came to me. I’ve been meaning to ask you about it. So…”
“Well do you have anything to read me? You must be finished with it by now.”
“No, but I can tell you the two characters have had a child.”
He laughed, “Sounds familiar.”
“Most things do.”
“So is it a boy or a girl? Let me guess…” he sighed.
“Ok, guess,” she smiled faintly up at him.
“Why can’t you just tell me? It’s been…I think almost seven years now. Eight years maybe?”
“I want it to be perfect, that’s why,” she said.
“Will it have a happy ending?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“You should know by now,” he sighed and laid his head on top of hers, smelling her freshly shampooed hair.
Days continued to fall like dominos.
Hours blended together, clocks ticked incessantly, morning yawns, movies before bed, expanding waistlines, new wrinkles, new bills, new worries, new triumphs.
Time skipped like a stone thrown across a vast stream.
She published her fourth novel to rave reviews and he received another promotion at work. They had a son named Elijah and Elle grew into the dresses her mother used to wear when she was a girl. A family dog was purchased, a car was leased, computers, televisions and cell phones were replaced. The years piled on like sacks of flour.
One day, while having a heated discussion at work, tragedy struck, as it is prone to do from time to time.
He fell to the floor, his right hand on his heart, his trashcan toppled over, his pencil holder swiped off his desk, his co-worker’s mouth agape. He was rushed to the emergency room. Hands in starchy plastic gloves moved him onto a bed. Doctors hovered around him. He closed his eyes and drifted away.
He awoke with a plastic tubes sticking out of his nose and chords taped to his arm. She rushed to the bedside and grabbed his hand.
“Hi sweetie…” he whispered with a hoarse voice.
“Oh,” she sobbed. “How do you feel?”
“Pretty good for a guy waking up in the hospital with tubes sticking out of his nose,” he said, trying to move.
She laughed through her tears, “Don’t move, just relax. I’m right here. The kids are with my mom.”
“Hey, whatever happened to that story you were writing?” he asked, closing his eyes and resting on the pillow.
“Why? Why are you asking me right now?”
“It just came to me…while I was out.”
“I couldn’t finish the story,” she cried, holding his hand.
“But why?” he asked, looking down at her from his hospital bed.
“Because it was about us.”
“You’ve told me that for years now…”
“I didn’t want the story to end. I mean, I don’t want the story to end…”
“All stories must end, you know that.”
“I know, but not like this.”
“Well, you should tell me about it someday,” he said faintly, resting his eyes.
“I will…someday when it’s finished.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (revisited)

Cobwebs from an Empty Skull revisited
The following are updated fables from Ambrose Bierce’s 1874 short story collection, Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. They have been updated by myself to introduce their messages to a new audience. The epigrams remain unaltered.—Enjoy, Cooper Baltis

Published on Wednesday January 11, 2012 in the UB Post. 

Timon never knew he would end up in the Gobi Desert, stuck with nothing but a camel, the shirt on his back, a large knife attached to his belt and a pair of scratched sunglasses. His throat was parched and the skin on his nose and the back of his neck was blistering. He was hot and lonely, grief-stricken and scared. Having no one else to talk to, Timon asked the camel what his thoughts were on turning back and going to the last oasis they had passed.
            “Personally, I have no desire to go back to the oasis,” said the camel, spitting at a lizard scattering nearby. “That was two days ago and truthfully, I’ve seen better oases.”
            “I agree. I too have visited better oases,” Timon said. “Maybe if I carried two tanks full of water on my back, I wouldn’t be dying of thirst. Listen camel, I can’t go on any further.”
            “Well, I’m not going anywhere but straight. I have enough water in my two humps to last for quite some time,” argued the camel. “It looks like we have ourselves a little problem here.”
            “Well, if you won’t go back and I won’t go forward, we can only remain here in the middle of the desert,” Timon said, hopping off the camel.
            “True, but soon enough you will die of thirst,” the camel replied.
            “Not so,” Timon said, looking at the camel over the rims of his sunglasses.
As the camel dropped to his knees to rest, Timon pulled the knife from his belt, assassinated the camel and appropriated the water from his humps.
            A compromise is not always a settlement satisfactory to both parties.

The same man named Timon was trying to cross a rather large wall after escaping from the Gobi with a belly full of camel meat. As he neared the top of the wall, a slathering bull ran to his assistance. The bull struck Timon’s backside, catapulting the tall man over the fence. Timon stood, dusted off his slacks and turned away from the bull.
            “You are welcome,” the bull called out, upset that Timon had forgotten to thank him. “Assisting you was my duty.”
            “Some duty,” Timon said, turning back towards the bull. “Next time, keep your horns to yourself. I did not require your services in the least bit.”
            “Seriously? Out of the benevolence of my beefy bull heart, I helped you get over the fence and all you can say to me is good riddance? Did you not want to reach the other side?” the bull snorted, the thick ring from his nostril gleaming in the countryside sun.
            “Of course I wanted to reach the other side of the fence,” Timon said, waving his hands at the bull, “but I could have done it better myself.”
            This fable teaches that while the end is everything, the means is something.

A young rooster was flirting with a pretty hen one morning at a barn outside Nashville, Kentucky.
            “Layin’ eggs isn’t that hard,” he boasted, leaning against a rusty pick-ax. “Heck, I once laid four eggs in three days.”
            “Did you?” she laughed, battering her lashes. “How did you manage to do that?”
            Not answering her, the young rooster turned his back on the hen and addressed himself a couple young chicks that were pecking at a worm.
            “Hey, pay attention to me,” he said. “I once laid an egg...”
            The chicks chirped, ripped the worm apart and passed on, ignoring him. The young rooster, red with ire, strutted his way up to the oldest rooster in the barn. He puffed his chest and looked the big bird straight in the beak.
            “I once laid an egg,” he began.
            The old rooster nodded gradually, as if a rooster laying an egg were an everyday occurrence.
            “Well?” the young rooster asked, ruffling his feathers again and standing taller.
            “I once laid an egg next to a watermelon,” the old rooster said wearily. “I compared the two. The vegetable was considerably larger.”
            This fable is intended to show the absurdity of hearing all a man has to say.

@Fool: You tweeted the other day that happiness is the sole aim of man.
@Philosopher: True, it is.
@ Fool: But how can you be certain? The sole aim of man has always been disputed.
@Philosopher: Most men find personal happiness in disputation.
@Fool: Socrates once said…
@Philosopher: Stop it right there! I detest foreigners, especially foreign philosophers.
@Fool: Wisdom, they say, is of no country.
@Philosopher: Yes, of none that I’ve seen.

@Fool: I’ve been thinking about what you said. Why do you hate foreigners?
@Philosopher: I hate them simply because I am human.
@Fool: Yes, but so are they.
@Philosopher: Excellent fool! I thank thee for the better reason.

            A hippopotamus drinking at a sandy river bed in Africa was surprised to see an alligator lying with his mouth open. He huffed and stopped directly in front the gator.
            “My toothy friend, you may as well shut that ugly mouth of yours. You are not large enough to embrace me,” the hippopotamus said, wagging his little curly tail in agitation.
            “I really wasn’t expecting to attempt it,” replied the alligator. “I try and extend my hospitality to everyone I meet here.”
            “You remind me,” said the hippopotamus petulantly, “of a certain zebra who was far from vicious. He went around these parts kicking the breath out of just about anything that passed behind him. After the other animals got wind of it, everyone around here just made sure never to walk behind him. Easy enough.”
            “It’s not important what I remind you of,” the alligator replied, sinking his teeth into the Hippo’s leg.
            The lesson conveyed by this fable is a very beautiful one.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Victor's Stain

Victor’s Stain
By Cooper Baltis
Published January 4th 2012 in the Wednesday edition of the UB Post

“Oh it’s just a small stain,” Victor said, glimpsing down at the tiny red blotch opposite the cufflink on his left wrist.
He glanced at himself one last time in the mirror, smoothed his hands through his hair, adjusted the collar on his shirt, and made sure his tie was just a little loose to appear as if he didn’t care. He fixed the bottom of his shirt, tucked into his dark blue Simon Spurr jeans and held tightly by a thick Brioni belt. He grabbed his glass of wine and carefully opened the restroom door.
            His home, a recently built condominium overlooking Central Park, was filled with lively guests and coworkers. The company he worked for, CDO Limitless, had just posted an unheard of quarterly profit gain and it was Victor’s turn to host the party. It was September 2008 in New York and the streets below were finally starting to cool down. Inside his apartment, people hovered around an elaborate cheese and wine set up fluttering their socialite wings.
            “Here’s to us!” Jeff said, running past him and sloppily toasting his wine glass against Victor’s. The wine from Jeff’s glass sloshed onto Victor’s shiny lacewood floor. “Sorry about that buddy,” he said, wiping a bit of cracker off his fat lip. “At least it won’t stain!”
            Victor gave Jeff a small, curt smile as Jeff pushed past him into the bathroom. Jeff, a North Carolina native, had yet to figure out how to hold his alcohol. Victor secretly despised him. He looked down at the stain on his cufflink and noticed it had spread a little.
            “How is this possible?” he said, setting his wineglass down on a small nightstand he had ordered from Asambienti. As he examined the stain, Sarah, one of the fiercest analysts he had ever met, scooted next to him and whispered something into his ear. “What?” he asked.
            “Do you want me to fill your glass?” she asked louder this time, steadying her gaze on Victor.
            “Do you see this stain?” Victor asked, still shocked at his own clumsiness.
            “Oh it’s so small Victor, don’t worry. Here, let me fill up your glass,” Sarah, wild eyed and with a slight snarl on her face, bent forward to fill Victor’s glass. “Forget the stain. Just have fun.”
            “It just appeared…” Victor said, scratching the stain with his fingernails.
            “How did it happen?” Sarah asked, checking her Blackberry and smiling at a text message she had received. She chuckled and stuffed the phone back in her cerulean blue Herme’s purse with off-white stitching.
            “One minute I was standing in the restroom, the next minute I noticed the stain,” Victor thrust his wrist forward to show her. “I’m quite sure I didn’t cause it. I think it’s spreading.”
            Indeed the stain was spreading. It had made its way from the tip of the cuff past his wrist now. Sarah examined the stain curiously as she sipped from her glass of wine. She took Victor’s wrist in her hand like a mother examining an injured child. She turned the wrist over as she took another sip from her glass.
            “It is spreading. Strange,” she said, dropping his wrist.
            “Have you ever seen a stain do this?” he asked, watching as the red stain quickly spread to his forearm.
            “I’m sure it’s happened before, stains have a way of trickling down.”
            “Maybe I should change shirts,” Victor said as Jeff exited the bathroom behind him.
            “Looks like you got yourself a spill there, buddy,” Jeff said, patting Victor hard on the back.
            “Please don’t call me buddy,” Victor said, disgusted at the stain and at Jeff.
            “No worries ol’ Vic,” Jeff laughed and slapped Victor on the back again. “Say, is your stain spreadin’?”
            “I don’t know,” Victor said, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
            “Looks like it to me,” Sarah said as she pulled her Blackberry out of her purse.
            “No use cryin’ over spilt milk. Just go and change your shirt,” Jeff said, burping.
            “I think I’ll do that,” Victor said, frowning and turning towards his bedroom. After shutting the door, Victor looked disgustedly at the red stain in the mirror. He hated the stain. It had spread to his chest and tie. The shirt must be cursed, he thought, taking off his cufflinks and flinging his shirt into a bamboo clothes hamper.
            He pulled out another shirt from his closet and removed the plastic dry cleaning sheet that had been carefully draped over it. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, he began to button the shirt. It was light green Borrelli shirt with tangerine stitching. He went back to his closet and found a thin checkered tie to go with it. He affixed the tie, making sure that its tip hung to his belt, and tucked in his shirt.
            “Better,” he said aloud. Just to reassure himself, he looked back at the cuff where the stain had been on the original shirt.
            Sure enough, the stain had spread to his new shirt.
            “Impossible!” He yelled, rushing to his closet and grabbing a random shirt. It too had stains on the cuff.
            “What’s happening?” Sarah asked, opening the door slightly and jiggling the wine glass in her hand. As she closed the door, the din from the party in his living room diminished.
            “I can’t…it’s not possible. Someone is playing a prank on me,” Victor said, unbuttoning the green shirt.
            “The stain…it is on all my shirts. Look!” he led Sarah around to his closet and began pulling out the shirts. “This one, this one, this one, this one…”
            “Oh wow,” Sarah set her wineglass down on his mahogany armoire. “They are all spreading too…”
            “What do you think it is?”
            “I don’t know, but it’s spreading to the floor now,” Sarah stepped back as the red stain spread from the cuffs of Victor’s shirts to a puddle on the floor. The look on her face changed from one of mild amusement to shock.
Victor and Sarah watched as the stain spread from the closet, past their shoes and under the door. They heard someone slip on the stain outside the door. More bodies started to fall in the living room as the stain breached those hallowed grounds, each thud vibrating the floor. Victor watched in horror as the stain crawled up his shiny Bellò shoes to the legs of his pants. He touched his jeans and watched as the stain spread to the tips of his finger. Sarah screamed as the stain spread from her heels to her Hermes purse.
The stain quickly metastasized from Victor’s posh apartment overlooking Central Park. Through the coffee shops, high end clothing boutiques, pubs, the carts of street side food venders, spreading left and right, through the Wall Street financial district, to the Jersey shore, spreading north and south, into the water nearby, across the Atlantic, through the aged stones of the Tower of London, to the European mainland, climbing the Eiffel Tower, into the cerulean waters of the Rhine, over the Alps, past the Coliseum and the cobble stoned streets of Greece, into the Dead Sea, spinning around the Dome of the Rock, up to the elaborate cathedrals of St. Petersburg, through the crumbled buildings of Baghdad, to the tip of the Pyramids, across the Horn of South Africa, through the Indian Ocean, to the peaks of the Himalayas, north to the Great Wall, across the steppe, back down over the Potala, down the Ganges River as holy men bathed, through the wheels of rickshaws on their way to the Taj Mahal, spreading east into the Mekong, passing a fisherman on a long boat wearing a thatched hat and smoking a yellow cigarette, across the crisp green rice paddies of Thailand, through the dazzling streets of Tokyo, over the Sydney Opera House, across the Pacific and its myriad islands, through the vast Canadian countryside, south through the plains and farms of North America, west through the hills of Hollywood, past the Pyramid of the Sun and Moon in Mexico, down the crests of the Andes, swimming with piranhas through Amazon, under the widespread concrete arms of the Jesus statue in Rio de Janeiro, back into the Atlantic on the tailfin of a killer whale.
Victor’s stain spread far and wide. Victor’s stain spread far and wide.