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USA Today has come out with a new survey -- apparently, three out of every four people make up 75 percent of the population.

-- David Letterman

At first, I thought it would be cool -- I mean, free jerky, right? I've never been much of a jerky eater; I find its chewiness to be antagonistic to my already popping and misaligned jaw. But what the man on the phone said next diverted my mind from thoughts of the rough texture to the countless jerky possibilities. They thought this would be just another survey, but I knew I suddenly had the power to alter the course of history and how people would forever after view that spicy, dried-out little piece of meat. Many look at surveys and solicitors as a waste of time, a nuisance -- a grave downside to having a phone number. I look at them as opportunities for a bit of fun and free shit. At the mall, I stop to humor pimply faced canvassers, appearing to listen intently to their rehearsed spiels. I nod in agreement whether they're right wing or left, Jesus freaks or Hare Krishna recruiters. I gaze sympathetically at those raising money for needy children. But in public, I never sign a thing, and I rarely give a dime, as my charities are chosen privately, and my motivation for giving has nothing to do with what some random person tells me on the street.

Callers and canvassers try to guilt their way to money or signatures, but an understanding smile, a sincere wish of good luck, and a firm answer have never failed me. Catholic guilt is like baby fat -- your soul dispenses it as you grow spiritually. I have a healthy dose of guilt, but I try not to let it get in my way. David's still working on his; he used to fear answering his phone when the Caller ID revealed an 800 number. Now, he hands the receiver to me, and I get right to the point -- "What do you want?" and "No."

A small yellow book entitled The Power of No used to grace my living room. I lost it years ago, but its message has remained -- there is nothing wrong with "No," and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is frustrated that he or she is being refused something they want. I do listen, though. I hear callers out because it's polite, and you never know what could happen. Not only have I worked as a telemarketer, but I have also trained others in the art of phone rapport. Once, a prospective customer I'd phoned invited me to a party. I went, of course, and the ensuing porn-star hippiefest turned out to be an interesting, eye-opening evening that went down in the annals of my scandalous journal. (As Oscar Wilde eloquently put it, "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.")

When telemarketers ask me for money, they get a prompt "No," but if they want me to take part in a survey, my answer is "Yes. Oh, yes!" Which brings me back to the jerky. I was sitting alone on the couch, flipping back and forth between Comedy Central and Animal Planet, when he called. I must have been on some kind of "survey list," because in one week I'd completed a music survey, restaurant survey, and grocery-store survey -- two over the phone, one by mail. I had even reviewed TV pilots to have my say. This time, the soft-spoken male voice at the other end of the line said, "Would you be willing to take part in a jerky survey?"

"You mean, like, beef jerky?" Already my mind was open and willing. Sure, why not, I said, and then listened to the jerky man's obligatory spiel, which he launched into despite the fact that he knew I was as good as another notch mark on his quota list. I half-listened and tried to silence my laughter at the picture on my TV of a kitten falling off of an ironing board. He told me they'd be sending me samples, blah, blah, and beef marked A, B, blah, and one is spicier than the other, and something about how to fill out the forms and how to send them back. But then he said it.

I asked him to repeat himself, and the quiet voice said, "You should 'Use the jerky as you would normally use the jerky.'" This sent me reeling. "What do you mean, use it?" Now he had my full attention. "As I would normally use it? What am I supposed to do, take it out and slap my ass with it? How do you use the jerky?" I detected an embarrassed waver in his voice when he said, "That's what it says here, I'm supposed to tell you to 'Use the jerky as you would normally use the jerky'; that's just what it says." "Nothing about eating it or tasting it on your paper there; you just want me to 'use' it, right?" The semantics-lover in me could not let it go, but I sensed his exasperation with my outspoken incredulity. "All right, just send it," I said, letting him off the meat hook. "I'll use it to the best of my ability." I had more than eating meat in mind -- I had a plan to free jerky from the bondage of its food pigeonhole. I needed help to execute my ideas, so I implored my sister Jenny for her assistance.

Three days later, in clear plastic bags labeled "A" and "B," the jerky arrived. Its many flavorful shriveled shapes were begging to be used. Jenny showed up and we began to document our creative usage for the anonymous jerky-marketing team. In the hour that followed, we took photos of ourselves interacting with the jerky. Jen exfoliated her feet with it. I filed my nails. We rolled up a piece and tried to sip soda through it. I put flesh-colored paint at one end and pretended to touch up the framed print I have of Bouguereau's Birth of Venus.

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