Friday, July 30, 2004

I Remember Herb Remember

I never lived in Herb Caen's world, but I lay in the weeds at the edge of the woods and stared at it. For a while in the mid Eighties my desk at the Chronicle was near his office. I never overheard anything -- it wasn't that close -- but I had some sense of his comings and goings, and that sense confirmed he was working hard, hard at least in the style of his job. He was there every morning, doing lunch, coming back from lunch, working the phones, collecting the items, doing his column himself all by himself on his old manual typewriter and then heading out to tour the San Francisco evening.

He was a courtly man. That word jumps to mind, and now I must unpack it. What is "courtly"? I recall he had a deliberate way of moving. He never seemed in a hurry. He never seemed on display, not in a vain way. I just had the sense that he knew he was being looked on with approval and that he was consciously declining to swagger. He really did dress well; by the standards of the newsroom he was gorgeous: I recall camel sports coats. He was tall and his weight was under control. Of course, he was already over 65 when I joined the Chronicle, so perhaps what I mistook for elegance was only an acccomodation with joint pain and intermittent constipation.

His eyes were not particularly expressive. They were watcher's eyes, in some ways flat, in some ways distant. I never had a real conversation with him, so his gaze may have had degrees of intensity. He was his own time capsule. By the time I started reading him, his column was light and fun and liberal, but he couldn't keep the ghosts out, the ghosts of "old San Francisco." Still, it was impossible to read his column -- even when it ran to name dropping and bad jokes -- as if it were incidental. You knew that it mattered. Being mentioned in the column made a difference, the way being on a reality tv show does now. In San Francisco, generation taught generation that he mattered.

I am thinking of Herb because my wife and I went to the Plush Room in San Francisco last night to hear Andrea Marcovicci in cabaret, doing a tribute to all the songs associated with Fred Astaire. At some point she said there was a Portuguese word -- soltang? -- that meant nostalgia for a world that never existed, and that made me think of Herb and my connection to his, since no world experienced second hand really exists, no matter how hard you try to imagine it.

I was already thinking of Herb. My wife and I had never been to the Plush Room. We had never seen cabaret up close -- and up close we were, in the front row, where the fanatics, the curious and the weak of hearing sit. It was like a Cirque de Soleil performance, fabulous but elusive. I was utterly delighted by the archness and the art, and the memories of old Hollywood, the songs familiar as childhood, the songs as obscurely familiar as somebody else's childhood.

But I realized that I did not know quite how I would write about what we were seeing other than to say Ms. Markovicci sings well, moves well and seems to love what she does. I don't know the conventions of this kind of perfomance. I don't have the kind of inside knowledge that can turn a review into a smart piece, an introduction to the genre that helps motivate the reader to go get some of whatever you're talking about.

I wanted a guide. I suddenly wished Herb were sitting nearby, with an eye on me, knowing this was my first time at cabaret. He would have said a thing or two beforehand, told me what to look for, told me which "ad lib" was old business, what the "tells" were that revealed if the performer were really connecting or merely mailing it in. During the performance, he would have looked my way once or twice and nodded, as if to say, "We knew that was coming."

Or maybe not. I don't remember if Herb liked cabaret or not. He wasn't an antiquarian. He did not value old things fallen from grace simply because they were old things fallen from grace. He might have said, "It's all a museum. Very pretty curator, though." He was capable of mocking the past and apologizing for his addiction to it.

It's just that if you live in San Francisco and you are of a certain age, whenever you stumble upon something old and lovely, or perhaps only odd and out of the way, you think of Herb Caen who did nostalgia like Michaelangelo did ceilings. He taught a way of looking, You thank him for it. You wish him well. You wish him here, actually, at the next table making it all a little bigger and a little brighter, at least for a moment.

I remember him. Who cares! But to be remembered by Herb Caen! That was, that would have been, something.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Maria. Maria. I Just Gave a 25 Percent Tip to Maria

I don't drink as much as I used to, and that's a good thing. I don't drink as much as I want to, and that's a good thing.

I drink just about as much I need to -- and that's not a bad thing. And what I need to do on occasion in moderation and as part of a full and busy schedule devoted to helping train tomorrow's leaders today for the day after tomorrow (and try saying all that without pausing to breathe) is have a few pops with the Drunk Boyz.

Yesterday the Drunk Boyz met at Martin Mack's on Haight Street in San Francisco and ... sipped.

The name Drunk Boyz is an email convenience, since every distribution list must have a name and the more memorable the better, since who wants to go pawing through your electronic address book every time you feel like a libation? (Libation, a lovely word that speaks of sacrifice to ancient gods -- or goddesses in the case of Maria, our saucy waitperson who is very far from ancient.)

The Drunk Boyz have a roster of eight, all connected in one way another with the University of San Francisco, which has so many fabulous attributes, including a clear strong signature on my paycheck once a month.

The Drunk Boyz meet not with great regularity but with persistent regularity, by which I mean we convene once or twice a semester and even then maybe four of the eight have something better to do. We have a couple pops. We flirt with our beverage facilitator-- though I sometimes doubt our winks and twinkles register as flirting. Martin Mack's is an Irish bar, and Maria is from County Cork. She has been our server (I'm running out of respectful synonyms) the last three, maybe four, times we have visited, so we assume she has her green card, and there's a joke there somewhere because she's Irish. We drink a little. We finish up with coffee. We check our watches because, whoops, we are educators and duty calls

It's always about the children, isn't it? 

So "drunk" is not the precise word to capture the moment and "boyz" -- well, if the majority of our group were bottles of fine wine we would have long since turned to vinegar.

Still, in the great tradition of people consuming fractional distillations of our favorite carbon molecule, we do what we can. We eat corned beef and fried calamari. We raise our glass to handsome women. (Is an actual handsome woman nearby, even in the same zip code? Quick! Don't look.) If we are the shadow puppets of desire, better that than growing pencil-thin mustaches and lounging at the bar.

We sit in a booth. We take off our jackets, smooth them, and put them neatly on the adjacent seat. We fuss. 
I have drunk it up in my time. Back in the Seventies, I was a copywriter in a small advertising agency. We had a chain of restaurants as a client, and a perk, or a burden, was the weekly lunch with several of the restaurant owners at one of their restaurants. I recall how at the first of those business lunches to show I was all business I shook my head nonono when the time came to order drinks and how the first among equals of the restaurant owners glared at me and said, "I don't trust anyone who doesn't drink."

I have a vague memory of those lunches.

And then I became a journalist, and we drank at lunch and we drank after work, and some of those fine colleagues ruined lives and some woke up with a slight headache that soon went away, particularly if medicated at the next day's lunch. For some, so much damage; for others, faint memories of incidental pleasure. 

To the point and the pleasure of these lunches: Booze can lubricate the capacious mind -- and out slide the stories. Yesterday G., who teaches advertising, recalled how he hired the character actor Slim Pickens as a spokesman to promote something or other, after the client discovered they couldn't afford John Wayne. (Yah! I told you we got some old boyz at the table.) G. says Pickens came to town and did what he was paid to do and then hung around and told story after story about his career. He said that Pickens described how Stanley Kubrick recruited him for "Dr. Strangelove" and how in a key scene in the movie he was supposed to pull on his cowboy hat over his official U.S. Air Force headset after he and the crew of his nuclear bomber were ordered to attack the Soviet Union (as it then was).

But during the first take the hat did not fit over his headset!

Lose the hat, Kubrick said.

No, Pickens said. I'll just slit the headband here and give the rig a tug....

Slit. Tug. And that's why, Pickens said, that he had a cowboy hat to wave when the nuclear bomb whose explosion triggers the end of the world drops from the plane with Slim Pickens straddling it in one of the more famous moments in world movie history.


Hmmm. This is not as delightful in the telling as it was in the hearing. I have been building toward this damn anecdote. I guess you had to be there. I guess you had to have a JD over the rocks and then a glass or two of cheap Chilean merlot.

Get back to me on this sometime after lunch. I'm not going anywhere. I have work to do.


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Big Head Filled with Big Ideas

Time for an "items" column, not a collection of snarky gossip about local celebrities but a series of brief hits on stuff that interests me. But why an items column?

1) It implies I am a lava lamp of ideas -- though come to think of it a lava lamp just keeps recycling the same six blobs over and over .... Okay, I am a sugar-fueled three-year-old child of ideas: Run run run after me because I will never stop. Anyway, you get the idea, which is that a series of short hits suggests I have so many ideas that it's a matter of selling 'em green and small or not selling them at all.

2) It's an aesthetic thing, too. As I've noted before, some columnists are clearly trying to stretch an idea to fill the editorial hole. I talked about rhythm in column writing. That idea implies balance, that is, a selection of themes and techniques that fit together over time. There's internal balance, too: Is the idea adequately developed? Is the idea overdeveloped?!? The Chronicle's Joan Ryan did a column recently in which she imagined a female governor calling legislators "boy-women." Clever idea, but I quit reading at the jump. The column was solid. It was competent. It was write-by-the-numbers, playing out just as you would imagine. Better to have asked the question rhetorically: What if Dianne Feinstein had blah blah, omiting the final blah blah blah -- and then Ryan could have added something fresh and surprising, something unpredictable. So internal balance, which we might also call proportion, is a good thing, for was it not Shakespeare who said (or had someone say), "A little more than a little is by much too much"?

You know that it was!

Balance. Time to shut up and provide those items I promised.

* I am a lover of political blogs, from Atrios to Talking Points Memo, but the blogging of the Democratic convention is pretty pedestrian so far, at least on the part of the bloggers who have actually gone to see the elephant and who are not feeding their reports back to a repository, like Salon's War Room. Reporting is reporting and editing is editing, and the political bloggers I like best are editor/commentators. They survey the muddy waters of the mainstream media and tell us where to look. They find patterns and connections -- but they are not reporters, by training or inclination. Now some of them have hung their D+ credentials around their necks and are playing reporter in Boston.

Having covered the Democratic convention in San Francisco in 1984, I tell you that individual reporters at a convention are orphans in the storm. It's the editor back in the big building who takes the pieces of the puzzle the reporters provide -- more likely than not the editor told each reporter what kind of piece he wanted and he may have suggested where to look for it -- and puts together the package. Now here the poor bloggers are, lost in the crowd, robbed of overview. Washington Monthy seems to have gotten it right. Kevin Drum, the erstwhile CalPundit blogger turned insider, is staying home doing what he does best: looking down like god and telling us what it all means.

My job is to "anchor" our coverage, which basically means that my butt will be anchored to my chair watching the convention on TV, just the way the blog gods intended it. As with pro football games, I suspect mine is the best seat in the house.

Or to wander off into another sports metaphor, it's like in basketball. Make the guy dribble with his left hand if he prefers to dribble with his right. This week it looks as if an awful lot of bloggers I follow are dribbling with their left hands.

* I am constantly being surprised by what surprises me. Reading my Sunday New York Times, I glanced at a movie ad, and the first bit of copy my eye fell upon was "By the director of 'She's Gotta Have It' and 'The 25th Hour.'" I thought, "Hey, didn't Spike Lee direct those?" And it turned out the movie was directed by Spike Lee. I was surprised that the ad didn't just assume everyone knew who Spike Lee is! Is this a clue that his reputation -- his notoriety -- is subsiding? Anyway, I was surprised.

* The Rule of Three suggests I should have another item but nothing too heavy, a kind of "dying fall." Okay. A Chronicle copy editor sent me the following, as an example of how life is a comedy to those who spell and a tragedy to those who don't. (Or maybe I mean just the opposite.)

By the way, not long ago, a copy editor in the Food section took umbrage at a restaurant review headline in Datebook that used the phrase "just deserts" (OK, a dumb pun, in retrospect) and instructed the Gate to change it to "just desserts.'' Luckily she sent me a chiding message saying what she'd done, so I called her and instructed her to instruct the Gate to change it back to "deserts.'' First I had to instruct her as to "deserts" versus "desserts.''

And wasn't this column light as a souffle? "He's not so smart," you think. "I would have a beer with him -- but I wouldn't buy the beer."

Monday, July 26, 2004

And I Can't Jump Either

Just when I conclude that this blog is just so much wanking -- at least in terms of driving my scholarly agenda during this my sabbatical year -- I say, whoaboy! From this activity come insights like rain in the desert, infrequent but precious.

The two preceding posts, sodden as they are with death, suffering and "the still sad music of  humanity, nor harsh nor grating though of ample power to chasten and subdue," remind me that rhythm is always a problem for the columnist. By that I mean, my impression is that if you are a general interest columnist, you must vary your topics. You must have a range of interests. You can't strike one note over and over, not over the long haul.

Political columnists can, I suppose: Paul Krugman is indignant with Bush day after day and god bless him for it. But even George Will has the occasional reminiscence or baseball column. I'm guessing that every columnist is aware of the problem, even if he or she chooses to trod in the familiar furrow. I'm thinking it's an issue about which the columnist makes a conscious decision.

If I expand my notion of rhythm to include variation of any kind, then changes in tone or in mode of presentation would count, too. It's a good idea to explore. Indeed, this column -- this brief, jaunty apologia -- is itself an exercise in rhythm.

Different length?  Check.

Different tone? Check.

Liberal use of links? Check.

Effort to seal my heart to the inquiring reader, feeling just a little embarrassed by my previous navel-gazing? Check. Check. Check.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

To Die, To Sleep, To Dream, To Wish You Had a Paper, Any Paper, Even a USA Today (An Exercise in Diseased Individuality)

Deathbed is a good old-fashioned word you don't see much of anymore. I searched the Chron database from the first of the year to now and found it in 17 stories or letters to the editor.

Only twice was it used as if it were a real word to be used about real people. Most of the time, deathbed was either a metaphor -- some section of town is on its deathbed -- or a reference to something in a work of art -- a George Washington portrait, an Alamo movie, a play in which someone talks about (but we do not see or hear) a deathbed confession.

The Chronicle book editor David Kipen used it a half dozen times in a contemplation of Nabokov so taken was Kipen with the idea that Nabokov is not someone you would read on your deathbed. Twice it was used more or less literally, in a letter to the editor about a kid killed in a drive-by shooting and once in a Tom Stienstra column about the death of a mountain man, whose leavetaking was slow and noble and called out for literary treatment. There was also a note that sometime in 1929 the Chronicle ran a story describing how a local woman discovered a local man (her husband) was, in fact, also a local woman "on his (sic) deathbed at Highland Hospital in Oakland." (I like using sic. It gives a sentence class, the way a black dress gives class to a woman. Or a man, if he's got the figure for it.)

"Deathbed" should be pretty much interchangeable with "hospital bed" wouldn't you think, since that's where most people die, in hospitals and nursing homes? We should see deathbed all the time. But it's really an old-fashioned homebound word. Unless it's your bed in your house it's not a classic capital-D deathbed. Even then I doubt hospice workers use it. It's rather brutal to our tender modern ear.

I am thinking about deathbeds because yesterday I visited a friend on her deathbed. No doubt about it. That's what it is. She noticed a lump on the side of her neck in February, fought with her health insurance company to get a proper diagnosis, learned it was a rare and virulent cancer in May.... And now they've stopped treatment, signed her up for hospice services and sent her home to die.

Her family and friends-- reporters from back in the day, even a few myopic editors blinking in the light -- are keeping vigil. It's days, not weeks. Her mind was skipping when I visited, keeping to the topics under discussion but overlaying one train of thought with another. We talked about her cats and her journalism students. She said she had given her cats some difficult writing assignments, and the cats were next door working hard to improve their writing skills. I congratulated her cats.

I had a romantic view of death when I was 20 or 30 or even 40. What is romanticism but a kind of diseased individuality? Thinking about death, I fell into the assumption that my individuality would endure. I spent time imagining how I would be missed -- by how many, by how much -- and how human progress would certainly lose a good deal of momentum when I died and might even lose headway and start to drift toward the rocks. Even then my philosophy was hardening into Christian atheism -- I know who God isn't -- and general agnosticism, which added up to disbelief in the afterlife. But how inconstant my philosophy because even as I disbelieved that I would endure, I continued to imagine myself scrutinizing the world I left behind.

Gone but not forgotten? How about forgotten but somehow not gone! Even when my self regard was less grandiose and I thought of my death going unnoticed by the world, in my fantasy, even in the worst case, I could not help but think of myself after my death still there knowing the world and what passes in it. I've been thinking that not knowing how it all comes out is among the greatest losses if there is no afterlife. What this otherworld of afterdeath (no; I'll stick with afterlife) might be like, and how you might sort out connection with friends and family and assorted lovers -- with a despot god on the margins or in the center demanding god knows what -- the sociology of the afterlife and the politics of the afterlife, if there were an afterlife, would make me want to hide in the corner.

The only clear pleasure in the afterlife it seems to me would be looking back and seeing how things come out back here on earth. Will humanity colonize the stars? Will the British monarchy endure? Will the machines rise and rule? Will professional basketball players ever stop wearing those ridiculous baggy uniforms?


Will my mildly autistic grandnephew live a productive and happy life? He is only 5 years old. I would like to know. He is a sweet child.

That knowing, that keeping up, that series of happy surprises (for only god is omniscient, right?) would be one of the pleasures of the afterlife about which we can all agree. The mechanics of how eternity might be organized are unthinkable (and don't bore me, romantic individualist that I am, with promises of cycles of reincarnation ending with my merging with the One). But sitting in that other place and looking back as history lurches upwards or subsides or comes to a crashing end -- now, that would be must-see reality TV. There's your eternity: sitting in the bleachers watching the great game of life play itself out.

I look at my friend on her deathbed. I think of so much that will be lost when she dies. I think of all that she is losing since I believe she will not go beyond this life, this final rest. I think of how she would have liked to have known how it all came out.

I think of all her magnificent unsatisfied insatiable curiosity.

Friday, July 23, 2004

The Dog with Half a Face

I saw a dog with a disfigured face at the Ace Hardware the other day. I had two small packages of nails, a bulb for a floodlight, a small can of green spay paint and a tiny plastic prong that you can screw to the face plate to prevent you from turning a light switch either on or off (if it’s already off or on), all of which I had come for. But before checking out, I was looking at the barbecue paraphernalia, which is good recreation if you are a Weber guy.

The dog was standing in the aisle the way dogs do, staring into the middle distance, tongue quivering, tail wagging lazily in anticipation of something pleasant, such as a pat on the ribs just behind the shoulder. That was what I provided. The dog was pleased but not in a vulgar way.

It was a big yellow dog. It did not have a nose. About halfway between the eyes and the tip of its snout, the upper jaw had been cut away, so that its face looked like a caricature of a wild boar. The jaw was underslung with two strong canines pointing up, and the tissue where the jaw had been cut away was pink and corrugated with two slits, which were its nasal passages.

I told it that it was a very nice dog. It was a very nice dog. I was not sure whether the owner – a bulky women in a blue smock – was pleased by my interest in the dog. Had it been a child with Down’s Syndrome or an infant with a congenital deformity, there would have been mutual tension around issues of condescension or morbid curiosity. But in this case there was only pleasure on my part around the fact this was a happy dog, sleek and well-fed, who seemed to lack for nothing necessary to a dog’s happiness.

The owner said the dog had had cancer.

I said that we had a white cat who had cancer on both ears, which were amputated to stop its spread.

She said that white cats with cancer on their ears and noses were common, but that cancer of the kind her dog had was very rare. She said she took it to Davis – and every Bay Area pet owner knows that is a reference to the UC-Davis veterinary school where innovation abounds. We took our cat Popcorn there to see if we could avoid amputation of her ears.

I asked how old the dog was, and the woman in the blue smock said he was 9. I said we owed that to our pets, which was a bit of a non sequitur but I meant even a dog in late middle age is not disposable. Of course, the surgery could have occurred years ago.

She walked on, followed by her dog, whose tail had not stopped wagging. I supposed this was an endless conversation for her, and she did not need the approval or reassurance of strangers.

I think the woman and her dog were exactly how things should be. I understand the arguments on the other side, and I will argue it with you if you choose, but it is not one of those arguments that make me anxious. Having come to a certain conclusion, I have acted on that conclusion, and my action makes me more comfortable with my conclusion, not less. We had a cat once that needed subcutaneous transfusions, which we did at home, even when its skin became so porous that the fluid leaked out almost as fast as we dripped it in.

I believe simply that the contract we have with animals means that those animals we butcher and eat – those we have concluded are disposable -- should be butchered with as much gentleness as the process allows. I believe the same thing is true of lab animals, and that means certain experiments are unacceptable. I believe that the animals we keep as companions should never be treated as if they are disposable. Meat animals offer us nourishment and lab animals offer us health and longevity, but companion animals offer us love. That’s certainly a word I am comfortable using in relation to cats and dogs. They seek our presence, count on us for things that they cannot provide for themselves and find pleasure in our touch and in the warmth of our bodies.

There is usually loyalty on their part to some degree, even between cats and their owners. If human beings, when they speak of love between them and other human beings, are describing such dependence and such tactile pleasure, they are describing something worth having. But often when human beings use the word they seem to be referring to cruelties and indignities that reduce the word to nothing.

Money and time spent on the illnesses of our companion animals make a perfect symmetry. If those of us who have resources decline to spend them we are the parasites, not they. When our efforts fail and their suffering is great, then we kill them. My wife and I take our cats to the vet when it becomes necessary, hold them in our arms and watch the vet kill them. Too bad society does not make the same accommodation for human beings – and, of course, it would have to be an accommodation managed carefully.

I hope that when I describe the yellow dog’s radically altered face, you do not think of it as grotesque. The dog certainly did not think so. I did not think so. Its face was an emblem of equilibrium between owner and animal, of a balance of duty and affection.

We are too cognitively evolved, of course, to handle our own deformities so calmly. I am not so arrogant or blithely cruel to suggest that. But perhaps we shall continue to evolve and come out wise and gentle on the other side.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

"Carroll Problem" Has Ignited a Firestorm

A friend -- let's call him Sly and the Philosopher's Stone -- writes:

Regarding Jefferson's objections, don't you think that readers who
don't get Carroll don't read Carroll in the first place, hence it's kinda
moot to charge Carroll with the un-Platonic crime of misleading the
ignorant masses? It also seems a bit crude to cram Plato, St. Augustine,
and St. Paul into the same corner in this argument. Paul's contrast of
letter and spirit surely isn't about the same problem that bothered Plato.
In fact, Paul was exhorting the faithful to go beyond literal,
authoritarian prescriptions of the thought police and go for layers of
meaning beyond, beneath, or beside the surface. Nor was Augustine as much
of a rhetorical nanny as is implied.

J's objection boils down to the fact that Carroll cares more for his art
than for the truth. Well, now, that argument's been going on forever
between the nannies and the artists from Plato to the inquisitors to
Stalin to the FCC. Okay, let's admit that the artist DOES care more for his art than the truth, but that don't mean he don't also care for the truth, becasue if he don't care for the truth his art won't amount to much
because hunger for truth drives art. If that fire's not there, all you get
is entertainment. Sure, the damn artist may hunger after truth merely to
energize his art; just like he'll hunger after a woman for the same
purpose (ah, those love poets, did they love the love more than the words?
Nah!.) But even though their motives be impure, don't artists really
serve the truth better than the Platonists or the limpid quotidianites
anyhow? Don't they make the truth more available by making it exciting,
vivid, or at least non-boring? And don't they, in their playfulness, wit,
irony, extravagance, and extravagant cussedness protect the truth from
thought police who dwindle it to dogma. Ergo, Carroll is performing the
Lord's work of finding truth through art. Which means that to advance your
complex thesis, you now must delve into Habermas's theories of discourse,
which could wreck the sabbatical....

"How do you survive?" she asked Paul Muni. "I steal," he replied.

The word I want is inoculate.
Last week I posted about how New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had devoted his space to exploring all the advantages to Bush of Bush dumping Cheney, the point of this public airing being that Bush would thus be less likely to do it . The idea was that what would seem to be admiration of such a dump would -- coming from the left and explained cynically -- make it less likely to happen or result in Bush getting less advantage from it if he did it.
Today Jon Carroll started an "October Surprise" contest, inviting readers to predict just what such a cynical act of manipulation of the American voter might be, adding (without his characteristic irony):
 ... we hope that the existence of the contest might in some way inoculate the nation against some cynical manipulation by the Republicans.
That's a useful word for the practice of praising or suggesting something in the hope that scutiny will make it less likely to happen or less "virulent" if it does.
Dear Columnist: Do you ever inoculate your readers? I got a new question. 

Monday, July 19, 2004

Che is Alive and Well and Editing Sports Copy at the San Francisco Chronicle

Faithful ColumnWhich readers who have been with us from the first will recall that my maiden post was a rant against the San Francisco Chronicle's use in a headline of the idiomatic "hone in" instead of the clear and sensible "home in." I complained to the Chron and was told that a contemporary dictionary had placed its imprimatur on "hone in," and the Chron copy czar (whose name I did not know and whose name was not provided) preferred "hone in."
This made me unhappy. Usage changes, and we don't need the French Academy in the U.S. -- but "hone in" strikes me as a very stupid mishearing, one that wrecks the original metaphor. I thought the Chron still gave a roof to enough language snobs that "hone in" would be cast into outer darkness if for no other reason than keeping up with the Times.
Imagine my pleasure when I read the headline on D9 of today's Five Star:
"Armstrong homes in on victory no. 6"
So some copy editors of sense remain. Hurrah. But there's a final twist. 
If you link to the story on, you get this -- same story slightly edited and without a "homes in" hed. I don't know what to make of this. When I go online to get Chron stories to use in my copy editing class, I have never encountered a story whose hed was not identical to what ran in the paper paper. There's no reason the online versions should not have better heds, of course, since online heds need not be written to fit so precisely within the limits of the printed page. The discrepancy may mean nothing.
But still. Is it a battle of Chronicle copy editors to the lexical death?  "Home in" is smuggled in, discovered, banished, hidden behind the arras and told to bide its time. I hope so. I hope punches are thrown, and blood runs in the gutters, and heads are stuck on spikes, so that when I die my Chronicle obit will have the headline:
"He came. He saw. He homed in." 

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Plato Would Not Allow Jon Carroll in His Republic

So says Jefferson in response to my recent analysis of the ironic stance taken by Jon Carroll in many of his columns.

In a frank and cordial exchange of views on the "Carroll problem," Jefferson told me that he disagrees with my notion of the column as an extended conversation in which faithful readers can spot the irony and know the truth, enjoying the fact that less sophisticated readers will be confused and even misled. He says Carroll is engaged in mixing genres, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction for every reader. He says that readers become accustomed to Carroll's "rules of engagement" and are trained (my word) "to be ready NOT to believe. They know that what Carroll is doing is predicated on entertainment. He has a collection of approaches like a monologist with a limited number of elements in his shtik."

Three of those elements are: 1) columnist as standup comedian; 2) columnist as editorialist/opinion maker; 3) columnist as cultural critic. But because Carroll wants to be free to "change his game" -- his rule is "flexibility," Jefferson says -- the column is "performative, a tour de force." That stance undercuts or dilutes (my words) those moments when Carroll wants to be an editorialist or cultural critic because it is clear to the reader that those stances are subsumed under the entertainer's stance.

I talked to Jefferson about Carroll's "community," those who get him. Jefferson says a better example of a columnist who creates -- or created -- community would be Adair Lara, whose approach was "limpid and quotidian," and whose values are clear and consistent. "Carroll has a fan base. He is primarily a spotlight performer (unlike) Lara who creates community."

Jefferson goes on to say that "Irony is the principal weapon of the comic performer.... When you are unpredictable, you are dangerous. Carroll doesn't care if he is misunderstood, which creates an aura of danger. Only people who like performance like Jon Carroll. He seems to cherish his freedom to write in five voices. At the end of the day he is harder to trust, to 'follow into battle.' Even in his political columns, we feel his art comes first."

Jefferson then confronts a question larger than any I have ever considered. Carroll is an excellent example of a writer who puts style first. Pressman says that "in Christian terms, when style outweighs content, it's a sin." He suggested I look at St. Augustine's Confessions, St. Paul's ruminations on the letter vs. the spirit and Plato's rules for his Republic, from which poets are excluded. Finally, he would prefer that Carroll be other than what he is: "Jon Carroll is in love with his own fabulousness.... Anything other than clarity is a distraction."

The foregoing comments were made from rough notes and may fail in accuracy and certainly do in clarity. I will share them with Jefferson and amend them.

Meanwhile, Carroll responded to my previous "column" thus:

oh Lord, now you've done it. i am meeting myself coming the other way. I
have not grasped the nettle, the nettle has grasped me.
actually, the immediate inspritation for the largess column was the plight
of Ed Ward, who does bits of rock and roll history for Fresh Air. Ed lives
in Berlin and is chronically broke. It is hard for him to get CDs. So he
put a wish list up on Amazon. Fresh Air found out about it and upbraided
him. He almost lost his job. fresh Air pays hom $250 per segment and runs
maybe 12 a year. They're worried about their purity, but they ain't interested in even buying their record reviewer records. Ugh.

This is interesting. When Carroll is dead, cold and famous, this tidbit will be golden. But right now all it does is suggest that the inspiration for the column has nothing to do with the way readers understand the column.

And, doughty reader, may I suggest you read MackDoggy's comment on the "column" before this. I particularly recommend his comment that my own irony failed in that he thinks I have probably been drunk at lunch, very very drunk at lunch.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Jon Carroll is a Complex Algorithm Residing on the Cal Tech Mainframe

Serendipity? I've been meaning to write about Jon Carroll and the perils of irony, and today he plows my road. Carroll writes that he has a problem. Someone is apparently impersonating him not in print but in the flesh, that flesh showing an interest in young female fans. The purpose of today's Carroll column is to warn his readers of that fact and to warn off the impersonator.
But there is a problem getting to the problem.
Let me be as clear as I can be: I am not making any of this up. This is not a prank of some kind. I say that because I have a weakness for pranks. Once, in a moment of perhaps ill-advised high spirits, I wrote that I was really a woman and that I had to pretend to be a man in order to get my Chronicle column. I still get letters about that. "My friend Grace swears you are a woman and I maintain that you're not. Please clarify." OK: I'm not a woman.
He calls them pranks. I would call them playful ironies, little flights of fancy in which he says the thing which is not true. Often he does not seem to be doing this to make a larger point but just because, like Bill Clinton, he can. I am struggling to find a way to describe how I think this works. I've written before about how a columnist makes faithful readers feel like insiders because they "get" what the casual reader does not. Because Carroll has written in a certain way over 20 years about a wide but not unlimited range of topics, readers do feel as if they know his frame of reference and his code. (I am using myself as the measure for his typical reader.) They know when he is being serious and when he is not. Sometimes this play, this adopting of a false attitude or making a false claim, pleases the reader just because we know it's play. I would say a  prime attraction of irony is the simple pleasure of recognizing that it is irony. The subject matter may have a role, too. If he suggests he is willing to engage in deviant conduct -- I recall the column in which he mused on poisoning a neighbor's dog -- there's a kind of escapism in it for Carroll and thus for his readers.
Let me give an example. Here I am drunk at noon! I write. Is this simple irony pleasing  to me because I have never been drunk at noon in my life? Is there a momentary delight in being someone else if only for the space of a sentence? Am I pleased that my wife will read this and know that I am joking because she knows I have never been drunk at noon and will probably never be, and she smiles as the little boy puts on the funny hat and says, I'm a pirate
It's a kind of play, I think. I need to read a good book -- a strong, scholarly book -- on play and on the pleasure of watching others play and the value of play to the player. I suddenly think of Bruno Bettelheim and his observation of the child Marcia, who first learned to differentiate between "me" and "not me" by playing with her feces in the bathtub. (Oh, sure! "... suddenly think..." meaning you did a quick google search -- Eds.)
My point is that one of the characteristics of Jon Carroll columns over the years is this occasional indulgence in pretending things are true that are not. One of his most famous "pranks" was his invention of Pele dancing, a secret society that gathered to perform a mysterious dance. Was it a satire on the pleasures of the exclusive and forbidden? Was it a send-up of the jargon of any specialized activity? Or was it just a bit of fiction that does what fiction does, that is, placing us in another world and thus letting us be other than we are, at least for a moment.
Apparently a lot of people didn't get it. Here's an explanation and a fragment of the Perils of Pele.
The price of pulling his readers collective leg is that when Carroll wants to talk about something that sounds as if he made it up, he has to work very hard to reassure readers that he didn't make it up. How do I know he isn't making up this impersonator? The point is that, as a long-time reader, I am confident I know when he is kidding and when he isn't. I would bet twenty dollars he has an impersonator. 
Just so I am equally sure he was being prankish last week when he wrote he would take money from those who wished to place the names of products and services in his column. He began the column in his familiar tone of badinage:

Today I would like to talk very seriously about newspaper ethics. I have been in the news business, man and boy, for about 90 years now -- I had a long boyhood -- and as a newsman -- please don't say "columnist"; I'm really just an old police beat reporter scrabbling for a scoop on the dark mean streets of the city I like to call "San Francisco" -- I've been thinking a lot about the way things used to be, and the way things are, and perhaps the way they shall be. I get paid by the word.

He yearns for the days of bribes and freebies. He refers to the stuff thrust at Herb Caen around the holidays piling up outside his office. (He speaks the truth. I saw it, saw it all.)

He hypothesizes:

Back in the old days of casual corruption and illicit favors, we had the golden age of journalism. We had Ernie Pyle and Joseph Pulitzer and Walter Lippmann and George Herriman and H.L. Mencken. Now we've cleaned up our act, and what do we get? Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Ann Coulter. You think maybe there's a connection.

Is he goofing here? His jokey tone having informed us that whatever is to come need not be taken with more than half seriousness, will he in fact explore this provocative, this plausible topic, with at least that half seriousness? As far as I can figure out, the answer is no. He concludes by trolling for free stuff in exchange for which he will make a product placement in his column. 
Now, take myself, Jon Carroll. I do not drink alcohol, but I do enjoy a nice trip to France. Suppose I were to write about, say, something that you're vitally interested in that could use the publicity. Does the world come crashing down? No. Whom does it harm? Not me; I'm in France. Suppose we were to meet on a quiet corner near the Place de la Concorde. Suppose you had a satchel filled with euros with nonconsecutive serial numbers. Suppose I had a little space a week from Friday to promote perfume-saturated volleyballs. Think about it.
He doesn't mean it. His "prank" makes me smile because I am certain he doesn't mean it, though I suppose he enjoys playing at being naughty. "I see," I say: You are so unnaughty that playing at being naughty affirms your goodness to all who know you. 
("Well, we could always pick up girls," one of my priest colleagues says. I roar with laughter. I get it.)
Maybe Carroll is satirizing something, though I can't imagine exactly what. I can't find the message in this, only the fun that comes with getting to know a columnist over time and watching him play with -- dare I say it? -- his feces! He has turned away from serious engagement about the possibility that maybe you need to be a bit of a rogue and a bit of a hustler to do a certain kind of exuberant, aggressive journalism. Let me explore that idea on my own time. I am satisfied with his column as written.
Butbutbut. What if next month his impersonator is making conversation with a fan he bumped into at the Top of the Mark who just happens to own a string of vacation villas somewhere on Italy's Ligurian Coast, and the impersonator says, "You remember that little column I did about how journalism was better when journalists weren't above accepting a little token of appreciation...?"
Irony, the double-edged sword? If only it were only double-edged ....


Thursday, July 15, 2004

Listen to What I Mean, Not What I Say

Last week in a column under the head "A Push for Bush" Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times began:

Since President Bush hasn't called me to ask how he can get re-elected, I'm afraid this will be gratuitous advice. But what the heck. . . .
Now that John Kerry has found a running mate, Mr. President, you need to lose one. Dick Cheney has to fake chest pains.

As this excerpt suggests, Kristof's tone is "columnist conversational" -- and thus it all seems a little tongue-in-cheek -- but much of the column is a common-sense explication of just why it would be good for Bush to drop Cheney and how it could be done.

The reader thinks, "Oh, Lord."

Then, at the end, we get a double kicker:

(For the president's eyes only: Mr. President, you're probably wondering why you should take advice from a columnist who criticizes many of your policies. You may even imagine that I'm an ardent Kerry supporter. But look at it this way: I want to be read, and if Mr. Kerry wins, he'll adopt boring, reasonable positions, and I'll be stuck with nuanced analyses that even my mother won't read. In contrast, you may not always be great for this country, but you're terrific for sputtering pundits.)

(For my regular readers only: Don't feel betrayed by this column. I'm not actually being as helpful to the president as you may think. Mr. Bush has shown that he pays close attention to all my advice because he consistently does precisely the opposite. So Mr. Cheney is now guaranteed a spot on the ticket.)

What do these two grafs add up to?

1) A joke based on the conversational style of the column suggesting that we are "overhearing" a postscript intended only for the president. It's consistent with the idea the column is "intimate" communication. (Never underestimate the appeal of the epistolary novel, which is one way of viewing the conversational columnist).

2) The quite reasonable point that bashing a politician whose personal style is distinctive and whose positions are repulsive makes it easier to write a certain kind of column. And that kind of highly flavored column is what a certain kind of reader likes.

3) This "eyes only" comment is a twist. The sudden cynical honesty is a surprise. The bane of any newspaper story, either straight news or columnizing, is the reader who gets the point in the first graf and quits reading. I wondered where the column was going, what the surprise would be. And here one is, right on schedule. My point is that the more "literary" the column, the more likely it is that the reader assumes the column will have a payoff at the end, either stylistic/rhetorical or in terms of content, that will make reading to the end necessary, or at least worthwhile. Never underestimate "style." I always waited patiently through those last four commercials for the fillip at the end of Seinfeld.

4) The second parenthetical comment doubles the joke, and doubling or topping or exaggerating the joke is "Writing 101," as Dave Barry once told me when I pointed out something similar in one of his columns.

5) More to the point, Kicker One suggests the columnist lacks core values, that he puts his own employability above the welfare of the country. Those who read Kristof regularly would get the irony and would understand that Kristof does NOT want Bush elected. Does Kristof trust to irony? Yes and no. He does not trust the reader to understand that Kristoff is not really an opportunist. That's the point of the final aside to his faithful readers in which he says that his real strength is that whatever he recommends, Bush will do the opposite. And that statement he does mean, though the mechanism is a little more complicated than he suggests. The last paragraph implies a rather more subtle point. If enough columnists and commentators discuss the possibility of Bush dropping Cheney, making clear how cynical and manipulative such a move would be, it does reduce the likelihood of Bush being able to do it for many reasons, including but not limited to the denials Bush and Cheney must utter as the idea is repeatedly broached and the priming of the indignation Cheney supporters would feel if Cheney were dropped.

So, once again, in the world of the columnist, by indirection we find directions out.

(Update: And today Kerry spells it out:

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said Thursday that if Bush replaces Cheney, it will be the latest in a string of broken promises.

"It will mean that the president's word once again doesn't mean anything, that he himself is the flip-flopper of all flip-floppers because he's been touting how important Dick Cheney is," Kerry told broadcaster Don Imus. "The fact is that George Bush would be declaring an act of desperation, a sudden move that goes contrary to everything he's said."

Bonus link: More Cheney cartoons that you can shake a @#!!&$ at.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Is Michael Moore an Artiste?

Movies matter to people in different ways depending not only on what you need from the particular movie but what you need from the genre.

I told a friend in passing -- literally in passing; he was walking fast and heading elsewhere -- that I not only liked Fahrenheit 9/11 but that I also enjoyed it. That stopped him in his tracks. There was so much wrong with it, he said, and he didn't mean factual errors. He ... was in a hurry. No time to explain. So he sent me this email.

What I mean by F-9/11 not being a good film is to differentiate between what's being said and how it's being crafted. It IS, indeed, an IMPORTANT film. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say HISTORIC. Wonderful! I loved every single minute. I love every single thing it SAYS -- which is why I sent $20 to Portland to entice my conservative cousin and wife to enter a movie theater for the first time since re-release of Gone With the Wind maybe 15-20 years ago. But it AIN'T a well done film. There are touches that are nice, but there's just SO much disjointed rambling and poor set-ups for parts that could have really been lyrical -- as WELL as hitting hard (in fact HARDER, because of such better crafting) -- and writing that is simply second-rate. It wanders and is anything BUT elegant. A documentary is composed in the editing room, largely. Bits like many of those Moore uses (confronting congressmen at Capitol, etc) are pre-planned, obviously -- but with no idea at ALL how they'll turn out, since reactions and events are unknown when putting it together. The editing room -- and the writing (which should derive from a general draft done before hand -- or even just a rough outline, perhaps) is what makes the film. And Moore ain't an artist.

It's the "Crumb" syndrome I see at work in those of my friends who call it "great". (And yet AGAIN -- I really LIKE F-9/11, okay!?!? For WHAT IT SAYS.) Crumb" was SO damned interesting -- such odd and strange people -- plus, if you feel as do I that Robert Crumb borders on genius, well simple "fandom" keeps you glued! But it WASN'T great film-making! The subject of a documentary in itself -- and the angle of attack on that subject -- DOES NOT a good film make! It's important to divorce oneself, when discussing whether a doc film is "great" or not from affinities to the subject itself. They're entirely independent. NOTHING to do with each other.

Hmmmmmmm. Do I agree? Given the fact the movie (ah, that's so much better than calling it a film) is a polemic, an angry and personal argument making no effort to be fair and balanced, it seems to me that a kind or roughness or lack of elegance is part of the art. What tone do we want a scurrilous attack to have? I would say the film's associational, conversational style suggests a work in progress, as if the filmmaker were hustling to get the images recorded and out there because the film is surfing on the news as it were. I'd say that's an example of form consistent with the purpose of the film.

What is great documentary film-making? I recall reading somewhere that a work of art in which the message is one of utter despair for humanity and the impossibility of meaning in an absurd universe, that if that work of art is done with "greatness" it, of course, is self-contradictory since the fact that you can shape the shapeless is itself fraught with positive meaning. So form must fit message (that's one idea, anyway, and you can build a career as a critic on it), and what then IS the proper form for a message that is part fierce indignation, part sympathy to the suffering of the innocent and part cool amusement at the the silliness of the villains. For these villains are presented as vain, flawed and mediocre.

I don't know how this film could have been "better" art without being a different film and a lesser film. I don't have a model in mind. The movie is a series of quick disconnected hits, but as Neil Postman has argued about video as a means of communicating serious, coherent, linear argument: IT CAN'T. We can't hold the images and the argument in our minds. I appreciate the fact Moore's movie is not complete in itself. Its point of view is clear enough, but any viewer would be a very great fool if he did not place Moore's information next to other information from other sources. Its one-sidedness is a virtue; it asks even the partisan how far he is willing to take Moore's arguments; it DEMANDS the involvement of the viewer's qualification of and addition to what's presented. For instance, some critics fault Moore for showing pre-war Iraq as a place of kite-flying children and quiet family life. Well, DUH! I say. His point is that we know all about the mass graves and the rape rooms, but let us not forget that even under the most horrific despots people stand to the side and find a way to live. When we attacked, no matter how precise we tried to be with our own weapons of selective destruction, we killed innocent people whose lives were uneventful and in many ways tolerable. Moore's images are a reminder that this is the balance even the "just war" strikes: This much innocence over here suffers to defeat this much evil over there. Keep that in mind and decide if you are happy with the balance. Only an idiot would conclude that Moore was trying to sum up all of Iraqi society in 45 seconds of film.

Ah, I've wandered away from a consideration of the documentarian's art qua art. I will ask my friend to help me make the key distinction: Wasn't Leni Riefenstahl a better artist, and thus a better propagandist, than Moore? What could possibly be more dishonest that Art with a capital A?

Hmmmmm. What I am apparently saying is that the most graceful thing about this movie is its clumsiness. Hmmmmmm, again.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

He Ain't Heavy, He's Unbearable

I would never lie to you except in the sense of telling you things that aren’t true.

And I would distort. And I would omit. And I would be selective. And I would juxtapose facts in a way that would absolutely lead to inaccurate inferences.

But I would never lie to you. So when I said that I was on vacation I certainly was on vacation in the sense that my older sister and her husband were in my home having their vacation, of which my wife and I were host, facilitator and co-dependent. We were in the vicinity of a vacation, and I think some of it rubbed off, between Muir Woods and the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

But "on vacation"? Well, no.

I would never lie to you.

My sister is an adventure. My sister is my Late Father Lite. I had problems with my father, the principal one being he didn’t like me very much, and I do like my sister and she likes me – or does a reasonable imitation thereof – so I can re-experience or sample or look at the reflection of certain character traits she and my father shared without (well, let’s get down to it) my father actually and inconveniently being there as part of the package. My sister is one of those people with a big personality who meets people well. I mean, she tells people where she is from and asks them were they are from – any people, all people, people standing next to her in line – and she rolls her eyes and exaggerates her accent and plays at being a Southern belle.

Now, how is this like my father and how is this not? It is like him up to a point, and it is everything beyond that point that matters. My father was almost desperate not just to be liked but to be a power in the conversation, to know a little more, to be a little funnier, to suck more of his share of the air from the room. The last ten or 15 years of his life, he was convinced that he had found the cure for arthritis, a method that consisted of steepling your fingers and pushing them together and bouncing lightly on your toes. He would stop strangers in the street – no, he would accost strangers – and insist they go through a workout with him. The rest of the family would walk 20 or 30 feet away and pretend not to be with him, waiting for the victim to escape (some rudely, some shrewdly and some with unbelievable gentleness).

He was something of a loudmouth, a bit of a bully and (note how I have prepared you for the intensity of this modifier) the worst businessman ever to walk the face of the earth. As Shakespeare might have said, “Bankruptcy, thou art Jimmy Robertson.”

My sister is my father in translation, improved for a mass audience. I like my sister. I like my sister's husband, who once defended my wife when a crazy preacher was about to tell her to go to hell. (I'll have to write about that someday.) We all talk about my parents a lot. My mother, whom I resemble emotionally, has gone morosely batty since my father died, and now lives with my younger sister in squalor, which is not a place on the map and therefore does not need to be capitalized.

What a dusty old spider’s web family can be. The web is intradimensional, there but not there. Here we are so sunny and so happy, but turn the world a few degrees and see us hanging on the web, children and parents and all those ancestors wrapped up in their little silk cocoons.

I don’t even believe in the spider, but I believe in the web!

I wouldn’t lie to you.

(That’s 607 words! Another emotional spasm measured twice and cut once and nailed into place. And thus we see another compensation of being a columnist.)

Friday, July 09, 2004

....and threw away the key

When you go looking for a close encounter with your favorite columnist and find instead the words, "Michael Robertson is on vacation, and his column will resume next Wednesday," you think:

1) drugs?

2) disease?

3) mental instability?


I'm just saying don't forget incarceration. Don't foreclose your speculative options. See you Wednesday.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Michael & Me

Peter Moore says he is probably my lurker. He says that the weird URL I am so fascinated with can be explained by the fact Peter checks out this site on the computer at work, which is just his way of sticking it to The Man without actually enjoying himself, a kind of Berkeley thing to do.

But I choose to believe in my lurker, that he is still out there somewhere peering in from the far side, since the existence of my lurker in all his infinite possibility justifies those little spasms of Brownian movement that characterize my mind when it is loose, playful and utterly at random.

I believe in my lurker, though I understand that there are things we believe just because we would rather believe in them such as:

I believe I got a free drink because someone thought I was Michael Moore. Here are the circumstances. Find among them the truth you need, as I did.

My wife and I went to the A's-Giants game last Friday night. I was miserable with a summer cold. But great art and terrible crimes have been done by people with summer colds because if days are long and weather is temperate, what's your problem? Suck it up, people say. And you suck it up. You straggle. You watch everyone else disappear in the distance. You lose contact with the pelaton, but you do not stop moving.

This was my mood, and I dressed to suit it: the baggy jeans with the droopy seat that seems to trail behind me, like a parachute brake; the formless sweat shirt; the commodious tweed jacket that I bought my father some years ago and which I retrieved in what was a rather nasty scene the day after his funeral. (Tweed makes it sound nice. Think horse blanket.)

Of course, I wore a baseball cap, but not a high-crowned one with the Mount Rushmore feel. It was black and rather limp. I am in any circumstances a fine figure of a man, filling the oval, with a strong tendency toward the circumferential. But in this outfit with the sag in the pants and the billow in the sweat shirt and the canopy of tweed -- I looked really thick.

The A's lost. We were in no hurry walking down the Embarcadero to BART. We saw a night heron staring at the Bay Bridge, rather glumly, I thought. My wife suggested we have a drink and avoid the crowd on the BART platform. Claustrophobia is sometimes a psychological manifestation of a physical ailment. I did not want to feel crammed.

First, we tried the Hi-Dive on the Bay. We walked in. It was dim and crowded. There seemed to be many young people, paired and otherwise, thrusting their wants, dreams and pelvises at one another. The music was very loud. I am not interested in listening to young people or to what young people listen to. I suggested we try the lobby bar of the Hyatt Embarcadero, which I knew would be dim and figured would be empty. It was, almost embarrassingly so, with the requisite hustler languidly hustling one of the cocktail waitress.

We found a table well away from the bar with a view of the Ferry Building, which looked.... Attitudes toward landmarks must draw on history, and I did not feel well enough to remember, select among those memories and assemble a comment. I sat. I ordered a Manhattan. I said nothing. My wife said nothing. It's not just nice to be married; sometimes, it's necessary.

Odd thing. My wife's Grasshopper came in what looked like an ice tea glass from the Sunday brunch. It was a disturbingly large drink; it struck one as a parody of one's assumed drinking habits. I sipped at my Manhattan until the level was just low enough for me to daintily pluck out the maraschino cherry by its stem. It required concentration. Time passed. My wife pecked at her Grasshopper. Maybe a little before 11:30 I wandered off to pay the bill, and my wife went to the bathroom.

Perhaps, I shambled. It was late. I told the waitress I wanted to "settle up" -- that's good bar lingo. She patted me on the arm and told me it was on the house. Some pep in my shamble, I went looking for my wife to tell her the news: two free lobby drinks! A handsome savings!

She had an explanation.

"When I saw you coming, I didn't recognize you," she said. "You looked just like Michael Moore."

And I suppose I did -- thick, shabby, vaguely irritable and not fully at ease and certainly possessed of a weird manner of speaking, one originally sort of Hillbilly but tattered by moving about the country so that it might just sound Michiganish to a tired waitress feeling the weight of the night and the shift and the blandishments of a hustler who wouldn't recognize a working class heroine if he saw a thousand of them.

Suddenly finding a little bit of celebrity... well, who of us has not seen the back of Robin Williams head on the escalator at Nordstrom's.

"You really look like Michael Moore," my wife said. "Everything you are wearing is too big, and you look really fat. Plus the wire-rim glasses and the hat. And your hair is sticking out, and you need a haircut."

Well. If a mistake what a heartening mistake, that the message is out there and spreading and someone is ready, weary or not, to buy the messenger a drink.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Feather of Life Gave Him a Hernia (No, That Still Makes Sense)

Sometimes Mick LaSalle will write so nice a sentence and make so reasonable a point, I could just hug his little Italian neck. And then other times....

This morning in the Chron in a front-page tribute to Marlon Brando, Mick writes that Brando:

...had a touch of the feminine about him, an artist's soul he could never completely disguise. That unconcealable soul was perhaps his limitation, but it was also his glory. It was what made Marlon Brando. Maintaining that soul, rather than promoting his art, was ultimately the true mission of this actor's life.

This is pretty much nonsense, isn't it? He's got an artist's soul, a kind of a sissy, frilly thing, and the essence of an artist's soul is refusing to promote art. I think I know what this might mean but.... Oh, who cares. You have 45 minutes to write this kind of thing -- it's journalism. But if this one were already in the can, the way some obits are....

Anyway, writing gauzy nothings is just what the feature end of newspaper writing -- I include reviewing in this category -- is all about. I say to myself: Let it go. Why be a man bitch? There's dumb stuff, and then there's wrong stuff. The actual howler, the oops moment, in LaSalle's homage comes a little earlier. Brando, he says:

...excelled at playing men crucified on the rack of circumstance.

Damn, Ed. We're out of crosses on which to crucify this girly-boy of a stone-soul artist. The bread board is too small and we need the pingpong table.... Of course! The rack!

I love this job.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

One of You is a Murderer II: Mistah Blog, He Dead

Well, of course, he's dead. You didn't need to be Jessica Fletcher, much less Columbo, to figure out you don't write in that kind of overbearing mannered Forties pulp style and expect to be allowed to live. And what a death, a really really mannered death.

(A kitchen scene. Uniformed officers bustle in background. Tall figure in Burbury and tweed hat works at lighting his pipe. The Yard is on the case.)

"He was sauteed to death," the superintendent explains to no one in particular, as the corpse is removed au jus.

"Whut kind 'o bloke wud do that?" asks the constable, who is upstage checking to see if any condiments are missing.

"A very rum one, indeed," the superintendent answers, "for after the murderer was done with the sauteeing, he deglazed the pan!"

"Lucky only four people were reading his blog, the revelations of which have brung this on" the constable says. "That narrows it down. Three men who could have done it -- done the first crime he talked about and now this one to cover it up. And, of couse, his wife, who had probably been looking for an opportunity to prang him for many a year."

And at this point the superintendent pauses, knocking the ashes out of his pipe on the constable's forehead. "Ah, my dear Witless," the superintendent says."There is a fifth reader out there, though he's a lurker, dropping in for an occasional read but never posting a comment or revealing his name. Oh, our work's cut out for us, it is, finding out who this lurker is!"

And that's how all this mess got started, when my site meter revealed to me that I have a mystery reader. So I am back to thinking about audience, and how it shapes what I write. But the effect of a single mystery reader, I admit, is about as far from the state of mind of a newspaper columnist as one can get. The newspaper columnist is a wholesaler, dealing with a mass anonymous audience, though it's possible that focus groups and the publisher's fever dreams have resulted in the columnist being presented with some sort of uberarchetype, with a gender and age and perhaps a livelihood. (Back in the my Chronicle days the Executive Editor used to say that as we wrote we must always think about -- which is not quite the same as telling us to write for -- "the little old lady in Colma.")

Columnists write first and foremost for the great silent hydra, its myriad of tiny faces quivering on stalks all a blur. Well, not everything is a blur. Popular columnists have their little posses -- nervous phone callers, cake bakers, senders of perfumed notes written in a spidery hand and, of course, now the emailers who may not be typical but are certainly intense. I'm writing as if all these respondents are fans. You always have your nuts who write at such hot length, I am told -- their names can become familiar, too. (Though why do they keep reading what they hate? I've listened to Rush Limbaugh for six minutes total in all the years he's been on the air.)

But why would a newspaper columnist spend one minute thinking about a single anonymous reader? The newspaper columnist assumes a universe of lurkers -- that's how I'll put it.

Same thing for a successful blog with many readers. Not the same thing for me because thinking of this reader whom I do not know, I realize that if my readers are not quite the wind beneath my wings, they are the mint underneath my pillow; that is, I'd rather have readers than not and do try to please them if I can figure out how.

Pabst misses Prince Valiant and knows his comics. (Note to self: Write about the Chron dropping Zippy the Pinhead.) Moore cooks. (Feed the beast. Ah, "deglazing" mentioned not 200 words ago. Check: Beast fed.) Swain is a university professor. (Time to write that column in which I explain that tenure is not equivalent to Dead Men Teaching.) Wife is wife. (Wife is my sunshine, my only sunshine. She makes me happy when skies are grey. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away.)

But now I have a lurker. Who knows what a lurker wants? But if the lurker continues to lurk, then lurker must like the thing he ... lurks. (Can "lurk" take an object?)

Well, this is a dead end. I can't think of how my writing about my lurker relates to the problems of an actual columnist. My method in this madness has been to throw myself into a vortex of imagination -- i.e, trying to write a post -- confident that the process will produce an idea that will relate to my research topic. Back to a variation on an old joke: If you shovel the shit, son, there's a pony in there somewhere. But this time ... Wait! Wait! Wait!

I talked earlier about how columnists respond to phone calls, notes and emails, each of those probably greater in number than the preceding by at least a factor of ten. That's new. Back in the day, columnists had to have had fewer responses from readers. Calling is a greater emotional challenge to the reader who wants to respond than writing a letter is. Writing is a greater physical challenge. Emailing is easiest of all, the ease making it all more likely that the email be ill-considered, either in praise or blame. So now columnists have fewer anonymous lurkers and more participants. Like it or not, they know more about more of their readers. Here are my questions, one practical and one philosophical: 1) How do you handle your emails, that task necessarily taking up time and changing the shape of your job? 2) Does this increase in feedback from readers change what you write?

I've done it, I've done it. Please don't kill me. With each day come new discoveries, and who's to say which of them might someday shake the world?

(And as for you, lurker, staring in through our window, smirking, for all we know defiling yourself as you read: Crawl back in your hole. -- Eds.)

Dear Readers: One of You is a Murderer

One of you has taken human life, brutally and, I must say, efficiently. If the facts were known you would be prosecuted with the full force of the law. I will not say if that prosecution and inevitable conviction (for the evidence I have in my possession is conclusive) would result in the death penalty or merely in life imprisonment without the remotest chance of parole. That would come too near identifying the murderer because it might suggest where the crime took place. I reserve that information for myself -- and the murderer. It is my aim to let the murderer know that I know, but to leave others wondering but yearning to know.

You think I am bluffing, blindly casting about? Know what I know. I will suggest a time, the summer of 1993. I will suggest a blunt instrument, heavy and slick with blood. I will suggest an initial, K.

Remember K? You remember K.

Now, you know that I know. And what are you to do? I have observed a certain coldness toward me in recent social situations. I find that off-putting. I suggest renewed warmth -- though not so great a warmth that others who read this might notice and wonder. It is now a very fine line you must walk, isn't it, satisfying me while not betraying yourself to others. As the merriment dances in my eyes, you do not want to see fear and doubt in the eyes of others.

Now, you see why I have chosen this way of informing you of what I know and what I require so that I keep that knowledge to myself. Certain documents have been hidden -- hidden in plain sight! I tease you with this hint! -- that will be revealed if something should happen to me.

When I next see you I expect a smile.