Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Unter Der Ubercolumn

A female friend writes, "But what about your wife's next husband? Your last column was all about her picking a future mate for you, but it's far more likely you'll die before she will. Don't you have a preference concerning the next man in her bed and the next signature on your joint checking account?"

Well, when it came time for my wife to pick a possible successor to herself, she checked out her friends and quickly found several top candidates. But when I go through a similar exercise, I have to say the guys I know are pretty lame as basic human beings, much less as prospective mates for my grieving wife, and she will be grieving if one of these guys is the best I can do ....

Lies. Lies. Lies. Utter mechanical bullshit. Female friend made up. Crappy friends if not quite made up, their crappiness exaggerated. Three months into playing at being a columnist I am all at once in touch with my inner hack. That is to say, feeling an obligation to do a column today and having no idea in mind about which I care a great deal -- and that I can write about off the top of my head, without research -- I have pulled a cookie cutter out of the drawer, the Follow Up Column.

My wife's next husband: It's an obvious topic. It's an easy topic. But it is a topic that I had never thought about until my brain went "click," and when I started to think about it, I realized very quickly that my conclusions were none of your business. I do have some. They are not for you. There's public personal, which is honest as far as it goes, and there is personal personal (which, ironically, may not be all that honest) but which is private.

Come back next year. If I'm dead, ask my wife if I said anything provocative near the end.

The point is that I could easily have written a by-the-numbers column on this topic having nothing to do with how I really feel but connecting with the Metanarrative of the Newspaper Column. I don't fully understand what metanarrative is supposed to mean. It is one of those terms, like deconstruction, that is so useful when defined idiosyncratically that, well, why should I bog myself down in the subtleties of its meaning, historicized and ramified? Why do the work, that is, until I start writing my academic scholarship and, in the words of Joseph Conrad, "immerse myself in the destructive element."

(Which means? Who knows what it means. I have some vague recollection of Lord Byron saying something like, "I hardly know what I mean myself when I'm being very fine." And scholarly writing is fine, very fine, fine to the point of invisible, tiny and beautiful like the shadow of an atom.)

So: What Metanarrative means to me by Michael Robertson, Age 60.

It's more than zeitgeist. It's the big story behind the smaller stories, the default setting, the big picture, the governing assumption that points us toward framing/limiting/shaping what we see and telling about it from a restricted number of viewpoints. It's the cultural point of view, the blanket on the bed that keeps us warm but traps us in the dark. A mini-metanarrative for columnists is the male turning some genuine emotion into a joke not so much at the expense of the female but as a counterpoint to the female's disclosure of emotion. My wife is serious about something -- I will fold that genuine emotion into something perfectly flat and navigate that two dimensional world joke by predictable joke. You have seen it all before. You can predict each step before I take it. It is a way of looking at things that is not believed so much as it is prebelieved. I suppose I'm talking about paradigm or formula. I have an idea metanarrative is slightly more complicated, but it would violate the common sense principle on which this blog is based -- YOU WILL WRITE ABOUT NOTHING THAT TAKES MORE THAN 90 MINUTES OR REQUIRES ANY RESEARCH BECAUSE THAT WOULD CERTAINLY TAKE MORE THAN 90 MINUTES--to tease out its undoubtedly multi-faceted meaning.

The deeper truth is that if this whole Column*Which enterprise bogs down and I fail at writing "smart" about column writing, if I can figure out the metanarrative (or the paradigm or the formula) I can bang out one hell of a how-to book on column writing. I can suck the soul out of any truly creative writer just as if I were a vampire, and make that writer pay me for the privilege.

I wouldn't be sucking anybody's blood. I would simply be telling writers how to slash their own wrists and drain it out themselves. It's called the lowest common denominator, and it's parked in your driveway, hanging in your closet and hanging on your lips every time you open your mouth. And I mean me. We don't even hear ourselves. We don't have to. It's all preheard. It's all preheard.

Where was I?

....so I said to my wife, I wasn't jealous of her next husband, not at our age, until the appearance of all these "chemical improvements" for guys our age. I mean, how can I enjoy being dead if I keep imagining her on a one-woman tour of Viagra Nation.

It's not crap. It's metanarrative:

Thesis. Antithesis. Paralysis.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Ronald Reagan Jr. Needs a Stepfather

Those of you who set your sundials and plant your crops according to the appearance of my blog, carefully inspecting each post for coded messages, will recall last month when I wrote about my visit to a dying friend.

Well, she died. The memorial was today. It was beautiful with many tributes from friends and family. They don't make faces like they used to: Mine kept leaking.

But the most powerful tribute from my point of view -- meaningful to me, meaningless to you unless you have been with the same partner for so long people are beginning to wonder if you lack imagination -- was made by my wife after the memorial.

"She was number two on the list," my wife said.

"Huh?" I said. I'm good at conversation. I know how to draw people out.

And then my wife recalled to mind that time in the mid-90s when she thought she was going to die. She had the symptoms of serious heart disease. The initial diagnosis was bleak. But then Kaiser did a heart catherization, which revealed veins as capacious as the salt caverns under Detroit. It was stress that caused her physical grief-- crazy bosses inflicting their insanity, the power to cause pain become a weapon that had a life of its own.

After she was "reprieved" we talked of many things. And one of the things she surprised me with was the fact that she had chosen who my next wife would be from among our unmarried and unattached acquaintances. My wife is nothing if not methodical. She had prepared to die. She was and is a listmaker. She had worked through the distribution of her goods:

An ivory bracelet, a gift from my father: to my youngest sister
One pottery cow, from my great grandmother's kitchen: to my niece
One husband, acquired in my youth, original equipment: to ......

I was amused, but I felt a little ... handled. My wife explained her decision-making process. Her criteria for my second wife were Intelligence, General Attractiveness and Kindness. I have misrepresented her criteria. Kindness came first. I was offended. I felt belittled. What about intellectual voracity and sexual ingenuity, the better to love me with, my dear? Kindness is what you worry about when you are putting a puppy or kitten up for adoption. When someone is trying to arrange a blind date for you, at worst they recommend the "sweetness" of the individual proposed. Kindness! Don't go there! Kindness is sexless. Kindness is required of those who bathe lepers. Kindness is not hot. It's not even cold, which has its own carnal challenge. Kindness has no temperature at all.

Once I had finished scoffing at kindness, I wanted to know why this woman or that woman of our acquaintance hadn't made the list -- and that conversation was wicked fun, since my wife avoided that most decisive of all categories for exclusion, i.e., wouldn't have you on a plate.

I don't know exactly how my wife was going to manage the handoff, whether it would have been the last whisper on her own deathbed or a letter presented to me on the one- or two- or six-month anniversary of her death. And I knew what the deeper meaning was underneath this specific machination. It was her way of saying that if she died I should go on with my life. Really, she said, it wasn't optional: "I think that if you lived by yourself you would be a sad man. Many men live quite happily alone. But not you."

Of course, my wife was right. I suppose I will need to be processed in a spirit of gentle but unrelenting tolerance, if, to use a baseball metaphor, I have to go through the lineup a second time. It's not flattering, but there it is. I need somebody nice, which is the stuff that lives, not dreams, are made of.

Still, the woman my wife had picked out for me was smart and pretty. These weren't trick categories, and this wasn't charity. My wife designate has gotten married since. My wife wasn't handing me out like Christmas turkeys for the poor. But so many years ago, when I first learned of my proposed consignment, my wife picked up that I was not quite agog with flattery at that point in the conversation, so she dropped it.

I did not know that the "approved" list extended to two till today.

(And I ask my wife if she has a current list. I am suddenly curious. My wife frowns: "Nancy Reagan, Courtney Love and Linda Tripp," she says. "Better take good care of me.")

Our friend whose memorial we attended today left someone behind. I think about him. I am sure she had a list somewhere, perhaps not written down but in her heart. If it is not there for him to read, he can guess at it. Perhaps, it has a few names, perhaps many, perhaps a whole gender or even beyond (he said, wiggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx).

But somewhere, written down or in her heart, I am sure she had a list.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Column*Which Allies Itself with Karl Rove and Roger Ailes

Seeking to better insinuate my weblog into the national consciousness, I have contracted with several top Republican strategists for marketing advice. If you go to the bottom of this page where the site meter that records the number of visits to my weblog is located, you will notice a slight factual "repositioning" recommended by my new advisors.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Fabian, Avalon, Rickey Nelson, Too/Bobby Rydell and I Know Darn Well/Shakespeare's in There, Too

If any time during the telling of a story, the storyteller pauses to say, "You really had to be there," that is an admission of defeat. The memory of the event is apparently just too big to drag through the door, and even if you, the listener, aren't feeling shortchanged, the storyteller knows that you are.

That is why too much conscience can be a very bad thing in a storyteller unless it's some kind of package deal, and he is also going to change your spark plugs or guide you safely into Mordor. (And if you don't know what an evil storyteller and false guide in one slick package looks like ....)

So even though I have a suspicion I am not going to be able to bring this off .... Never mind never mind. Just talking to myself.


My friend Jefferson celebrated a birthday earlier this week. Our mutual friend The Corinthian was host, and the evening began well. Jefferson is a bit of a genius when it comes to talking -- he is a storyteller -- and he was doing what the birthday boy is supposed to do, which is settle down at center stage and accept homage and regale the crowd. It began well, and it was going well. We were drinking rare Belgian beer rolled on the thighs of monks -- or something -- and the talk was quite cosmopolitan, with a good deal of name, place and thing dropping.

Among us was a comparative stranger, a friend of The Corinthian with whom he worked on the Alaska pipeline in the 70s, and who stayed north and became a multimillionaire. The friend didn't broadcast this. I managed to suss it out on deep background, but I'm a journalist. I'm good. Put me on those Swift Boat Republicans, and soon enough we'll know more than we want about their blackouts, night sweats and serial impotence.

The Corinthian's friend was not there to self-aggrandize, but it did come out about his racing cars, his racing motorcycles, his planes, his wilderness adventures and misadventures and his showing up on the front page of the New York Times.

The focus of the party was wavering. Jefferson was talking about that summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college spent working at Lake Placid in New York state as a wine steward.

The Corinthian's friend interrupted: "I was at Lake Placid. For six months. When I was practicing the luge." Of course, we sophisticates know Lake Placid has been a center of crazy downhill sliding sports for years, so, of course, if you have the time and the money....

We groaned with laughter. The Corinthian's friend winced before he made the comment, but he knew a good laugh would have been wasted otherwise, and there aren't that many good laughs around. They are not the low-hanging fruit, and this joke had been ripening all evening.

Then we left the eating part of the evening for the poetry part. That was the plan all along, that we should adjourn to the living room and read and recite poetry. It is a thing the group at the party had done before, and Jefferson is just back from a month at Esalen where, with soul soaring at the setting of the sun (and clothes dropping at the hotting of the tub), he read much poetry, reaffirming in his memory so many of the poems he has loved over the years.

I was curious. I wanted him to recite, since he's quite brilliant at it, but I was curious about how it would go because the evening was just a little off kilter, somehow a little more competitive, a little more edged than I had anticipated. I love it when it gets edged. Punches right through to the energy, you know.

Jefferson was great, never better, and he recited this Shakespearean sonnet.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lover's eyes.

You had to be there. On the page you get this poem quick enough, but it's too easy to imagine it plaintively said by a pleading lover. Jefferson let the poem boom, like a Salvation Army hymn. This is a confident arrogant poem. The poet has stripped to his poetical skivvies and is posing: Here it is and how much of it do you want?

This is more about the skill of the poet than it is about the beauty of the lady. Thou art rubber, I am glue, he is saying. Praise sticketh to me after bouncing off you. (Hmm. Your better poets sometimes resist paraphrase.)

At least that's what the poem meant the way Jefferson did it. Maybe he needed -- or, at least, profited from -- a little competitive edge. Poetry can be a contact sport.

Postscript: My wife and I had to leave early, and the party went on. I sent Jefferson an email in which I teased him a little: What did The Corinthian's friend do after we left?

Jefferson replied, "Do you recall Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' ?" It seems, Jefferson said, that later on "our friend recited Jules Verne's 'Around the World in 80 Days' in its entirety from memory."

I think he was joking. I suppose you had to be there.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

I Love the Smell of Chalk Dust in the Morning. It Smells Like "I" Before "E" Except After "C"

I need a signature seasonal column, one that the fans start to anticipate weeks ahead of time and even build a special evening around, maybe inviting an exchange student or an estranged relative so all can bask in the glow of the computer screen as the link is clicked and once again it's:

Magic. Utter wonderful spell-checked magic.

Jon Carroll has his signature Thanksgiving column, which is essentially the same old column with a few names changed each year to show he's "hep" and "with it." Herb Caen had that holiday column -- it was a poem, I think -- that suggested people will read the most awful drivel if it's stuffed with people's names because in Herb's case his faithful readers were twitching with the hope of someday having their names in the column.

Oh, I made Herb Caen's column once -- for misspelling the name of San Francisco's vice mayor in this huge story on the city's power brokers. "That was about the time the drinking got out of control," I like to say. (Pause.) "Herb's, not mine!" (Of course, I felt like crying. He's dead, and now I pile on.)

Anyway anyway, it's a good thing to have a signature seasonal column since it saves wear and tear, and it reminds readers you have been around for a long time. ("Editor's Note: This column first ran in December 1973 during the dark days of the Macy's underwear riots, giving hope to....")

I shouldn't be too disdainful. Twenty years from now, a columnist will be reiterating for more than the 20th time a 9/11 column I'll hang my heart's hat on. But that gifted columnist will stand next to a mound of dreck regurgitated by lesser comrades.

Still, the seasonal contemplation is a legitimate subgenre. So I am going with:

Back to School!

Actually, I'm not going back to school this year. I am on sabbatical, which the top academic brains are granted to free them up to work on world peace or hydrogen fusion or whatever. And while I'm futzing with the Big Ideas and the Deep Truths, I don't have to gotoclass preparelectures gradestories advisestudents attendfacultymeetings for one whole year. Heck, I can even unsew my lips from the dean's butt if I feel like it.

Though that would be rash.

Point is that I miss going back to school. I have always liked going back to school. When you lump together public school and graduate school and the time I've taught -- which is now a longer run of years than the time I spent as a journalist -- good goddess! it's 35 years. I always liked school.

If you were a bookish child, when they unlocked the school building at the end of August or the first of September and let you back in, you felt like George Bush in 1980 when Nader showed up with the coke: Bring it on!

I particularly remember buying the tools, the instruments, the basic equipment. I am not talking about buying clothes. My mother "took the boy shopping'" for school clothes, and she would not buy me cream-colored chinos because they would be too hard to keep clean. She always bought me two pairs of corduroy pants, one medium brown and one chocolate.

Didn't care about the clothes. Loved the zipper notebook, the best of which had slots for your protractor and your compass. Ah, little grasshoppers who read me now seeking guidance about what was and what, perchance, may be, there was a time when education consisted almost entirely of using a compass to draw circles on yellow paper and a protractor to draw 45 degree angles. Today people in India do this for us and do it better than us. But there was a time.

The zipper notebook had to be strong -- well-stitched, cover made of thick cardboard covered with fake leather -- because this was long long long long ago, and the only people who had backpacks were Boy Scouts. When you had homework, you crammed all your books inside your zipper notebook and zipped it up, crammed to bursting. Sooner or later it would burst, and making sure it did not burst too soon trained you in the appreciation of cause and effect when it came to the elasticity of cardboard covered in leatherette. But you did not need to be obsessive about the preservation of your zipper notebook, for you got a new one every year if you were an upwardly aspiring blue-collar child the heads of whose parents were filled with such dreams, such dreams.

New shoes, too. I remember SnapJacks, which were shoes without shoelaces, but neither were they loafers. They were huge Frankenstein shoes, which closed about your foot like a trap around a small animal, using a metal device attached to the tongue of the shoe and to the shoe itself that levered the shoe closed once your tootsie was safe inside. SnapJacks, charcoal trousers and a pink shirt: You were to die for it would seem reasonable to conclude.

I am starting to remember other things now. I remember acne, for instance. Oh, there used to be a lot of acne. In some generations it was sprinkled lightly around, but in other generations it was concentrated on only a few, and very rarely one member of a particular population cohort got all of it.

And so it happened in the reign of Eisenhower Augustus I was that youth.

Acne ebbs and flows in its intensity, and all I prayed for as the first day of school approached was not its disappearance -- my faith was already itself ebbing -- but just please that I hit school that first day in kind of a trough of scarlet pimpleness. I had a special medicine I smeared on the zits that probably wasn't a medicine at all but brown makeup dignified and made acceptable by the name of medicine. On my best days I looked sort of ... Splotched. Flakey. As if I had started to decay.

I remember Kay McDonald. She was -- my word, what was the nomenclature of the times? -- stacked. I'm almost sure.


First day of school, face with the topography of the far side of the moon, not exactly hiding from Kay McDonald, more like orbiting her the way Neptune orbits the sun, way out there out of sight but caught by the gravity, drawn distant invisible.

And nobody else is wearing SnapJacks.

I don't think I am going to make this an annual column after all.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Lurkers Posting? Wow.

There are two, count 'em, two good comments on the "horror movie" post from Sunday. It's unsettling. I was starting to feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (Click through click through click through!) Sorry about that, got to keep pounding pounding pounding on Bush. I actually meant the madness implicit in solitary writing.

Gandhi was a super callused fragile mystic vexed by halitosis.

Is that a pun? It's certainly wordplay of the kind you risk in company only when you have already established your intellectual bona fides or if everyone is as drunk as or, preferably, drunker than you.

And if you choose to risk it whatever the circumstances, you should mumble, while waving your hand and turning your head away. If someone chooses to laugh, laugh back, not with them but at them.

Or if you are a columnist, bury the easy, mindless jape deep deep down well beyond the point at which those with duties and responsibilities have stopped reading.

Thus, in today's Chronicle, in a parenthetical comment at the end of his 11th paragraph, David Kipen refers to:

David Rensin, co-author of Tim Allen's "Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man." (Does this make Rensin the Boswell to Tim Allen's johnson?)

I got it, Mr. Interlocuter said. I don't want it, but I got it.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Then the LORD spoke to Moses saying, 'Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give you.'

A friend explained to me that she checks out right-wing websites to learn about their next terror tactic against John Kerry. (Terrorists blow up people and buildings; Republicans blow up truth and decency, which generally speaking does not keep terrorists from blowing up people and buildings.)

She thinks that if you go into the kingdoms of the right you can spot certain lies and distortions in the bud, and in that way you are not surprised when the untruth or distortion is deployed as a tactical weapon and comes rolling into the mainstream. You are ready to drop your shoulder, slip the punch and pound your hard fist into the soft Republican gut.

I admire her. I cannot emulate her. As e.e. cummings' Big Olaf said, "There is some shit I will not eat," even if learning its taste might help produce an antidote to its poison.

It's weak, I know.

I remember the first time I heard Rush Limbaugh back in August 1990. My wife and I were convoying -- I in the rental truck, she in the minivan behind -- cross country, heading from Beautiful Oakland to Lawrence, Kansas, where I was going to spend nine months as Gannett Professional in Residence at the University of Kansas journalism school. We were somewhere in the middle of Wyoming when I stumbled on Limbaugh, and he was very entertaining for about a minute and a half. He was criticizing Jesse Jackson, and the initial comment was fair. We liberal-to-moderates have never lacked humor. But then he started using all the code words and intonations and verbal winks and nudges that say, "I do not like black people or respect black people or want any black people anywhere near me unless they are ironing my shirts or shining my shoes or fronting my Department of State." I extrapolated. I concluded that so suave a bigot was unlikely to be better on other issues of culture and politics. It was creepy that he was as smooth and self-satisfied as he was, and it was creepy that he must, I assumed, have listeners, and that was a fan base I did not like the idea of traveling among. I switched stations, punched the gas and left Wyoming and Limbaugh's fading signal far behind.


In the last 15 years, I've listened to Rush Limbaugh for another 90 seconds, that many only because fingers cannot move faster than the speed of sound when you are scanning the radio dial. Many sources, online and otherwise, keep me apprised of what he is talking about and how he is talking about it. If you would say to me, "Well, you really don't know what's going on with Limbaugh," I would say, "I'll bet I can guess." And if you would say, "How can you criticize without listening to him regularly?" I would say, "Well, you are a listener. Share with me some of his recent wisdom, and we will have a discussion right here."

Or I might cheat and say, "I tuned in last week. Phaugh! Can't he come up with something new to say about Hillary?" I bet I would be right.

Same thing is true of the Fox talk shows, the Bill O'Reillys and their ilk. (Wonderful word. Some people are truly ilky.) I watched a little bit of O'Reilly during the Clinton impeachment, picked up enough of his philosophy and his method to understand that his was not a thoughtful or useful critique -- which was a relief! Nothing drops your gut into its own basement like being confronted by someone who brings new information you did not know about, who draws logical conclusions from that information that destroy your certainty and then who sits back and invites you to provide better information and better reasoning if you can. That is terrifying and exhilarating, but it's never happened to me with any of the famous right-wing talkers, and until I hear they have improved their game, I will leave their monitoring, and the monitoring of their equivalents in the Web's dark recesses, to others.

You are my hero, Brenda.

It is not that I am entirely superior to the animus of the Limbaughs and O'Reillys. Occasionally, I like to go to a really angry left-wing website where the whole point is the anger, the rhetorical excess, the scream scream scream of RAGE AGAINST THE BUSH. These are like a tuning fork. You like to walk around with that vibration of absolute contempt and loathing singing with perfect pitch in your heart. It's a bonus, isn't it, to discover that someone whose ideas and whose conduct are objectionable is personally so flawed at the depths, so irritating on the surface. Life seldoms descends to caricature, but at the center of George Bush absurdity hath pitched its tent.

It's mid-afternoon, and my blood sugar is low. Here's a little pick-me-up.

Still, I only drop into the most vitriolic sites now and then, preferring Atrios, DailyKos, TPM and even the mild and moderate Kevin Drum for my anti-Bush nourishment. They can dish the dis, but they are strong on the facts, often quite subtle in the analysis and, oh, occasionally they get a little ... testy ... when it comes to our President. And they keep their eye on the ball. One of these guys (I forget which) said that when you are enraged by something the wingnuts do, something so transparently bogus but so insidiously effective, look inside not outside. Don't fume about how susceptible the masses are. Don't conclude Karl Rove and his millions are going to win because they are able to combine the maximum of media opportunity with the maximum of unscrupulous duplicity. No, simply do a little more of what you are already doing, whether it's making get-out-the-vote phone calls for your local state representative or sending $25 checks to ten Congressional candidates in competitive districts. Keep working. In my case that means putting anti-Bush comments in this blog, no matter what the topic.

Don't thank me. From those with great gifts, much is expected.

By the way, I was in Texas during the first half of 1980. I heard that Ralph Nader was the guy who introduced George Bush to freebasing cocaine as a prelude to dragging out a big trunk filled with old clothes and doing the first act of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," playing both the male and female parts. Now, I was only in Texas for the 12 hours it took me to drive across it, and I heard about the Nader-Bush thing about two minutes ago when I said it aloud after making it up. Put that on one side of the scale, sure. But also consider the evidence of your own eyes, the eyes that read the beginning of this paragraph. All I'm asking you to do is connect the dots.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Tommy, I Can Hear You

Quite interesting. I am getting more feedback, more response, more comment, both at the end of my posts and in personal messages, than I have ever gotten.

I feel like I'm wearing a see-through shirt.

Before, I would have asked columnists this question: "How do you react to comments, both positive and negative, from your readers."

But, now I would ask, "How do you react to comments, both positive and negative, from your readers."

In a Good Horror Movie Almost Everybody Dies

Geraldo, with whom I shirt-sleeved the long warm afternoons away during our Chronicle daze, writes:

I would like to see more tooth and claw in your blog .... Tell people what Garrison Keillor is really like, as opposed to the head-scratching sage from rural parts he pretends to be. "He's a MEAN man," you told me when you came back from an interview. Tell about the confused feelings when you see a plumber's butt on a fat man. Write about faculty politics in the context of Kissinger's apercu that they're so vicious because so little is at stake. More red meat, please.

He also tells me not to be so "wistful."

In fact, I am composing anti-Bush columns in my head all the time, but it seems to me that such attacks should be as precisely done as a Shakespearean sonnet. They should be not just a scream of rage but something that honors and advances a noble form, albeit an angry one. Unfortunately, Bush really does reduce me to incoherent gasping, which makes people want to give me a Heimlich, not follow my lead. That stuttering fury arises because I really don't understand people whose view of the world is such that they think he's doing a good job for working people. Why don't they see? I think. It seems to me that the average working person should be able to see. Finding ways to make that particular anti-Bush argument seems worthwhile, but others have already done so. With time and hard work -- maybe I could get dual degrees in psycholinguistics and marcoeconomics in my spare time -- I might be able to add something to existing arguments. Still, it's frustrating to know that existing arguments haven't had great success. I don't really understand why not.

But my agitation is greater because I do understand why so-called Evangelical Christians support Bush. They think God wants them to. They think that voice in their ear as they work through the confusion and contradiction of the "inerrant" Christian Bible is God's voice, not simply their own desperate wish to find simple meaning in a murky pastiche.

I do not want to oversimplify the Evangelical mind and call it dangerous --currently dangerous -- in the same way the segment of Islam that encourages suicide bombing is. But I wonder what the brake is that would keep the Evangelicals from becoming so? The crusades and the Inquisition and a thousand wars of fratricide and genocide were Christian, and if they were imposed by hierarchies, at the top of those hierarchies were people in whose ear God whispered. For all the talk about the independence of Protestants, many of them seem more than willing to follow their own God whisperers.

I have been there and done that. I know what it was like to work day by day to suppress rationality because my preachers would work through their Sunday lesson step by step and idea by idea, boasting of their iron logic, only to say, "Finally, it becomes a matter of faith," meaning, "Of course, it doesn't make sense but what are you gonna do?" Anyone who knows he or she is right and that the premise on which that certainty is based is unfalsifiable -- though you slay me, yet shall I trust Him -- is a dangerous person. This attitude isn't just limited to conservative Protestantism, but conservative Protestantism is what I know. And I know there is nothing I could possibly say to convince anyone who believes George Bush is God's chosen that he is not. All I can do is offend them. And that's certainly worth doing since perhaps it will raise their blood pressure and they will die before election day.

But perhaps it will only raise mine. And that makes me wistful.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Q: Kids, What's the Matter with Kids Today? A: Not a Lot

As my faithful readers know, I recently sent emails promoting this blog -- and gathering data for my latest scholarly scheme -- to several dozen friends, acquaintances and chums, three subsets of humanity from which I expect only the best. Depending on the kindness of strangers is an exit line, not a philosophy of life. Nope, give me friends, acquaintances and chums.

Friends: You fall into friendship the way you fall in love. You care what they think, but you also forgive what they think. If you are crap, they are genuinely upset. If you aren't crap, they are glad. They aren't even surprised.

Acquaintances: Very polite, very polite. Look at that, they say. Bless your heart. Oh, you you you. They can say nothing and make it sound like something. Southerners make good acquaintances, particularly if there are drinks around.

Chums: At the game. Talking about the game. Sitting together thinking about the game. And somewhere out there is always a game. Chums really are about the healing power of silence. In fact, even when you are talking with chums, you are engaged in a kind of highly animated silence. My chums will not mention the blog, not at all. If I mention the blog, they will say, "How about those Giants?" Plague, fire, pigs eat your family, it's all the same: "Those Giants -- how 'bout 'em?" Psychiatrist is good. Chum is good, too -- and you're outdoors in the bright sunshine!

But I sent my self-advertisement and my cry for help to a fourth group, that is, some of my former USF students with whom I try to keep in touch. And so this post turns serious, in a lightning change of tone that has won me praise as the man who puts and keeps on putting the pomo in hoho.

Asking my former students to look at my blog and judge the quality of my thinking makes me anxious. Friends, acquaintances and chums -- they don't make me anxious. They are like fixed stars in the firmament of my life, their location and their magnitude a matter of emotional certainty. Some friendships fade to acquaintance, of course. Some acquaintances flare into friendship under the influence of strong drink and then subside again. But that is a natural progression, and the constellations, the larger pattern, is steady.

If friend, acquaintance or chum says to me, "I never never liked you," I can reply, "But I always liked you," and that settles the matter. The center holds. It is my Ptolemaic sky, and I set the stars. If one suddenly winks out, my instrument of perception was faulty, but I thought the star was there.

But students (to keep the metaphor, like the universe, expanding) what are they? Meteors, some of 'em. They flash, they disappear. Plenty of them are black holes, sitting there every day, absorbing (possibly), giving nothing back (certainly.)

Enough with the metaphors. Some of your students you like very much, and you try to keep in touch with them after they graduate because, as a teacher, you think you have made a difference.

I heard someone say recently that he heard that someone said that Marshall McLuhan said that if you do not understand that education is entertainment, you understand neither entertainment nor education. I agree with that, and I try to teach in a style of mild eccentricity that keeps my students a little off balance. Also, the whole idea of teaching, either the brilliant lecture or the Socratic dialogue, unsettles me so much that I have to be playful just to keep my spirits up, so there's a lot of self-defense going on in my classroom. But at the end of the day, it's about more than survival. A teacher has to confront the question in the shadows in the corner of the room: Did anything change as a result of what I said and did?

So. You have students on whom you think you might have had some effect -- though they are almost invariably the smart, self-motivated students who basically need only that you get out of their way -- with whom you want to maintain contact, figuring you can provide some encouragement and a little guidance while maintaining your own morale. Also, you pick their brains: What could we have done differently to better prepare you? (On that basis it's tax deductible I'm almost certain.)

You develop avuncular feelings for these students, that wonderful word that suggests warmth and depth of feeling but also a fundamental disinterestedness, an ability to separate yourself emotionally so that you can see these kids as they are, not as you wish them to be. You think of yourself as a mentor. You think you were of use.

Now, they are graduated, and these relationships can shade toward friendship, but it is hard to make it friendship because, in the classroom and in the office, it was a relationship based on a power imbalance, all in your favor. You grade them and you recommend them. Once you are tenured in the university, darn little they can do to you except hurt your feelings by failing to nod in agreement with metronomic frequency.

Now things have changed. They don't need you. You are so much older than they are in a society where the village elder has metamorphosed into the village idiot. That is why you feel anxiety about suddenly becoming the needy one -- needy in a new way, since students learn to play on the day-to-day needs of their instuctors as one might on an out-of-tune piano. Here you are asking your students to examine your writing and your own thinking, and how they respond has the power to hurt and unsettle because you assume that certain students do learn from you and do admire you and respect you as a result of what they have learned. That is why, your (I mean my) finger poised over the send button, you (it's me again) ask yourself (ditto) if you (ditto) want to risk your (ditto) assumption about the degree to which you understand what happened and is happening between you and your students. That assumption is your validation. I'm not concerned with whether or not it should be. It just is.

Who would have known I worry more about my teaching than my writing?


Thursday, August 19, 2004

Before We Begin the Weekly Sales Meeting ...

... we'll take a moment to review the success of our recent campaign to increase market share.

Click here.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Coffee Break's Over, Everyone Back on Your Heads

Well, that's a punchline to an old joke, isn't it? My employing it is a way of indicating that the gala, even raucous, celebration of my 50th post is OVAH -- some of you are no longer welcome in my home; some of you will not get your deposit back. It is also an example of an "inside" comment made by a columnist with the full understanding, or at least hope, that only some readers will get it and then will love the columnist all the more for the sheer delicious exclusivity of it.

The relationship between a columnist and his readers is just another example of insider trading. The rest of you: Google and ye shall find. You really shall.

But the gala celebration is over. Post I must and post I will. It has been said of many a writer that he did not enjoy writing but he enjoyed having written. With "column" writing, deadlines make the writing less onerous -- if you write several times a week your work is never of its mother born but always from the womb of that muse mother untimely ripped. You know you have to let it go, and how sweet to see if off screen and out of mind. But so very soon here's another one that needs writing!

It was fun soaking up all the kudos like a free pitcher of daiquiris. Now, back to work.

Yet whynot whynot whynot recycle the email celebrating my 50th that I sent out to various friends and acquaintances and colleagues asking them to do my work for me, i.e., give me more ideas about, and questions to ask about, newspaper column writing.? I'm getting some responses. Cool. Also, that email gave me the opportunity to decide what my greatest hits have been, not the happiest of exercises and one that will keep me writing for another 50 posts.

Here's the email for all you lurkers out there everywhere:

You are invited to take part in the gala celebration of my 50th post taking place at my weblog Column*Which, now in its fourth month of existence.

It takes a community to raise a child. It will take a community to get me promoted to full professor. You have been selected to receive this email because you are the best and the brightest people I know. (I don’t get out much, never have.) I am asking you not just to peruse my blog but to comment – not praising or blaming but helping me in my scholarly enterprise, which is explained so beautifully in the Column*Which introduction ….

I suppose I can explain it here, too. I’m working on a book on newspaper column writing, and my idea is that writing a “column” online – meeting deadlines, thinking about my audience, deciding just how confessional (sex life, drugs, Republican tendencies, etc.) I should be -- will help with my understanding of the process of column writing and will raise questions that I can ask real columnists when I return to that part of my research. So far, my pseudo-column has worked well. I have accumulated insights, some of which I’ve put in my “columns” for your intellectual stimulation and some of which seem so darned insightful that I haven’t put them online where rivals might see and steal. (Vain or merely paranoid? Hmmmm – hard choice between stupid and mentally ill.)

What I need from you is additional insight. Take five minutes and tell me: 1) What is it that characterizes the newspaper columns you like? I’m particularly interested in any ideas you have about what makes newspaper columns unique; or to put it another way, to what extent are they not just personal essays that happen to run in a newspaper; or to put it another way, in what way does being in a newspaper shape them in ways that no other venue would shape them?

2) What questions – other than the merely autobiographical -- would you ask a newspaper columnist you really admired? What has puzzled or intrigued or interested you about newspaper column writing?

3) If you are now or have ever been a columnist, reframe the previous two questions from an I-ish point of view. Everyone who has a good idea that I use gets a footnote -- everybody. I’ll put in a bowl the names of all those who respond in any way (including those of you who will respond with the abuse which for some of you is the only way you can say I love him so much) and pull out a winner, who will get a bottle of something or other, no, better than that – A’s-Red Sox tickets!!

Most of my recent “columns” have been personal because I sensed some avoidance of emotion in my column writing early on; that is, I felt greater comfort writing about column writing rather than actually writing a column, so as far as focus is concerned, this is a work in progress. If you have time to read only one column, here are some suggestions from earlier in the process:

* 8/11 Fool’s Parade, my most recent post on the nature of column writing

* 8/5 She Doth Teach the Torches to Burn Bright, broad-brush humor for Shakespeare lovers with a sexy picture at the end

* 7/30 I Remember Herb Caen, some impressions of Herb Caen that may or may not be rooted in reality

* 7/28 Maria Maria, which is a little a bit about my drinking habits and a little bit about where I work

* 7/25 To Die To Sleep, a rumination on death prompted by my visit to Torri Minton shortly before she died

* 7/23 The Dog with Half a Face is just what it says

* 7/20, 7/18, 7/16 all discuss the Jon Carroll column *

* 7/5 Me and Michael, or how I look like Michael Moore, I think

* 6/28 Who’s on First, What’s in the Barrel…, a discussion of inside jokes in David Kipen and Ray Ratto...

* 6/14 "You stand at the blackboard, daddy .... A cleft in your chin instead of your foot," in which I explore how Adair Lara used her dad in her column and I speculate on why she lost her column

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

50th Column Post! Big Reader Survey! Dining and Dancing Under the Stars!! (Happening Somewhere Not Here How Could It?)

Yes, this is the historic 50th Column*Which post, an event that -- if I may borrow from Mark Twain -- certainly will confound my enemies and surprise my friends. But even as this blog, Tarzanesque, once more throws itself into the void, grabs, swings, holds on and arrives safely at the other side, THERE ARE RUMBLINGS AMONG THE FAITHFUL.

Brother Greg Pabst, whose contrapuntal comments on my posts are but one of the charms of Column*Which, DOESN'T LIKE THE NAME COLUMN*WHICH.

I quote:

And one more thing: I mourn the demise of "Is this a column (which) I see before me?"It's reference to the Macbeth murders describes exactly the ambiguous reluctance the writer so often feels when coming up to bat against the coercive-infinitive verb* "to write.""Just put your fingers on the keys and wait for tiny drops of blood to form on your brow."* just one of the secret rules of psychological grammar. Like the Southern ambiguous future imperative, "I'm fixin' to get ready to go."

Well, you know changing the name was kind of a joke, a travesty of all those companies who once made toilet paper but now make fuel rods for nuclear plants and who need a kind of noncommittal name. The first thing that comes to mind is Standard Oil becoming Esso becoming Exxon. A quick google to find other examples came up with a lovely description of why vague to the point of meaningless is good:

Watch out for pitfalls when creating a trademark. Avoid picking a mark that is too descriptive; a name that describes little of the goods or services being sold will receive stronger legal protection. For example, YAHOO! has virtually no logical relationship to Internet search engines. As such, YAHOO! is a very strong trademark. The strongest names from a legal perspective are those that have no meaning; that is, made-up words, which are called fanciful trademarks. You will recognize that some of the strongest brand names are meaningless except as trademarks--Kodak, Exxon, and Xerox are examples. Because fanciful marks receive strong legal protection, in the long run, they also are good from a marketing perspective.

So from that perspective -- say, if I branch out into nuclear toilet paper -- Column*Which leaves me plenty of wiggle room. So, dear reader, you decide. Is it to be Column*Which or Is This a 'Column' Which I See Before Me?

The whole world is watching.

Meanwhile, here's some of that dancing I was talking about. Just click.

Monday, August 16, 2004

A Tree Falls In Someone Else's Forest

Though few of us are good people, most of us are adequate people. We may do no more than sympathize with distant catastrophes but at least we sympathize -- though having made this modest claim I recall my fundamentalist youth when distant catastrophes were pretty much evidence of sinners who didn't speak English, or at least our kind of English, in the hands of an angry God who almost certainly did: Y'all are damned to Hell.

Of course, the closer the bad news got, the more likely we were to blame weather patterns and lax fire codes -- in my house we feared clear thinking the way that the demented TV lady feared ring around the collar. But if something bad happened a time zone or two away, much less on the other side of the world, we thought folks were getting what they deserved, and we slept better as a result.

That was a long time and a 179-degree change in personal philosophy ago. (You never do get that last degree, do you?) I'm talking about Californians, now. We are adequate people. We sympathize and occasionally donate canned goods and used clothing. We are depressed by hurricanes and things, in part because we know that sooner or later the earth will shake and we will get ours.

This Florida hurricane, though, touched us more closely. My wife's mother lives near Orlando in a little place called Winter Haven, where the Cleveland Indians currently hold spring training, and Hurricane Charley rolled right over her. The good news was that Winter Haven is in the middle of the state and the winds were merely fierce, just a little under murderous. We can all laugh about it now. A wind-blown grapefruit punched out a window. The house has sprung some new leaks, but maybe the insurance will cover it.

My mother-in-law is brave to the point of foolishness or mulish to the point of bravado -- I've known her for 40 years and I haven't quite figured out the math. My wife's sister Esther, who is visiting her mom, couldn't beg or plead her out of sitting in her sun room where she was able to inspect the storm personally. Finally, my sister-in-law lured her into the core of the house by promising to play cards with her. They had no idea what was going on because the electricity was off and my mother-in-law has apparently sold or given away the succession of portable radios sent to her by her various daughters. She is 93. No one bosses Henrietta Landrith, and no one ever will unless there is a God, in which case it's 6-5, you take your pick.

They still don't have electricity and are cooking the contents of my mother-in-law's freezer on her gas grill. Since they aren't likely to get power restored for another four or five days, apparently life is now one big candlelit all-you-can-eat orgy, with the neighbors going from house to house noshing. In the case of my mother-in-law, they are also sloshing around in the bathtub since she is the only one in the neighborhood with natural gas and thus with hot water.

We have another connection with the hurricane. Oh, 25 years ago, my mother-in-law and my late father-in-law gave us a Florida lot. The value has fluctuated wildly, but it has never seemed worth our while to sell it, since it has potential because it's not, well, it wasn't, underwater .... (You see where this is going.) Our lot is in Port Charlotte, where the hurricane came ashore, its winds somewhere around 150 mph. You can't knock a lot down. We think the lot might have had a tree or two.

Last week.

In the last year or so, we have been getting cards, letters and phone calls offering to buy the lot. Apparently, the area has finally started to develop, and it seemed my inlaws investment might at last pay off. But not for a while longer, not now. Common sense tells you that the destruction Port Charlotte and Charlotte County have suffered will probably whack the value of our little investment property. People will be rebuilding for the next few years, and those too traumatized to do that will be putting some fine new lots on the market: All you have to do is remove the debris! BYOB: Bring your own bulldozer.

I really don't mind that an investment we never thought was going to pay off has had that payoff pushed into the indefinite future. I can take this degree of inconvenience. I almost welcome it, filled as I am with sympathy. But actual pain and loss? I'm not that religious anymore, or even that philosophical.

Big Bubba is Watching

A mystery has been solved. I wondered why blogspot was hosting all these many blogs for free. And then I looked at the top of my own weblog today and saw:

* a link for the buying of bronze Rodin sculptures;

* a link for the buying of Romeo and Juliet tickets -- and the link has already gone when I return to my home page to click through, replaced by Earth Juliet shoes and handbags. (And I return to the page and the R&J ad is back. The ads are cycling.)

You recall my little essay on Hooters Romeo and Juliet. My posts are apparently scanned so that appropriate ads can be placed at the top of my blog!

It doesn't bother me, people, if it doesn't bother you.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Obits are the Poetry of Death

From the New York Times: A female chef who died earlier this week had her own NYC restaurant in the early Eighties. "That was when her name became forever associated with Roquefort beignets on apple purée."

And in the Chronicle today, the "Flying Cowboy" died, the cowboy having met his wife years ago, when she had just gotten "a job with United in a capacity then know as stewardess."

At this period in your life, what deed will your name become "forever associated with"?

And some time far in the future will they say of the task by which you earn your bread today, "it was then known as honest work and not just farting around"?

Just feeling gnomic.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Heck, I Don't Even Watch Super Bowl Halftime

This was supposed to have been the first day of Big Column Pride Week, during which I would write again again and again in a boastful way about my various competencies, some of which soar to above average. Thus, I would counterbalance the unheroic catalog in recent posts of phobias, frailties and chronic maladjustments so cynically aimed -- and there can be great cynicism in the simple truth -- at winning your allegiance.

Hail, King. Post forever.

But today the Olympics open, which I don't watch, and the Olympics remind me of other great communal media events that I don't watch. So now I'll just rant, though ranting is a prideful thing if you do it as well as I do. (He shoots, he preens, he scores.)

First thing I loved and that loving feeling lost was the Miss America Pageant. When I was a kid in the Fifties my family watched every agonizing moment of Miss America, rooting for Miss Virginia to make the final ten, which would have been honor enough for us po' Southerners, at the time the group of Americans who had most recently lost a war.

I liked Miss America because of the sex, i.e, the swimsuit competition, that chaste contextualized eroticism filtered through the girls' "talents" -- and never has the ironic use of quotation marks around a single word been so well illustrated. At the time, however, my family was pretty much irony free. Singing operatic arias or reciting patriotic speeches or twirling batons -- these were good things. And we did not think the girls' answers to the final questions that winnowed out the shallow from the glib were either shallow or glib.

Of course of course after I went away to college I learned about the commodification of women and one way or another became exposed to better singing and better acting -- though never, I recall, to better baton twirling. I heard enough smart people say enough smart things so that the 60-second philosophizing of the Miss Americas was transformed into camp. I understood, well before there was a genre to give it a name, that the Miss America Pageant was reality TV, and that its semi-scripted inanity was its charm.

I hate reality TV. I do not enjoy the sourness of the triumph of the few built on the humiliation of the many. I just don't have that much ironic distance, and what I have I reserve for politics. My wife and I haven't watched a Miss America Pageant in 35 years. We would be embarrassed for us, for the girls, for the X chromosome, for the mad energy of the evolutionary process turned to this.

It's been nearly that long since we watched an Academy Awards show, though it's harder for me to explain exactly why. It's not that I don't like Hollywood movies or that I reject the idea that there is such a thing as really good movie acting. Maybe my wife and I got sick of Bob Hope, the signature Oscar host during the Sixties and Seventies, whose politics went Neanderthal during Vietnam. It wasn't that the occasional incoherent speech from an Oscar winner embarrassed me the way the grim relentless smiles of the Miss Americas did. It was really a simple matter of cost/benefit ratio: The Academy Awards program is so damn long. The Hollywood stars weren't that funny or dramatic or touching, given the investment of time required. Unscripted, they were merely banal and occasionally dyslexic, like George Bush, but lacking his power for real mischief. So no deep psychological or philosophical or ideological force drove us away from the Oscars. We just got bored.

But why abandon the Olympics, where even the losers are gallant, and you actually see the performances on which the stumbling speeches of acceptance are based? Running and jumping for prizes today reminds us of our running and jumping in order to survive for tens of thousands of years, and thus has a considerably more distinguished pedigree than baton twirling or tap dancing. At some visceral animal level, we know the trained body matters, and the variety of Olympic sports illustrates through how many patterns physical strength and dexterity can find expression. Critics may claim that the Olympics are spoiled by drugs and commercialism and sob stories, but the events themselves float on top of all the corruptions, even the bizarre ones like synchronized swimming which literally float on, and sometimes lunge from, good true water.

(Synchronized swimming is an odd sport with certain ritualistic implications. When it's over, don't you really feel they should haul the maidens out of the water and sacrifice them to the gods?)

But none of it means anything to me because I remember when the Olympics stood for something. I mean 50 years ago when the Olympics were not simply war by other means between us and the Soviets but something more. I am talking not about soft symbolism but hard symbolism. If their system made girls and guys who could beat the best girls and guys our system made, then their system was probably making better -- and here's that phrase from back when it meant something -- WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.

I laugh when people cringe and moan about al Qaeda, who on a good day might kill us by the thousands. The Soviets -- I knew this as ten-year-old boys know such things -- were capable of killing all of us, every one of us. Al Qaeda compared to that? -- a slap on the face compared to a knife to the throat.

The Olympics were the bomb, baby, back in '56 or '60. This attitude was not rational or useful, but it was vivid. Mere modern nationalism is nothing. The Olympics are nothing. God, I hated Khrushchev the way I hate George Steinbrenner. That's why I still love baseball and watch it all the time. Something evil this way comes. I'm not totally out of the loop.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Fool's Parade

About every week to ten days, I learn something new -- bang! comes the insight -- through my little ploy of studying column writing by writing a "column." For instance, in my last six posts I have admitted to game addiction, incompetence at home repair, fear of the very children I teach and a tendency toward drinking rather more than I should.

It's one thing to talk about variety in subject matter, but shouldn't there also be variety in tone? I may be overdoing the notion that fallibility is one of the more attractive attributes -- and thus a useful rhetorical strategy -- for the personal columnist. Still, it seems to me that, as in the case of the buffoon dads in so many sitcoms of the near and distant past, a kind of modesty puts readers at ease. I can think of all sorts of qualifications to this Corollary for Columnists, to wit:

* Midwestern and small-town columnists might be more self-deprecating than big-city columnists, since there's a difference in social style. Garrison Keillor exemplifies this idea, and the understanding of this idea, in his Lake Woebegon monologues on public radio.

* There should be a nice little difference between male and female columnists in the way the game of incompetence is played. You'd think men, since they are men, would have a harder time admitting their weakness. You'd think women, encouraged as they are either to "accept" their inferiority or to disguise their equality or even superiority, might play at incompetence more often. But maybe the power imbalance in American society makes a man who will admit his fallibility -- his vulnerability -- more attractive to readers. And maybe the opposite is true for women.

* If fallibility works for personal columnists, it certainly would not work for pundits and commentators. The Iraq war and its aftermath illustrate this point. My impression is that columnists who were utterly wrong about WMD etc. etc. etc. etc. either ignore their error, recast their error or deny there ever was an error, as have so many of our Maximum Leaders. Fallibility and modesty don't float the boat when it comes to punditry.

* Gentle ironists (I try but I am not what I want to be, and ain't that just the way it is) more than fierce satirists (see all the errors of the world in general; I now point to a better way) should be into cataloging their own weaknesses. This approach might help us find the balance point in the work of Dave Barry.

Are any of these hypotheses true? What I like about this insight is that it is testable. You can probably get a group of student research assistants to more or less agree on what you mean when you say a columnist is displaying modesty, ignorance or fallibility and do some "content analysis" of, say, six months worth of columns by a particular columnist. You can (I may) produce a scholarly artifact. And certainly this a question I can ask columnists when I interview them. I would think this is an issue concerning which they would likely have an opinion.

Meanwhile, it's interesting to see how our leading local columnist handles the problem. Jon Carroll is willing to admit his imperfections -- my impression; I haven't coded six months worth of his columns -- but he is also good at broadcasting his various excellences.

For example, in today's column he name drops like crazy. The general tone is self-deprecating: Decades ago, Carroll was the West Coast correspondent for the Village Voice. He had little to do, so occasionally he went back East to fill in for vacationing editors. In New York City, he writes, "I was a California boy. I was agog." At a party, "I seem to remember Philip Roth punching out Saul Bellow, although I may have been drunk at the time."

That's the thrust of the piece. Carroll is a bit of naif. He is thrust among well-known journalists and writers -- the 17 names of which he perforce must mention -- and those names still have weight. This has a kind of balance. He is not saying he was at the center of things making and shaking, but -- for a moment -- he was at the center of things watching.

He concludes:

I do have an actual point to make: If you get a chance to be where stuff seems to be happening, take it. Someone told me last night that Berlin is the new Paris; go to Berlin. Go to Shanghai. Collect a whole lot of memories -- you can't sell them on EBay, but they do sustain you through the harder times to come.

For any of us, pretty good advice. For the columnists or would-be columnists among us, this is Tab A goes in Slot B, item Number One in the basic instructions.

I'm Baaaack!

Sensitive readers -- and all my readers are sensitive if not absolutely tearful -- may have noticed a certain decrease in zeal and focus in my most recent post, not to mention a gap of four long days (long for you, yearning to pierce the riotous mysteries of my all-too-human heart) between posts.

Well, it was the computer game. Out of curiosity, I downloaded a computer game in which the challenge is flying a little bitty plane through a maze while shooting robots, who shoot back dammit! For a week my blog time was eaten away by the narcotizing repetitions of a pursuit that -- unlike anagrams and crossword puzzles -- almost certainly does nothing to ward off the Alzheimers. Perhaps some dexterity was encouraged. But why at my age do I need to hone my eye-finger coordination?

A happy retirement dealing three-card monte in one of the streets adjacent to Times Square?

I don't think so.

But the greater waste that informs this activity is the mild depression that accompanies the moment when you finally stop doing it. It's not just the consumption of precious time. I lavish my attention on trifles, but when those trifles consist of words forming sentences forming stories -- or even some transient political opinion -- that time spent never seems wasted even when, objectively, it is.

It makes me think of a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre I read so very long ago the point of which is the absurdity of the universe. A man makes a choice so that the death of a comrade will be avoided, and that choice insures the death of that comrade in circumstances of quite arbitrary irony. That's not why I remember the story, since the plot I have just described is the mother of all cliches -- which means, of course, that it haunts us like a nightmare and thus is freshly terrible every time.

That is not why I remember the story. Too many other treatments rattle around in my memory. What I recall from Sartre's version is a line that becomes a refrain. The central character keeps saying, "I wanted to understand. I wanted to understand."

Me, too. Almost any kind of reading stumbles in that direction, and though I may feel anxious and frustrated after reading some right wing diatribe on the Net (which I seldom do anymore because I'm not a masochist) I don't feel emptied by the experience. That is how I feel after blowing up robots. What was that? I think, of an activity that's like a kind of amnesia.

This is not a trivial concern. When I started teaching again in the early Nineties, I spent my first summer preparing for class. I have a file cabinet full of the notes I did that year, and they are still good notes, if a little dated. By my second summer -- classes had gone well; the notes were still fresh -- I made the mistake of buying a half-price computer game at Radio Shack. It was called Railroad Tycoon, and it had various scenarios in which you brought rail service to regions, countries or continents. Many were the obstacles. Many were the bankrupticies. For weeks shading into months I played the game for eight hours a day, hiding from my wife the amount of time I was investing, as a alcoholic hides his drinking. I quit playing it only when I covered Europe with high-speed passenger trains, and my profits ran into the billions, exhausting the ability of the game to measure them.

At which point I thought, "What was that?"

This grey sea, this interruption, this hiatus came at a cost. I was supposed to be doing scholarship so that I could earn tenure at the great metropolitan university at which I teach. (You would recognize the name if I mentioned it. Indeed, I believe I already have at the top of this page!)

In the end I had to ask the dean to postpone the date at which I presented myself for tenure because for one delirious summer I retreated not into the world of my own imagination -- and any decent scholarship is an act of imagination -- but into someone else's rigid universe of mechanical determinism where I learned a little about analytic thinking, perhaps, but really nothing that escaped the confines of the game. There's existentialism and then there's existentialism, you know.

If all this complaining and excusing seems to be a bit of a bonfire made of one matchstick, just let me say it is better to build a single sentence than it is to blow up a thousand robots ....

As it happens, I am not yet proficient enough to blow up a thousand robots.

I suddenly feel like a hermit in the desert, praying for the burning -- not of the sun or the sand either -- dear God to pass pass please pass.

And here is the terrible game itself.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Gaze Deep into My Bowels

Today I knocked holes in the wall of the garage with a hammer. It was a money-saving moment in a life-saving epoch; that is, we are slowly making the house stronger -- stiffer? I think that's the magic word -- so that when the next big quake goes rhumba rhumba rhumba we will have increased the probability that we will have something left amid the rubble.

Tie-downs, which are L-shaped pieces of metal connecting the foundation and the wooden frame of the house, are the expense du jour. If I knock the holes in the wall at the correct places and clear out working space next to the holes and help Sergio (who is the neighbor's construction au pair and isn't that a job George Bush can be proud of?), we will save money.

I hated knocking holes in the wall. My old daddy taught me many things, mostly through his bad example, but he did not teach me to look inside things, either cars, walls or the dirt in the backyard. My father did not fix, repair or plant. He worked at what he wanted to work at, though if you spend a great deal of time at something and lose money, I think we are describing a hobby, not work. He was a teenager during the Depression, and my impression of the Depression is that every man was a handy man because most people didn't have enough money to hire things done -- and if they did, it was the handy man who earned that money and thus the people survived.

Yet if my dad was handy, he disguised it brilliantly, and, since I was going to be a college boy, I took physics and trigonometry, not shop or auto repair. Our house was crumbling around us, and I think we were almost proud of it. In America you are either moving up or moving down, and from one point of view (I thought) a ramshackle home showed we were focused on better things, like Warren Buffet with a hole in his shoe.

As a result, I don't know how things work, and I have little faith in my ability to learn through exploratory surgery. Without trying, I have already knocked holes in our water pipes twice, once when trying to hang something on the basement wall, once during my first tentative attempt at gardening. (I have many weeds in my garden. I am proud of my weeds because who knew I could grow anything?)

My wife is either confident or cruel. You want me to knock what in what? I say. My wife gives me encouragement and she gives me advice, and the advice isn't very encouraging: Wear goggles so things don't jump up and put your eye out. Wear a face mask because asbestos is everywhere everywhere. Wear shoes with rubber soles in case you cut into the electrical wiring. That, by the way, is the reason I am knocking holes rather than sawing: less danger of death by electrocution if/when I smash into things.

But here I am alive and anxious. I have knocked the holes in the wall without incurring flood, excessive debris or a shower of sparks. I look at the holes. Everything seems all right. Look, there's the foundation! But I'm still anxious because I have learned one thing about home repair, and that is because I don't think it's wrong doesn't mean it's right. My wife will point this out to me when she gets home from work.

It's my fault for being a teacher and having the summer off. My father's secret was not that he ever got anywhere but that he was always passing through, needed on the other side of town, the quintessential moving target in white shoes and a short sleeve shirt from J.C. Penney's Mogul Collection.

I'll try it tonight when my wife gets home: Look at the time! Someplace, anyplace, somewhere out there I am reasonably certain I am expected.

Update: My wife came home and said, "You knocked good holes in the wall," so I decided I didn't have an appointment elsewhere. I felt so good, I asked, "What's for dinner?"

"What did you fix?" she said ....

Thursday, August 05, 2004

She Doth Teach the Torches to Burn Bright -- with Headlights Like That!

I think they call it "found art," when you drag a piece of junk out of the dumpster, glue it to the wall and call it "Florence Nightingale's Prolegomena to a Better Metaphysics"

For columnists, an equivalent is English as gibberish, as in the instructions for operating a cheap VCR that have been written by someone with only a glancing knowledge of English.

Another gift from the ashes is English that is an insult to the basic sense and beauty of the language, of the kind you find in certain press releases and advertisements where the problem is not that the writer is taking risks in the strange lands of languages not his own but has apparently failed to keep his head above water in the vast sea of his own tongue.

Ridiculing this kind of stuff strikes me as a lazy kind of column writing, both lazy and condescending. And not just because the difference between what these writers do to English and what George Bush does to meaning -- a far more worthy topic -- is the difference between a butcher and Jack the Ripper.

But sometimes it is just irresistible.

I present for your inspection a catalog description recommending the purchase of a romantic sculpture of Romeo and Juliet. The sculpture looks like something by a senile Rodin -- the artistry gone, the artist yearning for his lost hormones.

The work is a naked torso of a naked woman with a naked young man standing behind her -- Romeo and Juliet getting serious about getting busy! First observation: Juliet has these enormous breasts, and Juliet, as we recall, was not quite 14 years old.

If Juliet had looked like this, when her parents complain about death having plucked the sweetest flower from the field of life, one of the servants would have added, "And Hooters, methinks, hath a waitress lost."

Also, our new Juliet looks in her early 30s, minimum, while Romeo has this "boy band" mop. Recall all those references to "old Capulet" and to how young Lady Capulet was when she got married? What we have here is not "Romeo and Juliet" but "Romeo and Mrs. Robinson"!

None of this is really my point. It is the text accompanying this ... thing ... that filled me with envy. First the headline:

Place it on the shelf of your living room and let the world know you're a connoisseur of the finest art.

"Shelf of your living room" is about half a bubble off. Dull American or struggling immigrant? Let us continue.

There is much history behind this superbly crafted piece of art. Romeo and Juliet was one of the most influential tragedies ever written by world-renowned playwright William Shakespeare.

Not "admired." Not "soul-stirring." Not even "performed." The play is "influential." It makes people love? It makes people die? I see bumper stickers: What Would Romeo and Juliet Do?!?

And, now, for the first time, you can own this rendering of the two lovers engaged in a passionate embrace.

Not to be indelicate but what we have here is Romeo playing "supermarket" by squeezing one of the melons. I guess this is an embrace, though you could also call it copping a feel.

Our bronze-plated statue is a must for devotees of Shakespeare's most famous story, enthusiasts of his work, or everyday people who have an interest in finely sculpted art.

Okay. Let us move through this passage methodically. Every devotee would want this on the shelf of his loving room, no doubt about that. But the writer reassures the "Hamlet" crowd and the "Othello" bunch and even those who prefer the comedies that if you squint just the littlest bit, it's Ophelia and Hamlet, or Desdemona and Othello (squint a lot), or Beatrice and Benedict -- or Rosalind and Celia if that diagrams your sentence. Yet here's something for "everyday people" who just happen to like "finely sculpted art" because...

It can also make a sophisticated gift for any wild-eyed couple, whether long-time married or newly consummated. The powerful imagery of this bronze will surely evoke sensuous feelings in even the most inhibited individuals.

Wild-eyed? I want it now. Inhibited? See wild-eyed; you'll want it soon enough. Newly consummated????? Ah, this is where I fall in love with this description, and not only because the idea of "newly consummated couple" is either great poetry or great nonsense. No, what I love is the fact that "newly consummated" is NOT hyphenated, which is exactly right since the AP StyleBook says you do not hyphenate adverbs modifying adjectives. And I guess that makes it nonsense. No one cares if poetry follows the AP StyleBook.

Meanwhile, back in the catalog:

... adorn your living room with this noble statuette and let it move you to new heights of affection for your mate.

Measures: 16" x 13" x 21". Weight: 9.6 lbs.

$99.95 Additional shipping charge $9.95

No mention of handling charges, and for once this is a item where you can actually see the handling!

Now, for those who have waited so patiently:

What man art thou that thus bescreen'd in night So stumblest on my counsel?

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

"This Time When I Say Dig Up Some Suspects, I MEAN DIG!" Ridge said

Washington, D.C. (AP) Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge announced early this morning that troops, police and 300 hastily deputized Boy Scouts had surrounded a Washington D.C. landmark after documents discovered in a raid on a Richmond, Virginia, bookstore suggested an imminent attack on President Bush.

"A trove of letters seized at the Old Confederacy Memorabilia Bookshop gives strong evidence that a conspiracy against our Maximum Leader has been in the works for nearly 150 years," Ridge said. "FBI handwriting experts are going through the documents even as we speak. They are written in a spidery hand obviously designed to disguise their contents, and not every detail is clear at the moment. But notes were made by a Mr. 'J. Wilts Boot' noting curtain times and location of concession stands at D.C.'s Ford Theatre. I think if Mr. Boot persists in his plan, he will be in for a nasty surprise."

Boot and co-conspirators in Arab garb

Arabs, homosexuals may run, can't hide, says Scout sharpshooter

Had Ridge not acted swiftly was this the plan?

Monday, August 02, 2004

Wait a Minute. If I Understand You Correctly, You Should Be Paying Me to Read This.

A good question for any columnist -- from those who are doing the most "objective" analysis of politics and economics to those who share with us (in installments) the pageant of their bleeding hearts -- would be:

Isn't your column writing a kind of therapy for you? Aren't you talking your way toward mental health even when you are talking about monetarist theory?

You can't type lying down, but in a way the creation of a column is like a session with a non-directive therapist. You talk to fill the silence even when you really don't have anything that urgently needs saying. I am interested in exploring this aspect of column writing, though I can't think of a way of approaching it -- of phrasing the question -- that's likely to get a satisfactory response from your average columnist. To describe your work as therapy when it is supposed to be a purposeful act of superb self control would be seen as a confession of weakness, of a lack of professionalism, wouldn't it?

I haven't asked anyone the question. It's rather ... California. But it's just occurred to me because of my intellectual stirring around -- scratching, sipping coffee, adjusting myself -- in preparation for writing this particular "column."

What shall I write about today?

What shall I write about today?

I notice something: There are items high on my list of possible topics that I keep reaching around, to what's behind them as it were. We have a can in our cupboard like that. It is a can of Boston Brown Bread that we bought in Raleigh, North Carolina, and it's moved with us for the last 30 years because we have never ever ever felt like having canned Boston Brown Bread but you never know. There it is. I don't feel like canned Boston Brown Bread today. Again. Ever.

One of the topics I have not gotten around to writing about is my life as a teacher. In terms of duration, that's what I am. I have worked full-time for more than 34 years -- with nine months subtracted for that period in 1975-1976 when I was out of work, on the dole, I'm all right, Jack.

I reached the tipping point a couple of years ago, and now the numbers are clear: 16 years as a journalist and 18 as a college teacher. If my life were a fertilizer, it would be labeled 5-16-13.(We will also ignore my six months as an advertising copywriter since I was doing some freelancing.)

I am a teacher, but you'd hardly know it, not from this "column." I love to talk about my days as a journalist, particularly the time spent in bars! I apparently enjoy emphasizing what some might call the bohemian -- and others the adolescent -- aspects of journalism.

But I veer away from talking about all these years I have spent teaching. I will now force myself to write about this aspect of my life since I apparently don't want to.

Let the healing begin.

I can think of one reason why I might not want to. I hold my current job -- tenured, lovely, cushy -- not only because I worked as journalist for 16 years but also because I have a Ph.D. No Ph.D., no tenure-track job even if I worked as a journalist for 116 years.

Why do I have a Ph.D.? Why did I spend six years, four of them as a full-time student, living the life of the book hermit, immersed in arcana, beset by bibliography, encrusted by a dusty lust for all things dead, gone, buried and best forgot. In short, why did I become a graduate student of English literature?

Start with inclination shaped by circumstance. I come from a working class background, and the only people I knew with college degrees were my teachers. Assumptions were made. I would either be a teacher or an engineer -- that, I've since learned, is another job that first-in-my-family-to-go-to-college kids fall into -- and I liked books better than math. (Though I was very very good at math, he said defensively.)

Thus, I was originally an English major working toward a teaching certificate. As part of that program, we were required to observe in public schools. I did a single class observation. The students by any measure of human civility were lovely little animals. They were loud and enthusiastic. The teacher, who couldn't have been more than 25, bounced from the chalkboard to the back of the room, moving the students through the reading of a story for which they would write "blurps," as she repeatedly told them. She held up a book. On the back was someone's high praise.

"It's a blurp!" she said.

That I knew better didn't matter. What I saw in the classroom was chaos, manageable because this woman was managing it. It terrified me. I could not imagine acquiring the skills -- and I knew there were skills involved though I could not quite make out what they were -- that would enable me to curb and direct the energy in a classroom.

I dropped out of the teaching program the same week. I applied for graduate school for a single reason: I was afraid -- and not of the draft and going to Vietnam. I had been told that getting a doctorate would take a very long time, and it was also clear from my own undergraduate experience that the average college teacher could survive without a single iota of pedagogical skills beyond knowing what "iota" meant.

I'm feeling a breakthrough here. I think I need a hug. Is my 50 minutes up?