Friday, December 31, 2004

House of Sand and Blog

Of course, those of you in the know -- you San Francisco Bay Area chums and California cognoscenti -- understand that here in the low hills of Oakland we are far far from the beach. We are, however, less than three miles from the Port of Oakland and a fraction more than that mileage from the Bay Bridge. (Take a look here. We live just east of Lake Merritt.) The tsunamis won't get us, but the terrorists might if they go for either of those comparatively attractive targets. It's the Golden Gate for prime-time terrorism -- 12 miles distant; yippee! -- but if you want long-term economic damage, I would aim at the Bay Bridge, if you can knock it down, not just punch a hole in the roadway.

Now, for a dirty bomb, obviously radioactive pollution of downtown San Francisco -- I think I would hit somewhere around the TransAmerica pyramid near North Beach -- would have the biggest psychological impact. But really San Francisco is so much toys and tinsel, so D.C., New York City and Los Angeles are probably higher up the list. If I'm a terrorist, do I wait patiently on an A-list target or do I probe for the point of least resistance on a longer list of targets ranging in value from "will make them crap their pants" to "will certainly get their attention"? I don't know. I'm not a terrorist. I'm not a religious fanatic. I never was a religious fanatic. I was more of an enthusiast.

So why such grim thoughts on such a winter's day? All the top newspaper columnists do a year-end column of some sort. Ellen Goodman used to do a list of the mistakes she made, though I don't recall her admitting she ever made a serious mistake. I believe I read in the New York Times that it is going to start correcting some of the more egregious misstatements on its Op-ed page, where in 2004 William Safire seemed incapable of conceding that any of the Bush administration's explanations for invading Iraq were wrong, even as they were ground to ever finer dust. It made me want to scream.

Will you tell another lie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Will you tell another lie, Charming Billy? Yes, I'll tell another lie and who cares how many die ...

Actually, Safire is responsible for my rather dire first paragraphs. I have a half memory that around this time of year Safire would publish a column filled with outrageous predictions for the coming year -- either to disingenously imply his own fallibility or to get down on paper some outrageous prescriptions for what should be done but what those in power were too weak or stupid to do. I started to play with that idea and suddenly I started thinking about the obvious fact the Bay Area is an attractive target for terrorism. It's also an attractive target for an earthquake, though I do not impute intentionality to earthquakes. (A religious fanatic would. I'm not sure about a religious enthusiast. I think I will send this post to Pastor Kathy. I know she's not a fanatic, and I don't think she's an enthusiast.)

I'm guessing an earthquake will show up before a dirty bomb. If I'm a really patient terrorist I think I would wait until I lay my hands on a suitcase nuke and really do some damage. Moreover, if I had a suitcase nuke, I would not waste it on San Francisco, no disrespect intended. But what if you had a terrorist who was a Stanford grad who took the intercollegiate sports rivalry with Cal too much to heart? Anyway, I was thinking about a list of predictions for 2005, and I started thinking about terrorism. Took all the fun out of that.

I could do a list of good books. I could do a list of resolutions. I could do a list of things I'm thankful for! But those "thankful" lists seem so condescending and self-satisfied. I think -- I hope -- we all have a list of people we are thankful for, and it rather seems to me we should communicate that conclusion to them personally. This is a blog. Rare is the blogger who, like the columnist for even the smallest newspaper, can claim that she/he speaks for her/his many readers and thus can employ the royal "we" on the expectation that a certain number of dour emotionally paralyzed readers will thrust today's "thankful" column into the hand of the beloved, the idea being that "This is what I would say had I the words to say it."

Or if you are particularly frozen up inside you rip the column out of the newspaper -- roughly torn; jagged edge -- and stick it to the refrigerator door with a magnet and hope the beloved finds it. But with a blog if you start printing things out and thrusting or sticking, it's like you're sharing an Excel spreadsheet.

(Pause for my own real-time personal communication of thanks to individual sans thrusting, tearing or sticking.)

Hummmm. Likewise I'm sure, she said. And that's as good a note as any on which to end a year in which I seemed to live in a charmed circle while so much else went so very wrong for so many. Life isn't fair. Nice to stand on the sunny side of that statement.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


That's what most blogs are, just a vanity license plate.

See the similarities. The basic message is either so esoteric it leaves you puzzled and disturbed, or so simplistic you are offended by the poverty of imagination and execution, the fact the investment (money for plates; time for blogs) has come to so little. Each has a huge potential audience but, though glanced at by many, almost all are instantly dismissed. Is this an invidious comparison showing too little respect to the blog? I think perhaps the random license plate gives more pleasure than the random blog. In any event, one is delighted by the fact that, with luck, such plates and such blogs are stumbled upon never to be encountered again. (Our next-door neighbor has such a plate and parks his car in our field of vision. Our friend is a blogger and harries us with invitations to come and share. Sigh.)

The engine that drives each is ravening self-importance, which life among the masses has not fed. Each of these manifestations of anomie is attached to a seminal machine, one that makes modern life possible, but whose possibilities -- the escape, the exploration, the endless roadtrip, the novel or screenplay or sonnet sequence -- are never used to those ends, certainly not by the the typical platester or blogster. Indeed, the power of the auto and the computer seem to mock us, leaving us both literally and metaphorically stuck in traffic. The auto and the computer so often seem to emphasize our conformity, not our autonomy. The image is glamorous, the reality mundane, imprisoning not liberating.

And so we chirp: a vanity plate, a blog.


And isn't somebody within a hundred miles of this blog in a bit of a Dover Beach mood tonight? You gots a booboo, DC?

(But isn't that site where I found Dover Beach a delicious link for poem lyrics? A fine poem, a great poem, embedded in a sea of screaming consumerist crap. I like tacky so much. Must reread Sontag on Camp soonest. I'm feeling better.)

Just another drive-by blogging. Nothing to see. Keep moving.

Some Assembly Required for the Full Appreciation of This Blog

This is just a reminder to regular readers that you cannot even begin to plumb the depths of comic mayhem inherent in this blog unless you understand that the bold-faced parts of my posts are links to other material resident on the Web. Mouse them and click them and shower in delight! For instance, in the previous post I was particularly proud of the link to the German lyrics of Lili Marlene, a link that also directs you to the English lyrics and to what sounds like the famous Marlene Dietrich recording but may not be.

This is a very drole juxtaposition of links: Oliver as the German Joe Buck pining for his Ratso!!

Just to deepen the enjoyment of this blog among the youth who have flocked to its banner -- think
Children's Crusade, and there's another link for you-- I have stolen the following from another website:

Lili Marlene was based on a poem written by German soldier Hans Leip during World War I (in 1915), and published in 1937. Norbert Schultze set the poem to music in 1938 and it was recorded just before the war. It became a favorite of both German troops when it was broadcast to the AfrikaKorps in 1941. The immense popularity of the German version led to a hurried English version done by Tommie Connor and broadcast by the BBC for the Allied troops. Eventually, both sides began broadcasting the song in both versions, interspersed with propaganda nuggets. The German singer was Lale Andersen , an anti-Nazi. But the most celebrated singer was another anti-Nazi German - Marlene Dietrich, began to sing it in 1943. The English version of the song embellishs an already sentimental German original. After the war, the song's fame was perpetuated by Vera Lynn who sang it in every NAAFI concert she gave for British BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) soldiers stationed in pre-NATO Germany, to thunderous applause and stomping feet.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Down the pitch Oliver Oklahoma! makes a darting run. Gooooooooooooooooooooal!

Having been warned that the name of this blog was a slippery slope down which I could so easily slide into the ghetto of encapsulated Catmania, I have carefully excluded cat mentions, cat references and cat kudos from these pages these many weeks. I have not let the hairball wag the cat, as it were. I think the blogosphere has appreciated my restraint. If you Google the Ten Top Cat Blogs of All Time, you will not find Darwin's Cat, which you would if I chose to "cat it up."

Because I can cat it up, baby.

As I result of my restraint, I thought this blog had achieved a perfect equilibrium, a Zen stillness of energy in counterpoise with wisdom. And then I discovered one of our cats, apparently miffed, had hired a flack.
I discovered this when I started to get press releases from
Mark Satan, who is apparently a partner in the public relations firm of Satan, Satan, Devil, Demon, Dybbuk, Bush and Codpiece. The first release -- snail mail, 37-cent Eubie Blake commemorative stamp -- said, "Like the legendary Brazilian soccer stars Pele, Kaka and Robinho, local cat personality Oliver is known by but a single name."

Well, what?

There wasn't even a news hook, no context, no nothing. I was tempted to tell Oliver he was wasting his money, but it's his money. And who am I to interfere with someone else's pursuit of a livelihood when, at the end of the day, no harm is done except the osmotic transfer of excess capital? That's why when I am reading a newspaper on the bus or on BART, as I finish a page I ball it up and throw it on the floor, to keep the unions working.

The second release was a little better. It began, "Heard around town: Local cat Oliver commenting, 'It's a little embarrassing being named after a Broadway musical. It could have been worse. I could have been named Oklahoma!'" That wasn't so bad. Adding the phrase, "Over martinis at Haight Street's fabled
Persian Aub Zam Zam..." would have given it a little texture, painted in a little background, created a little synergy with another client. But even without that, it read like an item. I was tempted to drop Mark Satan a note, saying, "Try Leah Garchik." Tempted -- but no. Not funny enough. I'm no Herb Caen, but I can tell snap from crackle and crackle from pop.

Still, just when you think
some PR guy is really a fool, he will surprise you. Yesterday I got a 2-pound box of See's assorted chocolates with a hand-written note: "What about the rat?"

When there really is a story, that's all it takes when you are dealing with
a trained professional journalist who has seen enough and perhaps too much.

What about the rat?

Faithful readers recall when Oliver discovered we had a "mouse" -- for that is what I insisted in the face of my wife's repeated RATRATRATRAT -- back in November. At first I though he killed it or chased it away, but then something started shredding the butter cookies and invading the instant cocoa. And, man, those little turds. It was clear Oliver wasn't up to rodent elimination, either because of an innate pacifism or perhaps a deep world-weariness that the cynic will dismiss as incompetence. Anyway, I went through a series of traps: the little grey plastic "safe capture" traps; the easy-disposal kill trap with the tiny door through which the mouse is supposed to enter while the other mice sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"; the regular old-fashioned Victor-brand spring-loaded skull crusher, all of which my wife said would not work because they were too small, given the fact she knows rat turds when she sees them.

Finally, in what seemed an effort to taunt us, the rodent started depositing his little raisins on top of our rollout cupboard for all to see. I put one of the old-fashioned traps up there. This was maybe ten days ago. Next morning around 6 a.m. well before sunrise, I was awakened by Oliver going through a whole series of vocalizations, sounds never heard before, as if he were speaking in tongues. I turned on the light and there on the floor was a juvenile rat, much too large for the safe-capture trap or the disposable trap with the little mouse door.

"Good job! Oliver. Good job!"

The rat, stunned but alive, was disposed of. Oliver was fed the choicest tidbits. Splendid cat who lulled the rat into false complacency and then struck with the precision of an atomic clock! But then when we got up for the day, new evidence was discovered that does not disgrace Oliver but certainly makes it less likely we will try to get him an audition for
RatMaster 2: Death Purr.

I saw that the small trap on top of the cupboard had snapped. Caught between its wooden base and its spring-powered cudgel was a single rodent hair. And so we pieced the story together.

1) The rat advances, attracted by the peanut butter I had placed as bait.

2) The trap closes, too small to kill but certainly able to stun.

3) Oliver, drawn by the sound or loitering nearby, suddenly sees a semi-conscious rat come raining down like manna -- or pennies; pick your fantasy -- from heaven.

I would rather it were otherwise. I would rather Oliver had like Achilles before the walls of Troy at last from his tent emerged to slay his enemy. But it appears that, more like Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One, he
merely confronted a prostrate adversary and struck an irrelevant blow.

For all I know, it was a Midnight Cowboy thing, and he was bringing the rat to me for immediate medical attention. Cue the lyrics to Lili Marlene.

It's finally all a mystery, isn't it? Mark Satan had it right. Sometimes all you can do is ask the question.

What about the rat? What about the rat?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Why We are in Baghdad: A Christmas Memory

That is NOT the headline under which this piece ran in the San Diego Reader, and I'm not even sure what I mean by it. Yeah, I do. It means the war is/was/will be about oil. Anyway, my friend Pat Daugherty, the writer of this piece, called it to my attention. It's a little mise en scene, you know, a nice blue-collar moment in a world where even now something like this is always happening. Except now like as not there's no union, and the only guaranteed benefit is preferred seating on the next ice floe out. (It's called senilicide.) -- DC

"Son-of-a-bitch! Son-of-a-bitchin' jackhammers!"

This is December 24, 1980 in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. I'm working off a class B hangover and getting my ass kicked by an 80-pound jackhammer. Self, hangover and jackhammer are struggling at the base of GC-1, a BP Alaska gathering center, one of nine that separate oil from gas and water in preparation for pumping, every day, two million gallons of black muck 798 miles down the Trans Alaskan Pipeline to the Port of Valdez.

The sun has not been seen in these parts for 34 days. Thirty-three more days will pass before it rises again. The temperature is -32 degrees, not inhumanely cold, it rarely gets under 40 below in Prudhoe Bay, but a west wind is pumping at 25, 30 mph which makes the wind chill -75 degrees. At that temperature the world implodes and there is existence without any light or heat or god whatsoever.

This morning, my foreman, a 60-year-old alcoholic by the name of Rod Vernon, walked into the warm-up shack, face flushed, adrenalin pumping -- the superintendent must have been on his ass -- talking about some emergency. Had to find this big electric trunk line, which was thought to be buried underneath one of four pillars holding up the south end of the GC-1. "You men grab some gear and get on over there. Stay with it until it's done."

The "men" asshole is referring to is Frank Huber and me. We dress (sweaters, wool gloves, arctic gloves, arctic pants, wool cap, bunny boots, parka), and schlep outside to the yard. I trust it's the yard although I can't see it due to the combination of deep space darkness and blowing snow. We lean hard into the wind, walk along the side of the parts warehouse, root around snow banks, find a generator, jackhammer, air compressor, space heater and plenty of visquine. I hook up air compressor to the trailer hitch and drive the Chevy crew cab through a near whiteout to GC-1 on A MISSION.

One wishes, always, to avoid working A MISSION. When you are on A MISSION every lard-ass boss who can command a pickup truck waddles his fat butt out to its warm front seat and drives over to look at "The Job."]

Frank's voice sounds over the jackhammer, "Hey, mellow down, it's Christmas."

"Fuck Christmas."

Now comes Rod Vernon, wearing cowboy boots and a light winter puff blue jacket. Vernon whines, "Okay, shut her down, they figured another way, they don't need it," and then the puke actually hops back to his toasty-warm pickup truck. Six months from now, I'll steal that truck and purposefully drive it into the main channel of the Kaparuk River.

The compressor wheezes to a stop. Ice, entwined and hanging from my beard, is a half-inch thick and two inches long. I grunt.

Frank grunts back, "What did you say?"

"Never mind. Did you get the beer chilled?"

Even though Prudhoe Bay is leased state land, leased primarily by BP and ARCO, who ban drugs, booze, unmarried couples sharing rooms, there was, during the course of any given year, one to eight thousand construction workers in residence, which meant there were plenty of drugs and booze and a lamentable lack of sex. Alcohol came up by the ton as private baggage in the cargo bays of Wein Air Alaska and Alaska Airlines.

Home is CC-2 (Construction Camp 2), one of four BP owned residential camps built on the west side of Prudhoe Bay. Camps are modular, slapped-together units with two-man rooms. CC-2 houses 500 men, maybe 20 women.

Routine is: ride the yellow work bus home from the Sohio yard, slog to my room, pour a double shot of Jim Beam, crank on the tape deck, crank it louder, pop a beer, look at the wall. Retrieve sandals and bathrobe from the standing closet, walk down the hallway to the bathroom, shower, smoke a cigarette while in the shower, retrace steps to room, sit on bed, look at the wall.

Soon, too soon, there's a tap on my door and one, two, three men enter. Each man pulls a beer from the room's one civilian artifact, an enormous, 200 quart ice chest. Job talk commences. This was a pastime I discouraged but could never squelch.

On this 1980 Christmas eve I was tired due to the ugly experience of jackhammer, so this was going to be an early night. After a couple hours of whiskey and beer, two guests drift off to the dining hall. I look over, realize Frank is drunk, which is unusual. I call out, "Hey, big guy. Take it home. We must be about our duties on the first tide."

Frank struggles to his feet, lurches towards the door, wheels around, fishes another beer from the cooler, leaves.

I pour the last shot of Beam, strip naked, sit on the edge of the bed, light a Winston, look at the wall. Christmas Eve. Not a bad place to spend it.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

A Witty Exchange Between Two Very Civilized Men, One of Them Having Decided Not to Sue the Other

I sent Famous Writer an email -- lots of concern with just a little grovel -- to see how he's doing after fainting at our little holiday party. (First-time readers need only scroll down the rabbit hole to get up to speed.) He says he's fine, that his doc says that just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and an espresso is just a cup of overconfident coffee, sometimes you just faint: Don't worry, be happy.

And he said, no he wasn't offended about my planning to profit from his death, if indeed he had stayed down for the count, by selling shards of the One True Wineglass that shattered as he fell to earth. (Well, nothing shattered. He fell as graceful as a leaf. There is no aftermarket for this event so I can tell the truth.) And, of course, he acknowledged our house would have become a kind of secular shrine:

I'm cognizant of the prestige increment it would have brought you.
My biographer would surely have wanted to interview you. There would
indeed be pilgrimages, even as there are each year to the grave of E.A.
Poe outside Baltimore. (I am invited each year to that one but have not
found the occasion to be that far east at such times.) Fans who rang
your bell after placing ribbons and teddy bears on your lawn would want
to know all the details, and I do hope you would have obliged them with
an ever-increasing panoply of anecdota. ("We were just getting going on
the objective correlative in the early novels of Robert A. Heinlein
when....") ("He had just begun to improvise a series of Sanskrit
limericks when he turned very pale and....") ("A question about whether
it is permissible to use late Latin verb-forms when translating
Ostrogothic sestinas caught his attention, and he turned to deal with
the matter when....") It would have been the least you could do for my
memory, in return for the enormous value of my attaching you and Eydie to my biography in that fashion.

And I wrote back:

I think had you expired I would have given your biographer something meatier, such as, "Knowing him to be expert in autoerotic asphyxia, I felt little anxiety when, the neck of the bottle of a fine single-barrel bourbon clasped in one hand, he put the other to his throat and with surprising strength..."

And he wrote back:

I actually knew one autoerotic asphyxiator, the underground artist Vaughn Bode, who succeeded in doing himself in that way circa 1975 at the age of 32 or so. I have yet to make my first experiments in that direction, but I'm young yet, and Saturday's events have warned me that I better get around to everything I haven't gotten around to before the ultimate blackout arrives. I intend to begin by wrapping a washcloth over my face and see where it goes from there. Cautious as ever. Incidentally, it's a good thing Eydie called 911. I would never have done it myself and, since I felt normal again so soon, would probably have vetoed the idea if I had been conscious when it came up. I am whatever the opposite of a hypochondriac is and usually spurn such elaborate medical attention. But the information they provided was useful both to me and to my doctor in assessing what had really happened (ie not very much) and if they had not been on hand so fast to give me an EKG reading etc. we would all now be guessing about the severity of the thing. Instead we know that it was a momentary and probably inexplicable blackout but that it had no consequences of a nature lasting beyond that moment.

So, here is the life lesson in all of this. (Life lessons are like pornography, hard to define, easy to recognize and widely available on the internet):

An Ode to 911
by Michael Robertson
Written in His 61st Year

When your guests start collapsing
And everybody's talking.
Let your lungs do the screaming
While your fingers do the walking.

Wait. That makes no sense. The point is that you don't have to look up 911. That's the whole point. It's ... 911.

Oh Rhyme, you glib bitch goddess.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

We Networked with Some Very Nice Firefighters

Time to write about our Christmas party!

Let's see where I shall begin: with a thoughtful disquisition on the political (by which I mean career-building) implications of party giving in general or with the grim game of life or death that played itself out at our Christmas party last Saturday?

Disquisition or grim game? Disquisition or grim game? Hmm? Hmm?? Hmm???

Grim game it is. Once again alliteration trumps microcosmic political economy.

So, we had our little party -- friends, acquaintances and not a single enemy invited to turn, burn or otherwise neutralize. (More about that later.) It was all very nice. The house was as pretty as toast points and my wife has this new cookbook, the Kama Sutra of Dips. Such a marvelous collection of guests, all apparently ready to unhinge their jaws in the good-hearted effort to eat something larger than their heads! We even had a famous writer, indeed the only famous writer we know. And we had a Bonus Guest, a friend's sister who is a registered nurse, whose presence produced much easy laughter since where the medical profession trods, can a sampler of Viagra and constipation jokes be far behind?

Several groups were talking in our tight companionable little kitchen, and I was telling the nurse about my alcohol-induced fainting spell from several months ago, about which those-ah of-ah you-ah who read-ah my blog-ah -- why am I channeling Chico Marx? -- are already well informed. And suddenly out there just beyond the sound of my wine-dark voice, the Famous Writer, with neither a whimper nor, thankfully, a bang, slumped to the hard bright tile floor of our kitchen.

This was educational, a learning moment. It showed that Hardy was right, coincidences do happen, the highly improbable is one thing and the impossible is another, and sometimes you bet on the Red Sox.

FW was only out for a few seconds. Visiting Nurse was right on the job, chatting him up, shining a light in his eyes, with never a "Holy shit" or "I need a drink" or "Stick a fork in him. He's done." My wife called 911 right bang NOW, not waiting to raise a finger to test the winds of embarrassment nor to ask the afflicted for permission. (Two true stories: My wife's dad lay on the floor with a broken hip for an entire night because he refused permission for my wife's mom to call 911. My aunt lay at the foot of the stairs with a broken hip for an entire night because her husband refused permission for my mom to call 911.)

Came the fire truck lights flashing. In rushed the firefighters with their medical devices in worn leather cases. The FW -- who had been spread out in the master bedroom on the big bed with the red Missoni bedspread while our 18-year-old cat watched from her own bed with the cruel indifference of the very old and the very cat -- said he felt fine, and declined a trip to the hospital.

As did I when I was spread out on that very bed as the very same indifferent cat watched, confident she would not be tromped by firefighter boots.

FW came back to the party strong -- slightly rakish smile, hair poofed out on distinguished temples -- and even lingered for a glass or two of wholesome Oakland tap water before, this display of manly calm indulged, his wife dragged him away. He hadn't drunk much before his collapse, just a glass of wine, and some suspected it was all a kind of Zen thing, him closing his consciousness down to ward off boors, bores and mysteries swimming in the dip.

I was left with my own thoughts, of which I had several: 1) That darn human nature! This little interruption sure didn't dampen the party. Indeed, once it was clear that FW was fine, it gave a kind of je ne sais quoi to the evening, as a particularly nimble streaker might at the academy awards or a particularly well-orchestrated fistfight at a baseball game, that fight taking place off in the safe distance. 2) What a coinkydink!! Me and my fainting tale being related and then Whomp! about a yard away. Religions have been founded on less. 3) And you know, once it was clear that FW was fine -- and I really was confident that he was indeed fine, having had my own fainting spell this very same year, which created an empathy of almost psychic intensity -- it did occur to me that had he died on the hard bright floor of our kitchen, our house would have become a footnote, the final period in a life well-lived. The evening would have become biographical. Fans would have put flowers on our lawn and left notes pinned to the door. What a demise it would have been, somewhere between Byron's fever death in Missolonghi in the cause of Greek freedom and Tennessee Williams in a New York City hotel choking on the plastic cap of his eye medicine, mistaking it for a sleeping pill.

And if some of you turn away from this page in discomfort at such cold calculation, oh don't go now. This isn't just a personal revelation, it's a transition.

By which I mean, our little hindbrains are always searching for some personal advantage, aren't they? Nasty little hindbrain. Get thee to a reptilery. And so we slide, as a spoon slides into warm tapioca, into the second half of this little essay, the philosophical part.

I told a friend who had a cold and couldn't attend Saturday night's party that this was not going to be a "political party." He said good I'm tired of talking about the election. I said nonono, I mean that I haven't invited anyone I work with or anyone I'm trying to get anything from in the context of work or career. This party will not be political in the narrow sense of the word, (I said), that is, it is not a locus of manipulations and indirections carefully gauged to push the old Life's Work uphill or at least pull it back from the brink.

You know, that's what an awful lot of parties are about. That's what an awful lot of parties are about like it or not, a fact I did not understand for many years. My wife and I have been inviting coworkers into our home ever since we got our own bedroom, living room, indoor plumbing, kitchen and enough celery and carrot sticks to rub together, succumbing (at least in my case) to the mythos of all those classic tv series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Barney Miller, that is, the comforting idea that the workplace is one big happy family. I thought you all got together and talked and laughed, and bonds were inevitably created and invariably strengthened. I did not understand that you needed to stay two drinks behind and two conversational steps ahead of those guests whose dislike of you could prove a problem. (It took me a long time to figure out that some people dislike me or wouldn't mind trying. Me! I wouldn't hurt a fly.)

I've learned better. At first I didn't understand that entertaining co-workers, and those in related fields who might somehow someday boost your career, is a political act even if you are not consciously trying to placate or enlist those coworkers, or workers in related fields, in your cause. It can't not be political, but I just didn't get it. All these people were my friends! Work was one thing, and play was another, I thought. Gradually slowly glacially I got smart, and saw that such social events are quivery as a mound of jello, protean, seismic, an infinity of rows of dominos stretching in every direction ready to topple. I got tactical. I learned to work the guest list, thinking who might like to meet who, who I might take aside to confirm a rumor or plant an idea or explain a project:

Oh yes my old workfriend, you know who you are, backed into a corner as I replenish your glass, call for the cashews and make clear as a raw bleeding sore some idea I had only hinted at in the office, apparently thinking that the blackest of Jack, the cashews, the faint thrum of Frank Sinatra underneath the general hubbub and my sour beating breath will somehow make plain why this hiring, this firing, this curriculum revision, this proposal to change the color of the departmental bulletin board from puce to fuchsia is now that you brought it up (somebody brought it up) a good idea.

Why -- you probably wondered, old workfriend -- doesn't he just drop a fistful of quarters into my highball glass, wink and walk away? Why does he think I'm the one with the pocketful of magic beans?

Yeah, I figured out I was just not very good at "party politics." And I could never figure when I was being played by my own guests: PFC Gomer Machiavelli, reporting for duty.

Lately I've given up on having parties with a political dimension. I stick to inviting those who are of absolutely no use to me except in the sense that we are all lost souls hungry for a few shreds of affection, respect and comfort in this life this wasteland blah blah, in short just the usual collection of lovable neurotics who I am proud to call friends or at least need to. They are thankful I'm not asking for their vote to get me on the committee to decide what kind of bottled water we will have in the new faculty lounge.

Of course the great However is that some of my workfriends are fine people and naturally I will want to have them in my house sometime. (Oh you are seeing through this silly game of words I play.) Their charm is irresistible. Their tolerance for the fact that I'm all thumbs when it comes to university politics shows they are smart and proves they are virtuous. (What? Someone sent them the link to this essay?! That's crazy talk!) Oh dear dear readers, how delighted I would be to have you at the same party as my dear workfriends. You won't have any trouble picking me out of the crowd: I'm the one two drinks behind, struggling desperately to stay two conversational steps ahead.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Santa Says, "I Never Leave Home Without It." But Mrs. Claus Says He Better Not Leave Home With It

Why does there hang tucked away on a high limb of our Christmas tree next to an effervescent angel and a phosphorescent Santa a double package of condoms in bright red foil pierced by a safety pin?

Where to start?

They are there because 15 years ago we bought 5,000 condoms when we were putting condoms in takeout boxes for Chinese food -- with fortunes, too, and glitter -- during our entrepreneurial phase. Someday I will write about our entrepreneurial phase, of which condoms in takeout boxes for Chinese food were only one manifestation. Suffice it to say we didn't make money (but we didn't lose money either, not on the condoms) and we ended up with around a thousand condoms in bright red foil in boxes of 144 on the shelf in our garage.

There they were on the shelf. We did not employ them in the physical act of love ourselves because we did not require them -- by which I mean by the time of our condom repackaging (and we were an FDA certified condom repackager) my wife had passed gracefully through the climacteric.

You may be sure that then, as now, we most certainly built our day around the wild thing. You may accept that as a given. Let that be stipulated, even more so because prophylactic measures were no longer required. Do I need to talk more slowly? Did you get that down.

So, we didn't need them. I suppose we should have given them away or, later, thrown them away. But for a long time we thought we would get back in the condom business, which, once in your blood, can reach out and pull you back in at any moment. By the time we had relinquished that dream, we were not comfortable with the idea of giving the condoms away. I assumed condoms have a limited shelf life, like cottage cheese. As for tossing them, I must say I enjoyed being able to say in company that I have a thousand condoms in the garage if the conversation starts to lag.

(My misplacing the conditional dependent clause in the preceding sentence was not intended to imply a smutty double meaning. We are a lovely wholesome couple, lovely, wholesome, dull, not very popular.)

A couple of weeks ago, as some of you recall, my fantasy baseball league held its annual awards banquet. I usually buy small gifts for the league members. Last year I bought ribbons like the ones a kindergarten teacher might give out, ribbons with mottos like "Participant" or "Potty Trained." I buy them at the party store opposite the Peerless Coffee plant in Oakland near the television station. But this year I didn't get to the party store, so instead at the last minute I took some condoms, attached safety pins to them and created Good Conduct Medals for the boys.

Good Conduct Medals made of condoms in red foil? I'm feeling entrepreneurial again.

I think the rest of the league thought this was in poor taste. I don't think anyone else put their medal on. Sometimes I think my days as BCL -- Beloved Commissioner for Life -- are numbered. Sometimes I feel like Churchill in 1945. Really, I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.

Anyway, when I got home from the banquet I was feeling a little low. Oh yes, I could imagine the league members saying behind my back: That BCL. He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry. (First, Churchill, then Gloria Swanson, now Polonius. Somebody is trying to repair the taste deficit inherent in this discussion.)

So I took off my condom medal, which was two condoms still connected and really did look like a medal, and hung it on the Christmas tree to give my wife a good laugh.

She has not noticed the condoms. This weekend we are having a small party to which are invited some of her friends whom I have never met.

Should I take the condoms off the tree? Would that be bowing to middle-class morality, to so-called "moral values"? Would it, in short, be a victory for George Bush?

I think we know the answer to that. Come to the party and stand with me at the tree.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A Very Long Post in Which the Blogger Proves He is No Scientist, Nor Does He Play One on TV

This is something I must write, something to be done from personal need, from a deep compulsion.

And, wouldn't that sentence make a decent Neo-Victorian beginning for one of those first-person novels where the narrator is a psycho killer in whose Bruno Magli's you must now walk -- or creep -- for 500 pages? But in the screen version the focus is shifted, and the narrator is brought to justice by Morgan Freeman, though not so thoroughly brought to justice that the possibility of a sequel is foreclosed.

Reset. Begin again. Stop procrastinating.

One of the things about this kind of writing, bloggish but in some ways columnar but in either case driven by deadline, is how often a topic will pop into mind on which I have no particular opinions but about which I know I could easily generate some opinions: kids on the front page of the Chron last week wearing school uniforms -- I could write about that, possibly even write something thoughtful; or the mention of misletoe in a cartoon -- misletoe! mistletoe? there's an easy 400 words, some of which might even be funny.

I've already used the idea of "build it and they will come" once this month, but here it is again in a different context. Sometimes you know if you start to write about a particular "it" -- without a plan, without an aim, without foreknowledge of any kind -- you will stumble onto something, and your little essay will appear to be an acceptable exercise in expository writing of the vaguely discursive kind. And you don't have to have cared about the idea at all, and 24 hours later you can read what you wrote and be surprised -- I said what about what? -- without the slightest fear that Alzheimer's is at work. When Mr. Deadline is hungry, it appears he will eat almost anything.

But curse the topic you are actually drawn to, that you feel you must write about just to clear the debris away from the drain so that the storm sewer does not overflow. That kind of topic is a headache, particularly if the compulsion to write about it does not come from a desire to enlighten or to educate based on what you confidently and completely know, or from a justifiable wish to share a bit of wisdom or insight polished by long thought. The problem is when you just got to write it because the idea won't let you alone. You care about it, but you don't really know about it. It bites you and torments you. You keep thinking about it as if it were the irritating refrain from a song heard on the radio or, even worse, in a TV commercial. So let me do what I have to do so I can get back to being facile and insincere.

I told you (I told you) my new blog title might make me want to fit my subject matter to its demands. Several of youse -- and I say youse to court the elite NYC readership -- said, "You will now start writing about cats. Every other post will be about the antics of the pusses. I am telling you, Robertson, that when it comes to enjoying the antics of the pusses, not only do you have to be there, most people wouldn't enjoy it even if they were there. Put down the pusses, raise your hands over your head and back away. Back away! I've got a dog and I'll use it."

Not so. Bad prognostication. For I know better than most that the lives of cats are an anagram formed by only a handful letters, and the number of variations is limited. Their antics are delightful but of a sameness. Cat is languid. Day the cat gets a job and brings home a paycheck then you'll hear more about the cat.

What I actually feel compelled to write about is Darwin!

I can't just take the name without taking the blame, i.e., addressing the fact that millions of Americans say the Bible is the inerrant word of God -- the vein in my temple is already throbbing -- and that, following this idea to its end, they reject "evolution" as the explanation for the diversity of life on this planet.

One lousy word in the name of an obscure blog! But I feel the unremitting weight of these ignorant times on my shoulders. I've decided I'm wearing the bullseye. I imagine a confrontation with some inflamed fundamentalist eager to debate creation vs. evolution, a debate I must enter to maintain the pride and dignity of the blog. I imagine myself -- and here we see how egomania is a form of paranoia -- failing to hold up my end of the argument. As part of the process of preparing for this intellectual collision that will almost certainly never come -- even as you watch with the mildest of interest and the absence of fascination -- I am trying to clarify my thinking about this issue and how I might express it.

Though I've never commissioned a survey of my regular blog readers, I am confident that all of you are confirmed evolutionists, probably having had so little experience of the fundamentalist Christian mindset when it comes to evolutionary biology that it has never seemed necessary to do more than express contempt for its absurdity.

See this cartoon. It sums up how you feel. It sums up how I feel. But what if I am asked to press the argument against the anti-Darwinian point of view, which as a) a former fundamentalist Christian and b) one who has appropriated the name of Darwin to tart up this blog I feel obligated to do?

I begin to gather my thoughts. I will not make the mistake the Democrats made in the last election. I will consider my vocabulary, the terms of the discourse, so I do not lose the argument before I begin it. How shall I describe my position on evolutionary biology? My first impulse -- my unthinking liberal arts impulse -- is to say I believe evolution to be true. But I have copy edited and taught copy editing. I understand the importance of making distinctions in the use of the so-called "verbs of attribution" concerning which we will now embark on a fine long digression.

As I tell my copy editing students, the standard verb of attribution -- the word used to suggest nearby words came out of someone's mouth -- is "said." Said is neutral. It does not suggest an attitude on the part of the reporter toward the information that came out of the speaker's mouth. It is in the past tense, which adds the lovely implication that the utterance was of its moment and the speaker might very well say something different today, at the moment the reader is reading. Sometimes the reporter will come to the conclusion that the speaker is dealing with his or her first principles, with an idea almost certain not to change, with a core value, and will use "says" instead of said. But more often "says" appears when the story is a feature, not concerned so much with timely information but with narrative and characterization, tale-telling, the kind of story where immediacy has value. You've read this sort of story countless times: "Margo begins to leaf through the photo album. 'I regret nothing,' she says."

Additional difficulties arise when the journalist is paraphrasing rather than quoting directly. Paraphrasing is legitimate. Paraphrasing is necessary. But the conscientious journalist is naturally uncomfortable in the role of filter, not just selecting from what has been said but compressing it and drawing out its essence. The paraphrasing journalist may sometimes search for alternative verbs of attribution to suggest the tentativeness of what follows, the fact that this is a paraphrase and subject to the distortion that is a necessary part of all paraphrase. Three such "softer" verbs of attribution are not uncommon, and they are always in the present tense. They are "believes," "thinks" and "feels." More than once, I have seen them used as alternatives to he said/he says when the reporter is paraphrasing. Sometimes they are used to suggest the tentativeness of paraphrase, but sometimes they are used -- I fear I may have used them so -- as simple substitutes for "says," as a way of introducing variety.

Young reporters in particular are dissatisfied with said/says even when quoting directly, and find it irresistible to use stated, declared, claimed, averred, sneered, pontificated and so on and so on, apparently unaware that these substitutes color the way the reader receives the quotation or paraphrase. To these kids, there is also no difference between believing, thinking and feeling when they are searching for ways to characterize the information they have just paraphrased or summarized, particularly when believes, feels or thinks is used as the secondary verb of attribution, as is, "Robertson said he believes...." even though I have not used the word "believes."

Yet such a nice distinction exists among these three words. Let us say I am interviewing the president of the University of San Francisco, Rev. Steven Privett, S.J., to whom I am glad to give the ink, even in so long an essay in so obscure a blog. (Maybe this will be seen someday as his first step toward sainthood, maybe not.) Anyway, after a long conversation with him, I might say Privett said he believes God exists or thinks God exists or feels God exists. Choice of verb would depend on whether Privett's thoughts on this topic emphasized faith or rational analysis or emotional state. The verbs of summary attribution are commonly used as if they are interchangeable and, practically speaking, in most cases little if any meaning is lost. If I say, however, that I "believe in evolution," I am immediately surrendering to what I gather is one of the basic arguments of the creationist types, that evolution is equivalent to creationism because both are matters of faith.

So let me now say that I think evolutionary theory -- I think the term of art is macroevolutionary theory -- is an accurate description of what happened on earth over the last few billion years. (Odd isn't it that so many would rather say we believe something -- so absolute, so unempirical, so gauzy -- than say that we think something, which has somehow been demoted, shoved lower down in the hierarchy of ways of describing our judgments about the world.)

Why do I think evolution is the hypothesis of choice? For the same reason I think the earth orbits the sun. The institutions and the individuals who, as far as I can make out, use the scientific method -- and thus think that any conclusions about the external world are subject to falsification in the face of new evidence -- think it is the most probable conclusion based on the evidence. To the degree I understand the data and its interpretation, the "evolutionists" win. To the degree I understand the counter-arguments of the creationists and their fellow-travelers, the believers in the idea of intelligent design, the creationists and their fellow-travelers lose. Hey, I could be wrong. I think I could have a productive conversation with a creationist who would say the same: I could be wrong, too.

Having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian, I recall that "I could be wrong" was not a part of the fundamentalist Christian vocabulary when it came to facts about the physical universe that had to be a certain way because the Bible "said" they were a certain way. Still, next time I am challenged by an empiricist/fundamenatalist, I am ready to get it on, with the understanding that the argument will unfold like a chess-match-by-mail, with long pauses while I go look something up

To summarize -- for my own benefit, not yours -- I think that the scientific method is the most useful tool for understanding how the physical world works, and I think those individuals and those institutions who employ it are likely to have better conclusions -- better hypotheses, better theories -- than those who don't. At the end of the day, we all trust our experts, and we do well enough if we exercise some judgment in picking them. I am sensitive to the fact that scientists will sometimes lock onto conclusions too firmly and fail to apply the scientific method properly and that some explanations give way to better explanations only with generational change, when the old scientists die. Some scientists decide to start believing and stop thinking, one might say, sinking into the metaphorical tar pit of too-beloved a theory and fossilizing, as it were. Still, what that generational change in a particular theory emphasizes is the soundness of the scientific method, that the incomplete or inadequate theory had underlying it/implicit in it its own system of self-correction. The bad scientist says my data supports me. Look at it yourself. And someone does and the data does not support him. He was the one who said go look! But embrace of the scientific method is incidental to the fundamentalist Christians I am familiar with. The "use" of the scientific method is a rhetorical device to them if it is anything.

I am beginning to scratch my itch. I think I am pretty close to shutting this down. I began it only because I felt compelled to make my "Darwin declaration," and the first argument in favor of the general theory of evolution that came to mind was anecdotal and personal, and I was embarrassed since it was so personal, so limited in application. Still, it's one of the reasons I doubt many things and tend to think others are true. It is a simple way of looking at things: If the idiots believe one thing, it makes me think the opposite may well be true.

Let me take you back to Whooping Jesus Bible College, from which my wife and I got our degrees. We disliked it so much for so long, though it's more of a dull ache now than a running sore. My wife actually turned down the chance to make her degree from Georgia Tech an MFA because she wanted a B.S. so that she would never have to acknowledge that first degree from WJBC. WJBC is still on my official resume, but in more casual contexts I occasionally substiute my wife's last name. -- I say I graduated from Landrith College. My wife and I wish we had never heard the name of Whooping Jesus Bible College.

Except that was where we met.

I read "somewhere" -- the place from where so many of the really really entertaining ideas come -- that the strongest bond is forged when people hate the same things. Mark these words and this date: On August 2, 2005, many a fine Democrat baby will come screaming into the world....

Well, my wife and I meshed at WJBC, and that fact must be put in the balance when we talk about how much we dislike it. Just one anecdote, the one that popped into mind and thus began this Long Blog's Journey into Night. While we were students at WJBC in the Sixties, the greatest anti-evolutionist of the day came through to explain how Darwin and those who have refined and expanded his ideas were wrong. He made a speech in chapel. I remember none of it. What I do remember is that all the male members of the student body were called together that evening to hear the great man's secondary message, which was on the evils and dangers of masturbation. Now, the great man was not against sex, for sex made babies and babies were needed since had not Jesus or somebody told the world that there would be marrying and giving in marriage until his return? Sex, the great man, said was perfectly fine in marriage to produce babies. What's more it was appropriate at other times, too. On sentimental occasions, he said.

Like a wedding anniversary. He did not discuss the data he had accumulated to support this hypothesis.

I have spent my whole life trying to overcome certain antipathies the exercise of which can serve as a substitue for analytical thinking. Memories like this do not make it easy.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Where Were You When the Scott Peterson Death Penalty Came Down? God Help Me, I Know.

I was at Martin Mack's saloon on Haight St. in San Francisco. We had been watching -- perhaps, I should say we being subjected to -- the soccer game between Manchester United and Fulham, about which you cannot begin to imagine my depth of indifference, when someone twigged to the fact the Peterson jury was coming back in with the penalty verdict and changed channels.

It was Christmas lunch for the Drunk Boyz. The Drunk Boyz are an assortment of guys who either work for the University of San Francisco or worked there once. As my regular readers know, I am what you might call a fetish consumer of alcoholic beverages. I talk about drinking more than I actually drink -- you have figured that out. To me such consumption symbolizes a kind of Bohemian and/or creative lifestyle, so I blog blog blog about the drinks I had while a journalist. It's personal, quirky even, and if you go to the top right of this page and click through an assortment of other blogs hosted by Blogger, you will see that my talk of wine, beer and the estimable Jack Daniels Black is embedded in the context of one hundred thousand teenage girls moaning and bemoaning the fact Tab did not look at them today in geometry class and should be judged/damned accordingly.

Sweet goddess, I wish it were geometry class in which Tab, in all his myopia, looked through, past or over all the Candaces and Sarah Jessicas and Winonas of the world. But it was probably Self Esteem for Sophomores, and thus the future belongs to those lands out there where the sun sets. (No, not Hawaii. Keep moving.)

But you get the point. I have an occasional drink, and I plaster it on this blog like a swoosh logo.

To place you in the moment once again, I remind that the Drunk Boyz -- not drunk and far from boys -- were at Martin Mack's on Haight St. in San Francisco having our little holiday season sitdown, and the "football" was on the telly when those in positions of responsibility at MM in HS turned the channel over to the revelation of the Scott Peterson verdict. And, after a certain amount of delay and confusion, we learned that the jury had decided he should die. And if you believe what the Drunk Boyz had to say, once the dire penalty was announced, none of us had paid much attention to the crime or its aftermath, including the trial. In my case that was certainly true. A plump pretty white woman great with child was savagely murdered. Subtract the "white" and it's a day in the life of the world. (And maybe you should subtract the "plump," too.) It's as if, if you concentrate on the obscenity of this death, if you put too much time, energy and interest into this horrendous murder, you are somehow giving yourself a pass on Darfur and Sadr City and other places where terrible is something you do before lunch, to jumpstart the day.

I did have a brandy, followed by coffee, boys and girls -- don't do this at home. But still, I am writing on fumes. All the way home across the Bay Bridge I listened to the news conference with the jurors who chose to talk, and everything they said touched me. The jury system as theoretical construct: you and me dealing with too much information. Beaucoup slack to those who actually did the job. I do not think that the death penalty is a good idea, but when some people are executed my mind says one thing and my lizard brain, there somewhere down low in the far suburbs of the skull, says otherwise.

The Drunk Boyz are good boys. We talked of institutional politics and long-range plans and which college deans we might be able to play/manipulate/enlist in our righteous cause and those which we almost certainly can't, as we sat there sharing thimble by thimble the cheap fierce inadequate Chilean merlot -- yet why was my voice so much louder than it needed to be? -- in the first booth at Martin Mack's on Haight St. in San Francisco, California as we learned that Scott Peterson may die soon rather than later, only the timeline but not the final outcome subject to appeal and lawyers billing $300 an hour.

It's only the telly, isn't it, turtle dove?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

When Whizzing Kills: This Holiday Warning is a Public Service to the Reality-Based Community

Listen to my tale, my dear friends. Early one morning not so long ago after perhaps celebrating my birthday a bit too vigorously, I rose from my bed, emptied my bladder, had a sudden attack of the giddies and fell to the floor with a thump. A period of unconsciousness followed. I finally regained my bearings -- about the time five firemen came charging down the stairs, having been summoned by my wife during my 20 minutes of horizontal contemplation. After some poking and prodding, I was allowed to remain in my cozy bed and was not dragged off to the hospital.

The lesson is this: We are not as young as we used to be. After midnight, particularly when the booze has flowed, men should sit down to whiz.

Here's the medical summary: micturition syncope, which is the temporary loss of consciousness upon urinating. "Simple" syncope is loss of consciousness or, in plain English, fainting. The situations that trigger this reaction are diverse and include having blood drawn, straining while urinating (micturition syncope) or defecating or coughing or swallowing. The reaction also can be due to the emotional stress of fear or pain. Under these conditions, people often become pale and feel nauseated, sweaty, and weak just before they lose consciousness. Situational syncope is caused by a reflex of the involuntary nervous system called the vasovagal reaction. The vasovagal reaction leads the heart to slow down (bradycardia) and, at the same time, it leads the nerves to the blood vessels in the legs to permit those vessels to dilate (widen). The result is that the heart puts out less blood, the blood pressure drops, and what blood is circulating tends to go into the legs rather than to the head. The brain is then deprived of oxygen, and the fainting episode occurs.

You did not know this. I did not know this until I took a seminar in the subject on the hard cold tile of my own bathroom floor. The lesson is simple. If you drink, don't drive. If you drink, don't flirt -- in fact, don't even talk. If you drink, don't expect respect, my man.

And, oh yeah: Squat in the gutter like a particularly decrepit wino if it becomes necessary to urinate.

As you age, these warnings are a version of those old Burma Shave signs on the edge of the highway, in this case each one more disheartening than the one before. It would seem some of us feel compelled to read them all and -- forgive me -- whiz on by.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Blasphemy or Sacrilege? Even the Lexicographers Disagree

Here's the back story. As part of the wholesome fun of maintaining interest in our fantasy baseball league over the winter, I reconstituted the Patrick Finley Memorial Fantasy League weblog which the rest of my league mates had been so heartily ignoring. To make it attractive, as one might offer a futon or a free month's rent to get tenants into a nondescript apartment, I swore I would quit trying to be so darn clever in my posts. Nobody likes a showoff. In other words, it would be nothing but baseball talk -- trades, rumors, tidbits from other baseball websites, the pure Hippocrene, as Keats would have said. The blog was created, and my first post was utter vanilla.

And then beloved league member and 2004 second-place finisher Robert (Bob) Wieder, he who has written gibes and mots for Playboy these many years, jumped in with some rather wicked parodies of Christmas carols.

Sometimes you build it and they will not come. And sometimes you build it again and they drive their hotrod into the middle of the infield and start doing doughnuts.

I am just glad for the traffic. You are welcome to drop by the league blog -- say that three times fast: leagueblog, leagueblog, leagueblog -- and threaten Bob with eternal damnation, or just talk some baseball.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Dance Dance. Drink Drink. Remember, Regret, Forget.

Today I am battered by pleasure. Saturday night my wife and I attended the Holly Ball, where those of us who follow the old ways in social dance -- the waltzes, the fox trots, the swings, the rhumbas, the tangos -- gathered in Berkeley and floated our collective booty across the dance floor as smoothly as moonlight on water.

Or so we like to think. The average age of the participants is about 117. Go straight down Memory Lane just past the blacksmiths and turn right at the typewriter repairmen and there you will find us.

My wife and I had a fine good time -- drank a little, ate a little, even did a self-admiring tango that was probably comic to see but was pure Fred-and-Ginger to experience from the inside. Enough said. I've written about us and social dance back in the days when the Chronicle still bought freelance columns. Click here for Tuxedos of the Dead.

Saturday night merely softened me up for last night, when the Patrick Finley Memorial Fantasy Baseball League had its annual banquet. Everyone knows what fantasy baseball is. In its simplest form, you buy a major league baseball player in the spring of the year and somebody else buys another major league baseball player and then you sit back and watch their statistics accumulate. Best cumulative stats at the end of the year win. It's more complicated than that only in the sense that in a league like ours more guys are buying and more guys are being bought. For a deeper discussion, click through to Baseball vs. the NASDAQ, also from back in the day in which I didn't have to give this stuff away, when I could put $75 or even $100 in my pocket oh two or three times a year just like that!

I am not writing today about the rules or mechanics of our league, which has just finished its 21st year and is as heavy with silly rules and anachronistic mechanics as baseball itself. I write about the human element, which always spoils everything and sometimes make me think that this universe has both a creator and a purpose, and the creator is a joker and his creation is a joke and the joke is on us. Our league has been tested and deformed this year by the behavior of a league member who -- though otherwise a good citizen and worthy friend and I'm not just going Marc Antony on his ass when I say that -- decided to take one small corner of his life and huddle in that small corner and go completely nuts.

He has been a league member for a long time, though he dropped out several years ago only to reemerge this year to everyone's surprise. He drafted well. Early on he took the lead, which he held. And early on he began to send emails to the rest of the league that essentially said we were stupid for being in the league in the first place -- it being so wasteful of our time and energy and no suitable pastime for a thinking human being in this year when the future of the country and the whole world itself was in the balance -- and that we were also stupid inside the microcosmic world of the league since he was beating us so handily.

Now, my male readers may say, "Well, this is how men relate. It's cursing and shoulder-punching and awkward hugging that seems more like flailing than embracing."

And I reply, "Yeaaaaaaaah." But this got really mean. It got personal. It got under people's skin. It was like a mind game in which you weren't sure what the game was. He said over and over again that he would not participate in the league in the future. Over and over again. Over and over again. And again.

And again.


And we had heard him the first time.

He is a friend. He is a friend. I told him he was being really irritating. He said as an anarchist he liked creating chaos. I don't think that is a one-sentence summary of the anarchistic philosophy. Moreover, he did not create chaos so much as he created a simmering resentment that was coherent, well-proportioned, even monolithic.

Ah well, it is sad to see men quarrel because so many of us lack that emotional tool kit that (I sincerely believe) women more commonly have that enables them to repair damaged relationships. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe some women will read this and comment? But aren't women better at maintaining the conversation when the relationship is under duress? And don't men suffer from the compulsion to step back and summarize the relationship and extrapolate the future of the relationship thus:

Fuck you. I mean it. Fuck you!

And so the 21st year of the Patrick Finley Memorial Fantasy Baseball League came to an end. The winner, He Whose Name Must Not be Spoken, one last time impugned us and belittled us and summed up his superiority and our inferiority in a very long email that I decided (ever the secure adult) just not to read but to trash trash trash because it was pretty sure to hurt my feelings.

We had a good banquet. Our host, who is a talented cook, prepared a salad of duck confit, a kind of spicy pork stew with (I think) corn-and-cheese tortillas and asparagus and a baked apple with ice cream that was pumpkin colored but probably not pumpkin flavored. There was a good deal of wine, some of it pretty good, so after a certain point who knew? We laughed and laughed and talked about possible baseball trades and who, at last year's draft, paid too much for players that did far too little. We caught up. After 12 years a league member finally married his sweetie. Of course, we asked if she were pregnant, for all language is code, of course, and men are always jumping at meaning from the side, back or even the soft underbelly, of course, for any fool can express an honest emotion in words of one syllable.

Oh, that would be too easy.

Our champion was not there. Our champion was not invited. Our champion has been erased from all our email distribution lists. Ah, to be deleted so. We have all been deleted so, unknowing, without feeling the slightest twinge, the faintest vibration in the ether. The silence deepened and we did not notice, at least not at once.

And the league? The problem is solved there never was a problem I don't know what you're talking about Michael who?

We'll recruit a new member for next year. As for The Deleted One, I hope I don't have to recruit a new friend, mourning the loss of an old one. Words would probably fail me on both sides of that zero-sum exercise. I would have to punch the nearest arm.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Terminator IV: The Rise of the Cellphones

There was once this science fiction writer named Isaac Asimov who had the odd but lucrative talent of being able to write stories faster than the average person could read them, which meant that even the most devoted fans ended each day further behind in their attempt to make their way, dogged and workmanlike, through his dogged and workmanlike prose. You didn't read Asimov for the prose, of course. You read him for the stories and for the ideas that floated on the surface of the stories, like those chewy block letters in alphabet soup. But he wrote so much so fast that I personally would never claim to know his final fictional word on anything.

So all I am claiming is that in one of his many many robot stories -- which I think more or less came down on the side of the robots, or on the side of humans who thought robots were not a dystopian menace -- that one way in which robotphobic humans could be coaxed beyond their fear was to introduce a variety of very simple robots capable of doing one or two very simple household chores rather than one very complicated robot capable of doing many many household chores and perhaps tin mischief as well.

I don't recall his using this idea of simplicity-in-multiplicity in a sinister way, to suggest that thus the robots would insinuate themselves into our lives and accomplish piecemeal the conquest of an increasingly dependent human race. I hope he did because that is what a working writer should do: Mine the material from both ends of the tunnel until it's all gone.

But if Asimov had written such a cautionary story and if he had thought to imagine the modern cellphone and place it in such a story as phantom menace, the point I'm sure would have been not some scene where the phones explode, blowing our head offs (you've been reading the current news stories about that, I'm sure) but a scene in which the phone just sits there, driving you slowly nuts in a game of electronic three-card monte.

Or so my poor wife was nudged, coaxed and pulled to the very edge of madness by her new cellphone last night. The phone's little brain chip is roomy, like some vast and confusing Gothic mansion, vast simply because the builder had money enough to make it vast and thus filled with many empty rooms that cry out for a reason to be. So the chip in my wife's cellphone is able to accommodate more information than one would reasonably want to have accommodated. And so my wife succumbed to the lure of being able to attach every useful fact -- nay nay; every extant fact -- about those loved, known or once-met at a party into her cellphone. This overloading accomplished, all you had to do was say, "Poot" to the phone -- for the phone has its own little electronic ear and part of the challenge of all this was reducing oral id's to one short syllable -- and every fact, figure, rumor and extrapolated outcome concerning (for example) Vladimir Putin, Prince of All the Russians and Original Bush Soul Brother, would come vomiting back.

This, of course, is not command but the illusion of command. Moreover, back it would come only if ever it were entered. All this entering naturally involved many many keystrokes. There was no interim saving of information. All had to be laboriously entered and then saved with one final punch of a tiny button. But this final touch of a tiny button seemed not to save the information but to, whoops, erase it from memory forever!

Now, for six, count'em/I did, six hours last night my wife worked at this problem and finally through this problem.

(That my wife was capable of working six hours at this problem is why she is a wonderful employee. Oh, she's wicked smart -- lot of us are wicked smart, dog -- but she is also so damned focused and determined. I never worry about being taken to some emergency ward in an ambulance and left to die in the corridor. My wife will tear the world a collective new one before I am left to die in the corridor of some emergency ward. The doctors are going to have to kill me. She won't let them let me die.)

It turned out that to save everything you had to push the "down" button, which heretofore in the process had been utterly ignored and neglected. About 1 a.m. last night all this data was finally entered -- though one might better say interred since I don't expect much of it will ever be resurrected -- and my wife came to bed, just in time to catch the last ten minutes of "The Full Monty," which I had been watching on cable, having nothing better to do.

"It's so funny and touching," I said.

"It's a man's movie," she said. "Its premise is that women would pay to see middle-aged men dance naked."

And what woman having a cellphone -- as fickle, as needy, as marginally useful as any man -- would waste her time on that?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

This Blog Wears White Socks

The initial response to the renaming of my blog has been excellent in the sense that there has been no response at all. I interpet this to mean that I have geeked things up to such an extent expectations are now way way down. It is not one of those "See, I'm clever" names. It's more "richly vague," as my old art director at Atlanta Magazine used to say, more "Hmmmm" with a dash of "What!?"

Vague anyway. Certainly geeky.

Yet I have discovered another force at work in the aftermath of Naming. That is, when you inhabit an identity, like it or not that identity begins to work its way out. Think of Vonnegut's "Mother Night" or Synge's "Playboy of the Western World." In one the imposture (Nazi progagandist but really a spy) is deliberate and in the second case (killer of Da but really a wimp) it is accidental -- but in both cases changes are worked. So now suddenly I feel the need to write about evolution or about cats.

Oh, I don't think I will write about both at the same time. Though maybe Darwin had several cats he collectively named Species, his eyes being weak and his time precious, and one day his wife said, "Where did all these damn cats come from anyway?" and Darwin replied, "So you are asking me about .... Whoa, there's an idea ...."

The new blog name is a virus, and it is replicating.