Saturday, October 30, 2004

Naked Brunch

A friend asks why in my preceding post I did not provide a click-through to an online photograph from the movie Titanic of Ms. Kate Winslet famously nude.

The sentence in question, which he thought needed illustration, said, "Now, old freethinker that I am, I just think oh that Kate Winslet is sweet."

I am beloved for creating boldfaced links that, if clicked, illuminate the subject under discussion -- or just give you a really good laugh hahahahaha. (May I suggest this post to illustrate the fun I have with links on which to click.)

Truth is when I praised Ms. Winslet, I was praising her Titanic spunk and beauty, her general incandescent sassiness, not the moment in that movie or in any other movie in which she dropped her laundry. Didn't occur to me. Have no intention of doing it now. For those of you who want to see pictures of Ms. Winslet famously nude, I say to you what I would say to a student interested in the restrictive appositive: "Look it up yourself. You will remember it longer."

Of course, since you have no interest in the restrictive appositive -- not in the context of a discussion of Ms. Winslet famously nude -- I will provide a clickthrough. All aboard for the restrictive appositive.

Now for the quiz. Which is it? Take your time.

I like Kate Winslet, who drops her laundry.

I like Kate Winslet who drops her laundry.

Another friend -- a wife and a friend, actually, and don't that make me a happy man? -- had a question about my putting George Bush in hell in the very same post.

Q: Will Nader be there, too?

Of course. He will be placed for all eternity in a drab outer office with a bored receptionist who will periodically turn to him and say, "Ms. Winslet will see you now."

Think of the constant anxiety! The source of that anxiety? Well, who knows.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Here's Looking Achoo, Kid

I love those scenes in Titanic movies where the swells crowd to the lifeboats, thrusting aside the women and children, sometimes with shawls over their heads as a disguise. I recognized those scenes as Marxist moments before I knew what a Marxist moment was.

When I was a kid, I took refuge in the Great Opiate. I thought, as the movies showed the monied and arrogant floating away safe and dry, "Today they are in hell, being pushed overboard at 10, 2 and 4 into the sea of everlasting fire."

Now, old freethinker that I am, I just think oh that Kate Winslet is sweet.

I concede, having waived the right to counsel, that the previous comment is a kind of intellectual non sequitur if scrutinized from a certain point of view, but I like to think of it as post-modern flair, for as Derrida would have said: "Flair, flare, fleurs de mal and Fleers bubble gum discourse give us disday our daily thoroughbred."

And that same "bred" brings us back to the swells on the boat cutting in line and getting more than their share, for bred they were to the act of taking. In this flu season of rationed vaccine, I am wrestling with the temptation to get more than my share. I am a boy of 60, not subject to chronic respiratory disease though I certainly did get the flu every winter until the combination of crunchable vitamin C and a regular flu shot seemed -- anecdotally, but what is an individual at last except a clump of anecdotes yearning to breathe free? -- to keep me healthier.

(Healthier except that my improved respiratory health coincided with the appearance of chronic back pain. I've written about that. You remember. Thanks for the expressions of concern and the ludicrous traditional family nostrums.)

But enough reminiscing about my greatest hits. Today we talk of flu and whether or not I will try to get a flu shot in this moment of shortage. I am certainly on the fringe of that group George Bernard Shaw lampooned as the "deserving poor" -- in the case of the flu the deserving poor of health.

Whoa, I just coughed, coughed as I typed the preceding sentence. My lungs are feeling tickly, though that may be related to the spray oven cleaner I used on our drip pans last night. I don't think I feel so good, though in that case I shouldn't get a flu shot until I feel better but if I recover from this something-that-is-probably-nothing, I really shouldn't get a flu shot, should I? That's pretty healthy, to be able to overcome a tickling and possibly a coughing and I just put my hand to my forehead but what does that ever show?

What to do? I am reminded of another Shavian comment, that the typical Englishman regards the world as his moral gymnasium. Okay, I am brave and good and I will let myself be crucified on the viral cross of Hong Kong B for the children for the children for the children.

It is all Bush's fault of course, another of his many sins of omission. When he dies and goes to hell -- which he will if there's a hell to go to -- I will certainly be there waiting for him if there's a hell to go to but I think I will be sitting on a warm rock with nothing more than a bad sunburn because you know hell is saving the roasting spit for those who lied large and scattered suffering with a lavish hand while being such a HYPOCRITE.

There I am on my rock sipping a tasty coffee. Past Bushy will sail on the S.S. Plutocrat and there in the distance will be the fireberg ready to rip into the ship's prow and there on board are all the children Bushy will have to shove aside to get to the lifeboat and they are ten-feet tall with claws and teeth and public school educations.

And that makes me think of a poem. (Cue the music)

I sink forever in this lake
Perhaps I did make one mistake

And as he sinks forever I will finish my coffee and get back on my head in the you-know-what and remember how brave I was when I handed my flu jacket to a weeping child (big girl in a shawl -- with a mustache?) and walked back to where the band was playing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

We Google Here, We Google There. We Google You Most Everywhere. Are You in Heaven or in Hell, My Obscure Old Friend....

That friend being me. I sent my recent piece on innate intelligence wasted at a Bible college to a couple of friends who also wasted their intelligence at the very same Bible college but have done damn well in spite. They both wrote back, one adding that he had Googled me.

And found so little.

Though there is a nice picture of me at the USF website, looking beefy and Kissingeresque. (By popular demand, I include that link.)

And I replied to my Googling friend:

Whoa, hate to hear bout your Google search because "As a man liveth, so doth he Google." Anyone looking for me will find a "Red state" preacher boy and, I think, some kind of military historian and of course (without the J.) some computer millionaire.

On the other hand, "The grave's a fine and private place. You Google there and find no trace." So some day I'll get over it.

But here's something beautiful, as my friend pointed out to me. You Google me, you find a Baptist hero who must also have gone to some variation of Whooping Jesus Bible College and came away faithful but no fool.

Abraham Lincoln reluctantly led in the Civil War's fiery trial, said J. Michael Robertson, pastor of Warsaw (Va.) Baptist Church, who quoted correspondence between Lincoln and a Quaker friend (on the topic) Can a President know it's God's will to have a war?
A woman in the audience challenged Robertson. Their dialogue continued after the session, in which Robertson advised his audience to "always know what you don't know." Warning against claiming to know God's will, he advised fellow-pastors, "When you go home, teach the separation of church and state."

By the way, my little headline is a play on the signature phrase from the reactionary novel about the French Revolution, that is:

“They seek him here They seek him there Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell That damn elusive Pimpernel!”

I always think of Bill Clinton, don't you?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Monday, October 25, 2004

Yes, I Am Smart But I Am Not Rich. I Like to Think of It as Leveling the Playing Field

This story has been around for a while: George Bush has an IQ as good as, and possibly better than, John Kerry's.

This does not impress me. Willful ignorance is always more dangerous than mere stupidity. Having been raised by bright people who were also fundamentalist Christians, I learned very slowly that a fundamentalist can be Talmudic, not to say Jesuitical, in defense of any number of premises that are clearly nonsense -- if you start with the idea those ideas must be true if your world is not to self-destruct.

But I did learn that lesson. My friends say it makes me cranky and no fun at all.

That's not why I am writing this little essay. One of the stories about the Bush-Kerry IQ hunt linked to a website that allows you to figure out your IQ from SAT and GRE scores. Since I have never taken an IQ test, I was curious. The idea of IQ is so simple and so appealing: a score that measures the ability to do well on the test that measures it, but which we assume is more than that, like the amount of marbling in a steak, both measureable and just delicious.

It's more complicated than that. I understand IQ correlates with the ability to learn certain things and do certain things that produce tangible results in the real world. I also understand that at best it measures only one ability, and that other concepts, such as emotional IQ, make sense of who does well and who doesn't in the big world of making yourself clear and making yourself persuasive and making yourself so damn irritating every one else just shuts up.

Of course, I understand some people think IQ tests are a kind of tautological intellectual incest, measuring what we have learned through being imbedded in a particular culture, and tell nothing important about our innate ability to learn.

In other words, some people think IQ tests are pernicious, racist crap.

All that conceded, I tell you now that my fingers stumbled one over the other hastening to get to the page that allows you to derive IQ from SAT and GRE scores because Big Daddy knew he put up some big numbers on those particular tests back in the day. Big Daddy is not so evolved that he will decline to bend over and pick up a whomping stick when he stumbles over it.

Big Daddy can imagine a moment when he is being disrespected and that particular whomping stick might... actually make Big Daddy look pretty damn insecure.

If Big Daddy -- if I -- keep writing this little essay this little essay makes me look pretty damn insecure.

As are we all at last.

That I remember my SAT and GRE scores is, I think, typical, not obsessive. (I invite my readers to respond.) What interests me 40 years later is that my scores were perhaps not a useful validation. Knowing I was a certified smart kid, I was not that hard a worker. My actual grades, though very good, were not on the level of what I was able to do on a standardized test. I knew how to beat that game without studying or preparing. Those tests reward the ability to figure out the answer to a multiple choice question based on the way the questions are written. Now that is an odd skill, which does not translate into deciphering the mysteries of my fellow beings. But I have always been very good at outwitting those who write multiple choice questions.

I didn't use my SATs wisely. I went to Whooping Jesus Bible College, which was located in -- and excuse my fall from elegance and indirection -- the very Arsehole of the Universe. (Finally a title for my bildungsroman: The Arsehole at the End of the Universe.) To get into WJBC, you just had to have money and a fine Christian testimony ....

Money was enough, that and a sincere desire to repent your sinful ways or a sincere hope on the part of your parents that you would. I had a roommate who was turned down by long-defunct Parsons College, which -- at the time -- was considered the worst college in the country because it said up front if you had the money they had the space.

My wife did more or less the same thing. She could have gone to the University of Michigan but went to WJBC, instead. And we hated it. And we stayed, which shows how much we feared the larger world our test scores said we should so easily master.

We got together, our shared hatreds our bond. Forty years later we are still together and I wouldn't trade her for Christina Rossetti or Christina Onassis or Christina Aguilar. It's very awkward, the way it turned out after all to be a good thing.

Second time around, when it came to grad school, we were smarter with our test scores. I went to Duke to get my Ph.D. and my wife went to Georgia Tech to get her architecture degree. How useless that Ph.D was for 20 years after I got it is a story in itself, though it would probably cheer up those of you who didn't spend six years of your life getting one.

Not the point today.

The point today: When I was a teenager, I wanted an abstract number to boast about, and today I still do. But now I will be a real son of a bitch. I went to the website and got the number. Strong correlation between the SAT scores and the GRE scores in terms of suggesting about the same IQ.

It's a good number, not a WMD but it would make some noise.

Let's just leave it at that, particularly since yours may be higher, and -- even though the facts are a powerful weapon and factoids more powerful still -- at the end of the day there is nothing like a good old-fashioned lie when we are all trying to be friends while still maintaining, or at least sharing on alternate days, the upper hand.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Stand By Me

Unless you want to sit there staring up at my double chin.

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I interrupted my sabbatical and returned to the beautiful USF campus to pick up my mail and sniff around for trouble -- marital, financial, intellectual, anything to feed the gossip jones that distinguishes humanity from brute creation.

And there -- no one had told me! -- in my office to my astonishment was my stand-up desk that *adjusts through the power of electricity* to a variety of heights conducive to a healthy back, i.e. conducive to fewer early mornings sitting on the sofa when it hurts too much to sleep watching some black-and-white semi-classic on the Turner Movie Channel while the pain eats at my hip socket.

In fact, it is referred pain from a nerve being pinched somewhere in my lower back, but understanding that displacement doesn't pull the teeth of the pain. They are very sharp teeth.

I thought, "With a marvelous adjustable desk, maybe I will come into the office occasionally to work now!"

And then I thought.


I disapprove of people on sabbatical who come into the office. You waste commute time, you divert yourself and you divert your colleagues. Your sunny freeloading presence brings them pain.

They say that when Stanley Fish was chair of the English Department at Duke University he was "good in the halls," meaning he moved from one informal group to another, wheedling and intimidating. A colleague on sabbatical who comes into the office becomes all too easily a Cancer in the Halls, walking around with his cup of coffee, loitering here, lounging there, thinking about thinking about thinking ... about.

So, I'll stay away, though if I had a big nice office I would be tempted. One reason I am so delighted with my new desk is that my office is really pretty miserable. Forget the sabbatical. Time to talk about The Nitty 101 and The Gritty: A Seminar for Majors. All the offices for the liberal arts faculty on the 5th floor of University Center at the University of San Francisco are pretty miserable. Every other floor is fine: nice coffee spot on 1, impressive cafeteria and dining hall on 2, big study area on 3, bunch of meeting rooms on 4.

But somewhere back in the day somebody ran out of patience or kindness or imagination and went medieval (architecturally speaking) on the posteriors of the liberal arts faculty.

Our offices are small, about 10 by 10, and the partitions are so thin you can hear your next door neighbor rethink her paradigm. The whole floor has a plenum, a space above the dropped ceiling that is filled with, oh, residue. Since the 5th floor tends to be too hot, most of us move a couple of acoustic tiles in the dropped ceiling. My wife, who is an architect, says that is equivalent to snorting asbestos -- though we've never run any tests so accept her statement as the rich and colorful hyperbole it was intended to be.

I have one of the better offices. I have a window, which I can open. I can see beautiful St. Ignatius Church. On warm days I can look out at the students on the grass south of Harney Plaza and see them nuzzle one another.

But pity the young faculty, mostly untenured and filled with dread, who get the inside offices. No window, no nothing, no hope except the death, retirement, madness or disgrace of the old parasites under whose thumbs they labor, or the abject failure of the young comrades with whom they drink, love and play academic musical chairs since not all of these young faculty will be left sitting at the end of the academic day.

As I said, most of them are untenured. The untenured need to hover, to stay in the vicinity of power, to work not only doggedly but also conspicuously. From the point of view of optimal mental health, what these youngsters need to do is cut a class, throw off their clothes and run naked into the surf and swim out out far out and tread water and look at the clouds until human voices wake them and they drown hahaha.

No one ever got tenure thinking jokes about T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot is not a joke. Somewhere back in the catacombs on the 5th floor of University Center someone -- some rival -- is not only rethinking the paradigm, she is shifting it. And if you were there, you could hear the thud three or even four offices away.

I can speak frankly about the UC gulag only because it too shall pass and soon. Each man kills the thing he loves the coward with a kiss the brave man with a yadda yadda yadda. I'm joking here, people. A fine new liberal arts building is being planned with every convenience and excellence, so benevolent and thoughtful is the USF administration, and the glory of that building and those offices shall shine all the brighter because we shall, until the day we die, remember what it was like to live like a dog in a kennel while giving our students a really fine education.

Now you see how intensely delighted I am to have my adjustable desk. When circumstances are hard, we need sugar for our tea and butter for our bread, and my new desk is sugar and butter. My physical therapist says that human beings -- speaking spinewise -- were meant to run and jump and tear with their teeth the living flesh from the bones of animals. They were not meant to sit and bend over their paperwork. With my wonderful new desk, I will be able to grade 20 30 40 50 papers at a time. I will assign so much work no one will take my classes and ... I guess, I'll write letters to the editor. I'll do something.

They also serve who only stand and think and think and think some more about a new a better a carpeted and air-conditioned paradigm with a view of all the pretty children killing time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Lifeboat and the Ark

If Bush is reelected, I expect him to do bad things. If he does bad things, what should I do to protect myself and my wife? The answer to that question is contingent. Various degrees of badness entail various degrees of panic and response.

Giving up in despair is one answer. Hypocrisy is another. I played Come to Jesus when I was a kid, and as I recall I was pretty convincing. I certainly convinced myself.

Continuing to engage in our usual political activities -- working in the Democratic party; plugging into Net-based groups like Move On; knowing what the right-wing screamers are saying and talking, not screaming back -- is another approach. Simply having faith in human nature as it expresses itself under our constitution and system of laws and riding out the evil years is another: Call it the repose of hope.

But two other responses intrigue me simply because they rise to mind for the first time in more than 30 years. How interesting that I am sufficiently concerned about Bush to entertain them. It is not too soon to begin to think about the Lifeboat and the Ark, as in Noah's Ark.

To go to the lifeboat means to leave your country, to pack up and flee, as Jews (but not only Jews) did during the rise of Nazi Germany, the goal being the saving of your life and that of your family. It is not always an obvious choice, as Philip Roth's new novel suggests, imagining an America turned fascist in 1940.

It can't happen here.


One might argue that no matter how evil events turn, the braver choice is to stay and fight and die. I believe it was the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov who refused to leave the Soviet Union to accept the Nobel Peace Prize because he did not think the Soviets would let him back in. What a fine line between cowardice and common sense, between the power of martyrdom and the futility of martyrdom. Even Victor Lazslo flew away at the end of Casablanca.

I raise the idea of the lifeboat because my wife and I have talked about moving to Canada if Bush is reelected. This is speculative. We would move under certain circumstances. Before I got a high draft number in the very first draft lottery in 1968, we talked about going to Canada for reasons of principle and of self preservation (not in that order). But the topic has not come up since, not in reaction to Nixon in 1972 or Reagan in 1980 or George Bush in 1988 or even under Bush II in 2000. That the question has arisen is significant. Just what do I imagine George Bush doing that would make me run away?

None of my "first fears" would be enough, since all of them seem correctable, and not my immediate problem, not my blood on the ground. Packing the Supreme Court and overturning Roe v. Wade would self correct, I assume: A majority of women would not accept it. Also -- and unfortunately this is an important "also" -- loss of a woman's right to choose would not affect me directly. That is true of many of the bad things Bush might do. Destroying large swaths of the environment would, one hopes, create an equally strong reaction from enough Americans -- finally. But, again, I am not a tree and I am 60 years old. There is probably oxygen enough and warmth enough to keep me going another 20 years no matter where I am.

I don't think Bush is likely to get us involved in a nuclear war with Russia. or China. Anticipating that would probably drive me into the lifeboat, the one headed for Tierra del Fuego, though I might not have courage enough to confront the apocalyptic. It takes a strong mind to see the moment when possibilities shade into probabilities and a mind stronger still to accept it and act on it. All that said, I don't think we are on the verge of general nuclear conflagration.

We probably will face a terror attack of some kind no matter who is elected, no matter what we do. It could be nuclear, it could be germs or it could be chemicals. Whichever it is, the damage will probably be confined to a big city or to a limited number of places around the country. I suppose we could move out of Oakland, to Sonoma or east Contra Costa, but I would not dignify that by calling it a retreat to the lifeboat.

The conduct of the war in Iraq won't matter. I expect it to go on for years, costing money and lives but at a moderate pace. It seems to me we have a surplus of semi-skilled working class young people if the casualties are a few thousand a year. If we get involved in other wars of comparable size -- Iran or Syria -- I won't have to go and I have no nephews or nieces 17-26.

I should have made that point earlier. (But what about all my former students of that age? Have sex, little ones. Create deferment opportunities.)

The Bush deficits at some point will lead to inflation , but I intend to keep working until I'm 70 and if I place my retirement money wisely, inflation will help, not hurt. If the world economy collapses might as well stand in the bread line here as there.

You see the purpose of this exercise. What might Bush do that would make me run? What is the worse case? If I can imagine it and imagine a proportional response, I will feel better.

Worst case would be a structural change in our democratic system: Bush might use the threat of terrorism to cancel the 2008 elections -- not this one, I'm pretty sure -- and make himself President for Life. If, as I think, he is a Theocrat, he might turn the U.S. into a fundamentalist Christian state, and suddenly as a Christian atheist -- agnostic on the idea of god in general but a disbeliever in Jesus as Christ -- I might be on somebody's list. Is that possible? Is it probable?

I know only that if Bush wins I will do a little discreet research about whether there is, in fact, any difficulty in retiring to Canada while drawing U.S. pensions.

A 21st Century Noah's Ark is an entirely different question. What is it that we dare not risk losing if Bush is not only bad but mad.? What shall we send away or bury or otherwise preserve against the possibility of some Bush madness? A stem-cell researcher of great genius might choose to leave the country to move the science forward, but is that really possible? Is the world so full of grants and facilities that our scientists would have a place to go? "Our" scientists are often their scientists come here. If we restrict certain kinds of research, fewer brains will flow our way. No Ark is needed. More to the point, given how portable knowledge is today, could any art or science or philosophy be lost if America became a totalitarian state, hostile to art and science and philosophy? Under what circumstances short of global catastrophe would a Noah's Ark of general knowledge be required?

Knowledge in the abstract, as data, may not be the issue. Perhaps, our best people in all areas should go elsewhere to strengthen other societies, helping them be a counterbalance to our misguided power. What if America becomes an international menace? Some would say we are today, but that's as romantic a view of our clumsiness and stupidity as those who believe that the Iraq adventure is an efficient approach to promoting freedom and democracy. You might say the strength of the American people, as ill-informed and emotionally susceptible as we are, is that Bush could not simply tell us that God wanted him to smite the infidel. He invented and misrepresented his way into Iraq because for a variety of reasons, some selfish and some altruistic, many of us then and a majority of us now wanted justification for going on a crusade. We were certainly willing to hurt whoever had hurt us, but we as a people -- enough of us -- are apparently capable of learning that was not the case in Iraq.

Imagine an America of "faith," where we take the President's word because it is His word. I think Bush would like to take us there. I think millions of Americans want him to lead us to such a place, to make us a Christian monolith doing God's work wherever and on whomever we choose. But in that case, what place in the world would be safe? Where is the mountaintop on which the Ark might settle?

There is no Noah's Ark, only lifeboats drifting away into the night. And if that sounds overly dramatic, god I hope so.

Monday, October 18, 2004

What Happens in Our Oak Tree Stays in Our Oak Tree

It's hard being trivial. Only the enormously vain -- or supremely self confident -- can be trivial with ease.

Mad props to the deceptively simple.

My guess is that in this wide (and possibly shallow) country every small market and every medium market newspaper -- oh let's count the zone editions and throw in all the big newspapers, too -- has one columnist whose job is triviality, that is, writing about everyday life every day.

Kids, school, dog, cat, wife, husband, life partner in some urban centers, bourgeois joy and bourgeois sadness and darn it, let's go to church each Sunday morning, let's kneel and pray side by side. With varying degrees of angst, faith and larger social awareness, this is what a lot of columnists do.

I'm trying to do the old grin and shuffle myself today, and I am discovering yet another thing that makes it hard. There's just no peacock moment in writing about the trivial. I say this because last week the Opinion Bug bit me. I did two little political things, forced jokes really that I hoped to sneak into real print somewhere but failed. Still, saying something about politics made me feel like a player. I understand that opinion columnists seldom write about themselves or the routine of their lives because that's not what readers turn to them for, and the average opinion writer doesn't have the chops to do that kind of writing anyway. There's something else, though. Opinion writers -- I discover through personal experience what I had only known through drab logic -- must feel so damn important.

I am pontificating now. Everyone listen. Listen, and the world shall be saved. I am smart. I am smarter than you. I am smarter than the politicians I write about. I do not ever need to write about my everyday life because a person like me is not everyday. The Greeks had a word for it: Philosopher King.

And that's how I feel today as, sullen and apolitical, I look out my front window, ready to write about Squirrel Girl because I am just a regular guy living a regular life and that is my goddamn charm you want to make something of it?

Squirrel Girl. Squirrel Girl is the collective name I give to the three squirrels that live in the oak tree on the high side of our front yard. I can't tell them apart, but why should I? Squirrels do not strive for individuation. (Think Blue Man Group.) I assume Squirrel Girl has male members. The colony has been there for nearly 13 years, and the members of SG are nimble still, running around the yard -- capering, I would even say -- and my word that looks like the prelude to a love tussle to me. I kid you not. I am writing and watching, and SG1, unless it's SG2, just ran across the lawn chasing SG2, unless -- get out of the street you stupid squirrel! Little idiots.

Anyway, half the time they seem to be burying acorns, and the other half of the time they seem to be digging acorns up. Being a squirrel in Oakland -- land of oaks; get it? -- seems to be pretty much like being a street person in San Francisco, given the benign weather and the fact the people who actually own the real estate are indulgent.

I like the squirrels. They haven't gotten in the attic. They have bushy tails they employ con brio. They leap from branch to branch and run along the telephone wires. They coexist. They survive. They entertain the cats.

If I thought about it all a little more, I'm sure in the lives of the squirrels are lessons that will threaten my complacency or confirm it or both. depending on the needs of the moment. That's what a clever columnist does reflexively: There's the world outside my window, here's the simple lesson, now go read the business page.

I don't know what the lesson is. I'm just thankful we have an oak tree, a soft lawn and street with a stop sign.

Friday, October 15, 2004

There's an L-Word in my Woodpile? Well, I Like Liberals... Oh God, You Mean....

Thinking about the stormlet surrounding John Kerry's use of the word "lesbian" in Wednesday's presidential debate, it suddenly occurs to me that "lesbian" is being processed by some people as the gay N-word, as if it's radioactive, as if the only people who have the right to call someone else a lesbian are, in fact, lesbians, as they "redeem" the savage vocabulary of hate by grinding its sting away through use.

This makes a kind of connotational sense. When I heard Kerry say Cheney's daughter was a lesbian, I thought I understood what he was saying:, and liked what he was saying, that is:

"You idiot. It's on the record that you have been in the room with homosexuals -- not admitted homosexuals but avowed homosexuals! -- and you have never discussed a point the understanding of which is crucial to a defense of your homophobe agenda."

Even though I understood that and applauded that, I immediately wished he hadn't said it because I knew the word was a kick to the lizard brain of many of us and that it would seem somehow inappropriate for very different reasons to very different groups.

I figured it would not bother homosexuals, and the early reaction seems to confirm that. But no one has ever been elected to anything big in this country by saying something that homosexuals rose up and defended.

I was glad that Kerry was saying, in effect, that Bush was once more showing either his hypocrisy or his incuriosity. But I wish he hadn't said it in that way. Even as I think it through, I feel the many strands of this moment escape me. I can't tie them together. Undoubtedly, some thousands of undecideds will conclude that Ms. Cheney interpreted Kerry's remarks not as a statement of the simple truth but as an intriguing suggestion upon which she immediately chose to act.

John Kerry: Numbah One Recruiter for Lesbian Nation.

He should have said Sapphic Warrior. Everyone would have thought it was a Nintendo game.

Update: First time through this I typed "homophone" instead of "homophobe." That is already a good word, but I have just given it a useful new twist -- homophones (speakers of Gay) understand what heterophones (speakers of Straight) are saying, but the opposite isn't always true. Homophones comfortably use the word "lesbian," of course, but John Kerry is a heterophone and got into trouble.

Update update: I am not first with the word "heterophone," but I think I am the best. (Actually, I am only better, since there's only one other definition.)

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Battle of the Bulges, or La Belle Dame Sans Merci, A Dream Sequence in Which...

... at end of last night's debate Monica Lewinsky jumped onto the stage, kneed two Secret Service in the groin, snatched Bush's trousers down around his ankles, taking his John 3:16 boxer shorts with them, and announced:

"I knew President Bill Clinton. I was a friend of President Bill Clinton and, Mr. Bush , YOU ARE NO PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON."

And swing voters all over the country asked themselves, "The swing! Where's the swing??"

Monday, October 11, 2004

In Japan The Subtitle Would Read Nyaa Nyaa, in Albania Mjau

Writing about cats is every columnists', any columnist's, big trump card because as far as cat lovers are concerned the important thing is not the verve and wit of the writing but the fact the writing takes place at all. They guzzle the words, almost without tasting them.

It's the cats, stupid.

Except I can't play that trump card in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Oakland in particular. Carroll of the Chronicle has sucked up all the air in the room when it comes to writing about cats. All the time he writes about his cats, Pumpkin and Little Radish, and I'm sure it's all very nice, good stuff, Strunk and White all the way.

I just know it's about fuzzy darling winsomely neurotic little cats. And that is all it needs to be. If Carroll bothers to make it more than that, he is expending energy as he sits at the heart of the sun if you know what I mean and I know that you do since if you were not a connoiseur of fuzzy darling winsomely neurotic little cats you would not have read this far.

Abandon hope all ye dog lovers who enter here. This is not for you. Go back to your collection of the Best of Marmaduke.

Why should I then write about cats? The images of Pumpkin and Little Radish are burned into that synaptic tangle of yours that passes for a brain, and even if you find pleasure in my writing -- not my writing per se but the fact it's about cats -- three minutes from now Carroll will get all the credit and I will have fueled the legend of Pumpkin and Little Radish instead of our fuzzy darling winsomely neurotic little cats -- though in each category Popcorn and Oliver stand against all comers as the fuzziest the darlingest the winsomest the neurotickest -- so I am not going to waste my time.

That doesn't mean I can't write about Uncle Michael Tola, who stays with our kitties when we are on the road. He gives Popcorn her insulin twice a day, and he coaxes Oliver out of the shadows. Oliver has the wounded soul of a poet (a fuzzy darling winsomely neurotic poet) and trusts only us and Uncle Michael Tola and good for Oliver because some people are such bastards when it comes to cats.

It's one of the things I want a Hell for.

This is not about that. Any moment the misunderstanding will clang shut and someone will be writing Carroll asking him about his cat sitter, Uncle Michael Tola, and how UMT takes care of the perfectly acceptable though somewhat short of excellent Pumpkin and Little Radish. Which Uncle Michael Tola does not, more's the loss to Pumpkin and Little Radish.

This is about how Uncle Michael Tola stayed with our cats while we were coaxing Eydie's 93-year-old mama around Scandinavia last month and how he fell afoul of the subtitle machine. It is not so much a machine as it is a device, a button on the secondary remote control -- for who in this age of cable boxes and VCRs and CD players does not have a primary, secondary and tertiary remote control, some functions duplicated (or triplicated), others unique to the particular remote control?

One of our remotes allows you with a push of the finger to call up the "closed captions," or subtitles, for those shows that have been captioned. For so many TV shows I call up the closed captions. I can't understand Bernie Mac half the time. I can't understand most kid actors with their high-pitched voices. I can't understand most of the shows on BBC America since posh accents have been pushed aside and a hundred regional dialects have been allowed to blossom.

It's democracy, it's cacophony.

Let's say it as it is. I can't hear any damn thing anymore. I'm SICK, OLD AND STUPID with all that that entails. And it never stops entailing.

When we left for vacation, I left the close captioning on. It drove Uncle Michael Tola nuts. Because he hears the murmur of thought and the rustle of the blood in the veins and for all I know the sweet sad music of the spheres -- and not through the fillings in his teeth but through his own noble ears -- he felt deeply cheated and offended by the third of the screen consumed by the captioning.

Of course, he brings women in while we are gone. We aren't running a monastery here. One of them -- he said it wasn't one of his doxies but I know it was, I know it as I look under the bed (and on the sofa and against the wall and in the foyer and up the stairs) for strange pubic hair and I know my cats and that is not from my cats it is from some red-headed tramp....

In your dreams, my wife says. You cannot continue to live vicariously through that nice Michael Tola you just can't.

Anyway, one of Tola's visitors inspected the secondary remote control and turned off the closed captioning. That's what he told me.

Really, I said. I didn't know it was on. Why would it be on?

No wonder the cats are neurotic, though in their case it really is winsome.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Ralph Derrida and Jacques Nader? Close Enough

I wish I knew more about deconstructionism because the comparison between Ralph Nader and the late Jacques Derrida is potentially delicious. Unfortunately, my acquaintance with deconstruction has been confined to semiacademic attacks on its deficiencies. I haven't read the seminal documents or its most eloquent defenders or its most-rewarded academic practitioners. My view of it -- formed by only the most tangential acquaintance -- is that it was a continuation of the insight, one that wasn't new in the 20th Century, that words are slippery, meaning elusive, the writer's intention often irrelevant, and that the scientific method makes pretty clear it's all a matter of probabilities, not absolutes. Yet probablities keep planes in the air and coax the sun over the horizon every morning. My impression is that deconstructionists have too narrow a view of probability. Deconstruction in excess seems to lead to that dead end. The deconstructionists seem to have taken a valid if unremarkable idea -- unremarkable to anyone who isn't an intellectual troglodyte -- clasped it to their bosoms and run off into the fog.

I was able to figure out based only on his discourse that George Bush, if installed as president, would probably do something stupid. My argument would PROBABLY be stronger if I knew a little more about basic deconstructionist theory.

Never mind. My point is just that Nader has the whiff of deconstruction -- and note how happily the word "deconstruction" collapses into "destruction" -- when he says there is no important difference between Bush and Kerry. Nader's point is true when viewed from the heights of high philosophical abstraction, and it also isn't true down where you and I live in the mud and the blood.

That's where you and I live, and that's where we will die, one way or another.

Friday, October 08, 2004

President of the United States of Love. President of the United States of Love

I predict that in tonight's debate between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry, Bush will approach Kerry and say, "I want to kiss you." Kerry will thank the president for the "huge compliment," and Bush will again request a kiss but will again be graciously rebuffed.

The story behind the story: There are a lot of pundits out there speculating on the outcome of this debate, and I have decided to go for the Hail Mary, the post pattern, the old wing it and sling it -- even though Joe Namath didn't get his kiss -- because if I am right IF I AM RIGHT....

Book deal.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

I'm Not Certain That Sponge Bob Square Pants is Long Dong Silver's Bitch, But At Least You Can Speculate About It in the Newspaper Sans Asterisk

A couple of days ago I wrote about how Hemingway retreated to indirection through generalization to euphemize the grand old insult, "I piss in your mother's milk." Today in the Chronicle, Leah Garchik engages in the following evasion:

Hearing of the death of Vernon Alley, The Chronicle's Jesse Hamlin recalls writing a profile when Alley turned 70. The jazzman called afterward to thank him, but complained, "Why did you have to print my age? You're going to cut into my supply of young (boot-wearing feline that plays with yarn balls).'' "But Vernon,'' Hamlin said, "you look just great. How do you stay so young?'' "Young (boot-wearing feline that plays with yarn balls),'' said Alley.

I teach reporting every semester -- in this context it may be appropriate to say every friggin' semester -- and one of the little digressions I indulge in to entertain les petite batards (and that ain't what you think) is an examination of the various ways newspaper editors protect the tender minds of their lowest-common-denominator readers by spelling it out without spelling it out.

Sometimes the newspaper uses what I call variant spellings of the incendiary word. Thus, we have sh*t, g*dd*am, **** you, f*** you, f**k you, f*ck you and -- I hope someday to see -- *u** you. All these are, of course, immensely stupid, since every literate reader turns the marks on the page into the appropriate word. They read the word. At best the more innocent reader runs through a laundry list of obscenities and indecencies before settling on the correct one.

And we always settle on the correct one, don't we?

I assume newspapers are delighted to avoid discussion of this tactic since the lightest touch of common sense would collapse it. As Samuel Johnson said, "Hyprocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." It is hypocrisy, all the more delicious for its transparency

Now, what Garchik is doing, though perhaps less common, is far more fun for the newspaper and the more raffish among its readership. We turn the objectionable word into what seems to be a genuine puzzle by defining it, though almost always these circumlocutions are tongue in cheek. This can give more freedom to quote as we move into the realm of the feature story, the realm of those entertaining bits in which the inflammatory is not necessary information so where's the jusfication for dragging the reader down into the bubbling gutter?

The word in question here -- drum roll, or should I say jelly roll? -- is pussy. Perfectly nice word. Not like cunt, not used to insult a strong woman, though an article in Salon three years ago said cunt was being rehabilitated and pussy should be. Pussy is most often used to insult a man, suggesting he is a coward. It seems quite affectionate when applied to a woman, though my wife doesn't care for it. Still, I don't think of it as hostile.

But I'll wager my lunch money that no Chronicle editor would have approved the phrase "young pussy" or even "young p*ssy," nor would Garchik have written either of these phrases in the first place. A writer knows her voice and her audience, and she knows the degree to which the implication that writer and reader are too fastidious, too fragile, too refined to deal with a term the connotation of which is the promise of imminent sexual engagement is the kind of sweet sendup writer and reader positively savor.

(Also, the description makes us think of Shrek 2, of a cartoon cat, for those readers subject to disturbing visualizations. I loved that kitty very much.)

It's one of the funniest little dances there is, when newspapers say the thing without saying it. It's sniggering, it's naughty, it sums up all our embarrassment, it explains why "The Vagina Monologues" is the "Our Town" of the contemporary women's movement.

It makes me think of Pussy Galore, a powerful woman, a real cunt in the very best sense of the term.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Hemingway Lived in Paris, I Just Remembered

When I read Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" back there in high school, I was much impressed by the idea of sex that "made the earth move" -- a phrase that considerably oversells the virtue of having sex on the cold hard ground -- and the insult, "I obscenity in your mother's milk."

I have spent my whole life trying to escape a tendency to read everything in the most literal way. At 16, I naturally assumed that turn of phrase was the literal insult: I OBSCENITY in your mother's milk. Yeah!

I thought perhaps Spanish Republicans were naturally delicate in their expressions or had a rhetorical preference for indirection -- how did I know? I just know I thought it was a very elegant kind of insult, richly vague, leaving the nature of the defilement to the robust imagination, of which I had one.

Don't recall when I finally got the fact this was just Hemingway placating the censors, a simple euphemism that everyone else immediately decoded. It spoiled the insult, it really did.

I am thinking about this because of the bottle of wine my wife and I drank when we were -- I probably haven't mentioned this -- IN PARIS LAST WEEK. Eydie read in one of her food magazines about the Jules Verne restaurant, which is located about a third of the way up the Eiffel Tower, right inside it, wouldn't kid, shouldn't kid, couldn't kid you.

Three months ahead we reserved for lunch. I will not talk about the view. I need not, since you will see at least one splendid picture when we have the slide show to which you all are invited, though may I suggest you reserve early, since the midnight show can be a little raucous and the snacks damp.

The three-course pris fixe meal (52 Euro; $64.06 Yankee) was delicious, and the waiters came at us in waves, fawning and tres gentil -- perhaps I do look like the diseased Jerry Lewis -- BUT BUT BUT the sommelier, oh the sommelier.

I have a theory about myself among the Parisians. This theory arose not exactly because a series of events occurred while I was in Paris that demanded a unifying idea or at least a hypothesis but because I wanted to be able to say, "I have a theory about myself among the Parisians." That strikes me as an elegant thing to say, pompous perhaps, but it gets the point across that I HAVE BEEN IN PARIS. First came the idea of having a theory and then came the actual theory. First the vessel and then the content. You get it.

Again: I have a theory about myself among the Parisians. It is that while I am in Paris, each day someone will cheat me to one degree or another and each day I will embarrass myself to one degree or another.

So, we are at one of view tables in the Jules Verne restaurant located in the Eiffel Tower looking down on Paris. The waiters have been solicitous. The sommelier approaches. He says something. I panic. I blurt out, "I don't speak French."

My wife says, "That wasn't French."

Abashed, I stare at my plate and mutter, "I guess I don't speak English either."

I look up. The expression on the sommelier's face! He thinks I have said that he does not speak English.

Zut! Alors!

I attempt to reconcile with the sommelier. We are having a fishy dish and a vealish dish. I throw myself into the sommelier's capable hands: A red? A white certainly?? I wave my hand over a list of suggested wines.

"That!" he says, pointing.

I wonder -- "Red, white...?" He shrugs.

The wine arrives. It is red, somewhat fierce, perhaps of a depilatory nature. It meets the food, wrestles the food to the ground, kicks the food in the ribs.

Ah, some of the legendary French rudeness?

I can only hope that I am worthy of the legendary French rudeness. Into my mother's milk pours the legendary obscenity of the kind that can happen only -- and did I mention that this was happening...

Was it Marseilles? Might have it been in sunny Provence? The moment had a hyphenated feel. Perhaps Alsace-Lorraine?

I think not. I believe it was -- sometimes memory she plays you the trick. I am almost certain it was ....

In ParisParisParisParisParisParis.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Back, Back, Back ... We're Baaaack

We are back in body, spirits still somewhat eroded by that 16-hour flight from Paris to San Francisco, counting the layover in Miami.

Of course, any amount of jet lag is worth being able to write "from Paris to San Francisco." We've never traveled much, and just as the names of the little places you pass through make a small poetry if you drive cross country -- Harpers Ferry, Keyser and Canaan Valley, and that's in the upscale end of West Virginia -- so if for the last 40 years you've spent your little bit of free time squatting in this country, there's big poetry in being able to drop "Last week in Paris..." into the sentence, even if you are just talking to the man who reads the meter.

Nobody died. The trip was a success. Only during the last week of the trip did my wife and I share our mutual fear that her 93-year-old mom might die. She was so much weaker than we had anticipated, so quickly tired, so sunk into herself for long periods, so clearly less than she was even a year ago that when she was napping we looked at her sometime the way you look at a baby, wondering if the chest will rise with breath again.

Some nights there was a good deal of snoring and wheezing. I did not mind. It was like the wind in the trees, soothing in a way. It was silence that would have frightened. Actually I did not mind the trip once I had figured out that the point was not giving mom a memorable time -- some evenings the morning might as well have happened a thousand years ago -- but that my wife got to spend nearly four weeks with her mother nuturing and cosseting. There may be some bedside business later on, but these were probably the last extended moments of life as lived day to day my wife will be spending with her mother. She is very sweet with her mother, gentle but honest when their versions of the past aren't the same and pretty damn tart when it comes to politics, since my mother-in-law's church -- First Church of Jesus, Cracker -- has the parishioners reading some Bush biography if I have it straight. Any mother and any daughter could do a lot worse than the two of them when it comes to Only Connect.

(I am happily estranged from my own mother. I think, I am anyway. I think I'm happy about it, I mean.)

It's over. We're back. I think we will enjoy this trip retrospectively, when the slides come back. As I said before, you are all inivited to the slide show. As for the trip as narrative, I'll bleed that out over the next months, beginning, as it turns out, at the end.

The trip back did not seem as long as it could have because we were provided with a floor show on the airplane. I noticed one of the players in the De Gaulle terminal in Paris -- in Paris in the same way SFO is in San Francisco. There was a guy sitting opposite as we waited for the plane to load who reminded me of myself, or of myself when I had my beard. He was beefy, with a fine bushy white beard and a smooth pink distant unhappy face, the pinkness of which he was stoking with an open bottle of wine he would occasionally pull out from under his seat.

This is something you do in bus stations, not in airports -- right?

With him was a woman who was either a pretty woman who hadn't aged well or a homely woman who had aged just fine. There are some faces like that. You aren't sure what was there at the start. I think she was drunk, too. Now and then she yelled at him. Now and then he took a drink.

On the plane, the two of them were in the row ahead of Edith and Edith's mom. They immediately bought a handful of those mini-bottles of vodka from the stewardess. In the row in front of them, the row behind the bulkhead separating First Class from the rest of us, were two members of a big French family spread out in our section -- two babies, two women in their thirties, a Mama and a guy with a shaved head who (as it turned out) spoke unaccented English and who I assumed was the father/husband of for all I know all the babies and many of the women.

I didn't see who fired the first knee when the fight began, but when I looked over the youngest of the French women was ramming her seat back as far as it would go and my pink-faced friend from the airport was ramming his knees into that seat back. I was just far enough away to allow maximum creative misunderstanding of what was being said. Pink Face seemed to be saying he was tall, dammit, tall, and the Montmarte Hillbillies seemed to be saying he was rude, and Pink Face's female companion, who I think was also French, was yelling at him, at the people ahead, at everybody. At least twice she charged up the aisle into First Class and came back with a cocktail. At one point, the backup pilot -- who had been amiably wandering up and down the plane like the greeter at a Vegas casino -- was summoned, and I heard him try to explain to all concerned that people had a right to move their seat back and that the people in the seat behind had the right to have knees.

I love the sound of voices raised in hysterical French anger. It was a pastiche of altos and baritones, nothing soprano about it. But like all good things, finally the participants grew tired as the babies and the drunks grew drowsy, and everyone nicely avoided eye contact, adjusted their seat backs a hair and their knees a fraction. All this upset my wife and my mother-in-law somewhat because they were almost in the middle of it, but I was just far enough away, just beyond the line inside of which you feel somehow responsible, but still close enough to be amused.

Isn't that the sweet spot when the dogs are fighting and not a one of them belongs to you?