Sunday, January 30, 2005

To Mr. Big Daddy, America (That Sound Kind of Beat. Cool.)

In my late teens there were three works of literary composition I loved: Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." From my point of view, if you rolled them all together you got my father and you got me. What you got was dads with varying degrees of competence and aspiration as they tried to survive in America, and none of them quite managing; you had sons with varying degrees of competence and aspiration as they tried to survive their dad's efforts to survive in America, and none of these sons quite managing either.

This kind of blaming overlooks the fact that these ineffectual dads all had dads of their own, if we are arbitrarily uncoupling the excuse train at only a certain point. I expect that Stephen Sondheim and I will soon announce plans for "Grandads, or the Cutting of Slack, a Musical in Three Acts." But today I am not thinking about the dadcentric aspects of these three works but of a small corner of only one of them.

That's the part near the end of "The Great Gatsby" where Nick Carraway is talking to James Gatz about his son, and Mr. Gatz:

pulled from his pocket a ragged old copy of a book called HOPALONG CASSIDY.

"Look here, this is a book he had when he was a boy. It just shows you."

He opened it at the back cover and turned it around for me to see. On the last fly-leaf was printed the word SCHEDULE, and the date September 12, 1906. and underneath:

Rise from bed ... ... ... ... 6.00 A.M. Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling ..... 6.15-6.30 " Study electricity, etc ... ... ... 7.15-8.15 " Work ... ... ... ... ... . 8.30-4.30 P.M. Baseball and sports ... ... ... . 4.30-5.00 " Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00 " Study needed inventions ... ..... 7.00-9.00 "

GENERAL RESOLVES No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable] No more smokeing or chewing Bath every other day Read one improving book or magazine per week Save $5.00 {crossed out} $3.00 per week Be better to parents

"I come across this book by accident," said the old man. "It just shows you, don't it?"


The happy little throwaway I love is the faith of young Jimmy Gatz that his single greatest investment of time should be in preparation for inventing. So much is needed. So much is still possible. I do not think this little joke is totally dismissive in its irony, since Gatsby makes his money, as best I can figure out, through a variety of financial swindles. He has taken the lesser path. Not a needed invention in sight. In a country moving from the agrarian to the industrial model, there were a lot of things you could do if you were good with your hands and "studied your electricity, etc." -- as had Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers.

I assume that modern readers finds this passage almost unrelievedly ironic. Now is the age of the hyper educated specialist and the sophisticated venture capitalist. It is still the American way to yearn to innovate, but generally speaking today you need to know a great deal about some subsection of a subsection of a subsection of a footnote to the dust from a sliver of a fraction of the sum total of human knowledge to make some swell new thing. Even your venture capitalist has to know enough to calculate if someone else knows so much more than enough to warrant a longshot bet. And most of those bets don't pay off, no matter how much brilliance gathers at the table, as the venture capitalist knows.

Thus, I understand my own personal wonderful idea will never make me a fortune, given the fact my particular expertise revolves around knowing the difference between "lay" and "lain." But if someday someone remembers I was the one who said, "The future is about to go thataway, pardners," well, put it on my pot in the columbarium and I will be content.

What an idea it is. Get this: Hanging around your neck is a little module just crammed with, you know, memory chips and things. What you do is tell this little module all your favorite stories about childhood, personal miseries, blighted romance, sexual awakening, smart conversational comebacks, ripostes in general, dirty jokes, inspirational insights, work complaints, homemaking hints, various apologies for things that weren't your fault in the first place, honest regret and the latest antics of your pet or child or grandchild.

Now, the next time you tell one of these stories to someone, the module -- let's call it Boor Be Gone, or BBG -- recognizes the story and also the voice of the person to whom you are telling it, assuming you let them get a word in. And then the next time you tell this same story to the same person thinking it's the first time, BBG sends a powerful and painful electric shock through you body knocking you to the ground.

And if the storyteller dies as a result, so be it.

Or it could just beep.

Of course, there would be an override, so in the case of those intimate relationships -- I think primarily of some family relationships, most marriages and all romances -- you might get a mild tingle every tenth iteration of these familiar stories. I accept the fact that from some people we want to hear some stories over and over again, if only because only under those circumstances will these other people listen to our stories.

Hmmmm. I also accept the fact I may have said all this to you before. And here you are back again just because I said you might be mentioned in the will. You love to hear about the will, don't you? Let me begin at the beginning....

Addendum: Yes, I meant "boor." Some homonyms are especially apt.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

I Like to Think We Live on the Equator of Love, i.e., That Our Relationship is Not Too Hot Not to Cool Down

Ah, the things that keep love young.

We have our little weekend ritual. We make the coffee and use it to fill two cups of a certain size and then we go into the living room and sit on the sofas -- one pretty big sofa and one smaller sofa -- and drink the coffee and read the newspapers. Right now we read the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturdays. Add the New York Times to the mix on Sunday mornings.

We talk back and forth on topics of the moment, not in a hectoring way but genially. This is a two-way thing. If someone reading his or her morning paper says in a pleasant way, "Wow. I did not know this," one does not reply, "I know that and have been knowing that for a very long time. (Pause) Welcome to modern times."

The generous answer is," Neither did I." A slightly less generous answer in which you edge toward being a know-it-all with a whiff of condescension is, "I think I read something about that."

If you add, "...beginning in the eighth grade and many times since," you deserve what you get.

So this morning I am looking at something in the newspaper -- I don't really remember what -- and I suddenly ask my wife, "What is it if it isn't a knee?" My wife looks back not with incomprehension but in a bright spirit of interest in the incomprehensible. (There is a difference.)

"I mean," I say, "if the leg bends backward..."

"At the joint," she says helpfully.

"...like with an..."

"An animal? Certain animals." she says.

"Yeah, if it bends forward, it's a knee," I say. "But if it bends backward, is it still a knee."

My wife looks at Her Amazing Husband. She was a biology major before she became an architect. She considers this amazing insight just long enough.

"I believe it is," she says. "I really do."

And in the best of spirits we came to the mutual decision that we will make room for sex in our busy schedules sometime in the near term, midterm -- and I don't mean the 2006 elections -- the very worst case.

(Oh. Is it all right to use the word "sex" on the internet?)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

His Little Finger Has Forgotten More Than Most of Us Will Ever Know, Even Those of Us with Two Left Feet

I am just suggesting that if the nuances of the great world of advertising interest you, you should take a look at Brother Greg Pabst's comments on Pig International's ad survey, those comments readily available the second post below this.

Brother Greg -- I use the sobriquet in the how-yew? Southern Baptist sense, not to suggest Pabst has taken holy orders -- teaches advertising and public relations at beautiful University of San Francisco, where I like to say the students get their money's worth, plus a little "change."

Change. Get it? For the better.

Anyway, Pabst, as cruel as he will certainly be to the previous sentence, is one of the jewels of the university. The setting of the jewel may be antique but oh the fire in the depths.

Thursday Pig Blogging Replaces Friday Cat Blogging


This is not ironic. This is not ironic. This is not ironic. It is what it is, the cover of Pig International, a real trade magazine, to be understood only in the context of the post below. Damn you, debased American misogynistic culture of scornful irony. Read the post below. Posted by Hello

Please Respect the Information I Am About to Share with You

I am, of course, a long-time subscriber to Pig International (Covering the Pig Industry Worldwide). I teach magazine writing. Thus, I note that trade magazines -- i.e., those directed at a specific industry or trade -- are a primary source of editing jobs and freelance writing opportunities.

Let's get real, youngblood. Maybe you'll end up in a cubicle in the New Yorker or maybe you'll end up at Pig International, 18 Chapel St., Petersfield, Hampshire in the UK.

Either is an honorable choice, and perhaps the latter more than the former.

So I collect trade magazines to show the "littles," and I find the exercise most compelling when I bring in magazines the names of which might bring a smile to a sullen undergraduate face. Today I received this message from PI, as we insiders like to call it:

Dear Reader of Pig International Magazine:

Your opinions are important to the publishers of Pig International! That is why they have arranged for Readex, an independent research firm, to conduct a brief survey of the contents in the January/February 2005 issue.

Our aim is to provide you the best possible publication, a magazine that delivers useful, important editorial material while also providing a resource for learning more about the products and services available in the marketplace.

Because the number of readers contacted is small, your participation is needed for the success of this project. Of course, your answers will be kept confidential and only used in tabulation with others.

To complete the online survey, please visit the following website address:
http://www.readexsurvey.net/pig/xxxxxxxxxxxx

I can't believe how kind and good I am. I have purposely omitted part of the URL because some clowns -- I'll say it again; some CLOWNS -- might sign on and spoil the survey, and my whole point in showing trade mags to the kids is not to dishonor those magazines but to expose the kids to career alternatives.

See, I'm saying. Do you really like writing, reporting and editing or do you just want to be a music critic and ponce around with a bunch of so-called musicians with IQs and chest measurements in the low to mid two-digits?!

Back on point. I am not holding this magazine up for ridicule. However, it is sometimes amusing, even revelatory, when we see standard advertising approaches focused quite narrowly. Ads always mirror the audience at which they are directed, and knowing audiences is a basic skill for the editor and the freelance writer.

Lights, please. Here is a link to one of the ads the survey is asking people to judge. And here's another. And here's yet another. And finally the final "pride of the EU" ad.

This will be on the final.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Newspaperman's Funeral

George Sanchez, one of my former USF journalism students, went to the funeral of Gary Webb, who blew the whistle on the connection between cocaine smuggling, the American inner city, the CIA and the Nicaraguan Contras and got burned down for it. Webb was George's mentor and his friend. Webb killed himself late last year. George quotes Rilke:

Confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your whole life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

I remember when Webb's story came out. I remember when the San Jose Mercury-News ran away from it. That retreat is not a tale the intricacies of which I followed, but what I did hear more than once was that there was enough in Webb's story -- plenty in the story -- enough that Webb didn't deserve to be expelled from the craft. That's what my student thinks, too, and I respect his opinion. In the piece I've linked to, he puts you inside the funeral and the life, too, in a way nothing else I've read has.

Coward. Dry Little Coward.

It's too rainy for my morning walk and, as a result, I'm jittery. I've only been walking for three weeks, but even this modest bit of exercise is mildly addictive. This is prescribed exercise. Last month during a routine visit to my doctor my blood pressure was up -- it had been creeping up over the last couple years -- and he told me get it down or get on medication. (My cholesterol rose last year, so this is his second warning.)

Now five times a week I am walking 3.2 miles at a reasonably brisk pace. It seems to be helping my BP, which is certainly lower than it was in the doctor's office and is now -- at least sometimes -- going below 120/70.

One needs one's little trick, one's little psychological sleight of hand to make the exercise regimen stick. Mine is this: Since I am on sabbatical and my days are essentially one long exercise in Brownian movement, I lock in the walk time by driving my wife to work in downtown Oakland and after dropping her near her office, parking the car in its own little City of Oakland parking space. This leaves me 3.2 miles from where the day began. What to do? What to do?

I walk home.

Home.

George Carlin and Robert Frost know all about the word "home."

Right foot left foot right foot left foot. Sing it out the way a man sings, mocking the beloved thing:

Ain't no use in going home; Jody's got your girl and gone. Ain't no use in feeling blue; Jody's got your sister, too. Ain't no use in lookin' back; Jody's got your Cadillac.
Sound-off (1-2) Sound-off (3-4) Cadence count (1-2 -- 3-4).

And so off I go listening to NPR on my earbuds, except when Bush comes on the radio and goes all "big weasel" at which point my First Amendment fingers turn over to some kah-razy KPFA. You want to know the route I take look at this little map. I walk east on 12th until I hit the south end of Lake Merritt and then I walk north along the east side, on under the freeway and through our little shopping district on Lakeshore and thence home. Once a week if I've been a good boy, I stop at the Colonial Donuts for an old-fashioned chocolate doughnut.

Once a week.

Let me just say this in all sincerity. Though the weather is occasionally rainy here between November and March, we live in the best climate in the world, mild lovely day after mild lovely day. Those of you back East or in the Midwest or down South live in hell and its various suburbs. The good news is that when you need exercise you can go to your local gym and climb in the big hamster wheel just as if you were in oh say the third circle of Dante's inferno.

Meanwhile, for about 357 days of the year I will be strolling by Lake Merritt. Look. There are a hundred canvasbacks floating on the water. A third of them rise and fly. And then another third. And then the last of them, dragging furrows in the water with their feet before they rise.

The egrets are poised at the water's edge. Out in the middle of the lake a single scull passes the whaleboat full of grannies, which is just what it sounds like: a group of women, their wispy white hair lifting in the breeze, who row a whaleboat around the lake.

Even the wino rises from his stupor in the grass at scenes such as this.

Addendum: By midday the rain had stopped. Though it was still cloudy, the sky dark and fraught with possibility, I set forth on a walk around the lake, which I completed only moments ago. It was not an unmanly thing to do.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

If She Were Still Alive with a Lilt in Her Voice and a Goose in Her Step, Would Leni Riefenstahl be Working for Bush? (Pause) Just Yanking Your Chain

Charlie Cook's weekly political email showed up today, and he speculates that the decline in the quality of political ads for TV is related to the fact that the path to a career in such ad-making is no longer by first learning the medium and then learning the "content" end, the politics.

What has happened is that few current media consultants have any training in filmmaking. They are campaign operatives who have moved into the world of producing television commercials. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, as they do know politics and have invaluable experience, the craft of storytelling is missing. It would be just as big a mistake for a campaign to go out and hire a documentary filmmaker with little knowledge of or experience in politics. But rarely do I see those two sets of skills co-exist in a single media consultant or even a firm, with one partner from each discipline.

He says his dismissal of contemporary political advertising on TV isn't just a qualitative judgment; it's a quantitative judgment. He doesn't think TV political ads have that much effect because they are so generic, so empty.

I don't know. I do know that I think the MoveOn PAC ads that flowed into that site last year -- many produced I assume, by passionate film and video types whose technical expertise was the chicken and their political passion the egg -- seemed well made. Lots of gutsy ads and gutsy admakers seem there for the taking. Maybe it's just timid politicians who want bland ads because they have decided that bland wins -- if you have your dirty tricks working, your judges disenfranchising voters, your push polls going and so on and so on. Maybe ads are now just white noise to drown out your opponent's white noise while the real work goes on elsewhere.

I'm clearly baiting my Republican friends in the preceding sentences. But I do wonder if Cook is correct across the board? Have Democrat candidates in particular become too hesitant to create funny vivid vicious ads? Are we playing not to lose and losing anyway. It's 4th and goal, and we are on the two-yard line. We're behind by a couple touches, and it's the fourth quarter. Go for it! Go for it! Go for it!

I say if were are going to lose, let's leave some teeth, hair and eyeballs spread over the roadway.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Louis Nye vs. Charlie Weaver. Tough Call.

If you are a certain age -- a lot of certain ages, actually -- the great debate is between Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman. But if you are somewhat older, the great debate is between Steve Allen and Jack Paar, with a connoisseur's preference for Dick Cavett.

That said, the great thing about Carson was that he never asked you to love him, as Leno does, or flinch from his barbs, as Letterman does. He was cool, friendly and self-contained, never needy.

Now, Jack Paar was very needy, in the sense that I always felt my regard was the only thing between him and a psychotic break. I wasn't supposed to respond to that febrile quality, but as an "early adapter" of the television experience, I hadn't learned it was supposed to be a cool medium. Carson taught me to calm down, to take what was offered and not get too excited.

Then he moved the show to LA. There's cool, and there's dead.

Just Spit Out the Phalanges, My Wife Said....Oh, Not There

See the pretty chicken feet.

I ate me some chicken feet on Saturday. My wife and I went over to Oakland's Chinatown for a little dim sum.

Oakland's Chinatown is not a stage set like San Francisco's Chinatown. You don't have to spend a half hour looking in windows trying to find a restaurant that isn't half filled with white people clamoring for sweet and sour pork.

It's a culinary jewel. Shhh. Don't say I said so.

Anyway, I don't know why, but I get a little panicky at dim sum, like a hobo running for the first train he sees because he wants to get moving and doesn't much care where. I don't want to grab three out of the first four things off the first cart that rolls by, but I do. I'm hungry, naturally, but also I'm anxious. There's that sense that what I'm looking at now is the really good stuff and that I will never see it again if I let it pass.

But that's not why I grabbed the chicken feet. We already had several things on the table, when the cart girl showed us the chicken feet. You see, I was flattered. Sometimes if you're not Chinese they won't show you the traditional delicacies because they are afraid you will embarrass yourself, you and hundreds of years of imperialist Western culture, by screwing up your face and going Ewwwwwwwww.

At a Chinese restaurant I swear I will never go Ewwwwwwww. You show me a beating human heart on a stack of eyeballs and I will think for a moment before saying, "Didn't we have that yesterday?"

It seemed to me that I should honor the offer of the chicken feet by seriously considering them. (Them. There were four chicken feet. Four for three dollars, I think.) They were very delicious looking feet, not yellow and scaly, but nice and brown and soy saucy.

Yes, I nodded. Some of them feet, please. (Of course, I did not say some of them feet. Somehow the idea of chicken feet is plugging into my Southernness. How you, honey? Bless your heart.)

At first, I thought I would just pick the feet up and eat them as if they were chicken legs -- Southernness again -- but my wife and I looked around and saw that everyone else in eyeshot was using chopsticks. I tried that, but I kept dropping the feet on my plate. I got best results by lifting the feet -- foot actually; you don't eat them in bunches -- with the chopsticks and quickly biting off two or three toes at a time, then delicately rolling them around in my mouth, with a very gentle grinding of my teeth gradually removing the fat, the meat and the scales -- if I referred to chicken skin, my wife said no the feet are covered with scales call it what it is.

Then, I would spit out the little toe bones -- which my wife did refer to as phalanges.

The chicken feet were very flavorful. My main source of distress was that I did not know how to eat them correctly -- traditionally, if you find "correct" too normative. It's the same problem I have with lobster and crab. Back home in Appalachia, we didn't eat lobster and we didn't eat crab and we also didn't eat steak and we didn't go out to eat much to places where that comparatively upscale trio were offered. To this day, I am self-conscious about how to eat lobster and crab, though (embarrassingly) I've actually read up on how it's done. It's just not my heritage.

It's not even that I want to eat lobster and crab in the traditional way. I may choose to eat them with my feet or to crack them open with my shoe or to smash them against my head as if I were flattening a beer can. The point is I want to know what is proper so I have the option of knowing when I am being improper, to make it a choice.

This ignorance of the nuances of foot consumption dampened my pleasure in the chicken feet. If I knew the traditional way of eating them, I would have felt more comfortable choosing not to eat them in that way.

They were pretty good, though. I'm going to ask a Chinese friend of ours how she eats chicken feet, and I will get back to you. Oh yes, watch this space.

Just to summarize, I feel good about the whole experience. It honors the animal, don't you think, to start eating at the top and keep going all the way down to the ground?

We owe the chicken -- in this case the two chickens -- that much.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

An old friend has the essay in Time Magazine this week, making the point that if the mere act of holding elections were magic, your kid's third grade home room would be a world power.

The Truth About Elections: They're not the hard part of democracy, as a Frenchman once taught America

It's about Montesquieu -- and, no, he's not from around here -- and how our wonderful founders were smart, well-read and as skeptical about human nature as they needed to be when they wrote the long, dull and knotty document needed to float the boat of state. Too many people seem to think Jesus dictated the U.S. Constitution to the Virgin Mary who typed it up and gave it to the Holy Spirit to proof read.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Republicans Du Temps Perdu (I'm Getting All These Political Comments. I Just Want to Write about My Cats. Go Home. Go Home.)

Those were the days: One man. One wife. One sexual position.

Or at least one at a time. (Does that even make sense? Clang clang clang went the rimshot.)

In the mid 1960s my wife and I were Rockefeller Republicans. What a guy. Hit this link and scroll down to Death.

See. It's not the adultery that kills, it's the shame, the hiding, the evasion, the lack of proper CPR skills.

And thus this blog achieves redeeming social value.

A Dialogue? Okay.

This oddly enough was a comment on a picture of a Venetian cat, but I'm pulling it up to the big board because it makes -- anonymously -- some interesting points.

Must every blog entry of yours include a sour grapes comment about Bush? I voted for Kerry myself, but this continual rending of flesh over an election is new to our history -- new since 2000. The man was elected fair and square this time, thanks to the Roe v Wade thinning of potential electorate. So let's bind up our wounds, shut our traps, carry on like adults, and do better in 2008. Pissing and moaning about the past is so European (and southern, may I say), and you know the bloody history of that continent as well as the generations of regional backwater existence where you came from. It doesn't sell well, either, and the next campaign cycle has already begun. Be a man, unless of course you're a woman. In which case, YOU know what to do.

Here's a criticism of the pleasure I take in regularly making gibes at the expense of the president in this blog. I would respond from two different angles.

1) What good does suggesting my general disrespect for the president do? I would answer probably very little, given the fact this blog has a very small audience of regulars. Most of them like Bush and his policies even less than I do. The notion that anything I have to say in opposition to Bush has weight, will contribute to some critical mass, some tipping point that will result in readers striking their foreheads with their hands and saying, "Hey. Now I am inspired and will begin some practical action to prevent the attainment of the Bush agenda" is fantastical. Having said that, since I enjoy knowing I am not alone in my visceral distaste for the man and his policies, I assume that's true of others. Years ago I read, probably in Psychology Today, that what people dislike may bind them together more strongly than their mutual likes. Therefore, I serve community. I assume that acknowledgment of shared antipathy may strengthen political bonds and contribute to concerted action, though I do not flatter myself that I am in a position to have much effect. But if I could I would. There is an energy in disdain, particularly comic disdain. The Right has shown us that.

2) What harm can it do? This is a better question. Well, my little gibes irritated a reader who says he is a Kerry voter but who wants to ...? Hate the idiocy but love the idiot? If the expression of contempt is an end in itself, an activity that diverts energy from problem solving, then expressing contempt is harmful to the cause which it claims to serve. I can only say that we shall see. If my political activity for the next four years consists entirely of expressing my contempt for Bush, if like Hamlet, I talk rather than act, then it's a legitimate criticism. If, as in the case of so many members of the Right, my vituperation feeds my will to act, then the criticism is wrong. Now, if the idea is that there's a mass of marginal Democratic voters who might somehow be pushed into the Republican column in 2006 and 2008 because I -- more to the point those who have an audience -- say mean things about Bush, I just don't believe that is true. The differences between the Republican and Democratic positions on a great many issues are stark. I don't believe such mild incivility as mine will move the balance one way or another in the mind of some undecided voter. I rather think many Americans hold your average moderate-to-liberal Democrat in contempt because we are so mild-mannered, so willing to turn the other cheek, so willing to listen to lies and nonsense and reply, yes there's some truth in that.

And a miscellaneous comment: My anonymous critic seems to suggest the savaging of presidents by their opponents is somehow new? You don't have to have read much American history to understand the depth of error in that statement. And the notion that Republicans don't draw energy from past political indignities supposedly suffered and past military glories supposedly forgotten and past social and cultural excellence supposedly trodden down !!?? Oh my. That's an awful lot of days to have missed class and not read the assignment.

As for the ad hominem attacks, in some weird way, I'm flattered.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Ciao Meow

Below you have got a cat I photographed in Venice during a time of very very hot weather in June 2002. Its kind owners shaved its body and left a ruff at one end and a tuft at the other. And so ends Friday Cat Blogging, since I will not inflict further pictures of Oliver and Popcorn upon you.

They do not panhandle for our approval. They won't for yours.

One other story from that visit to Venice: We attended a performance of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" in a historically significant building -- and the name? too many vowels vowels vowels in the name for me to remember. The players were female, all dressed in heavy period costumes. Bright colors. Rich fabric. Cleavage. Just splendid.

Vivaldi's piece reflects many aspects of the seasons described, but his treatment of summer does not foreshadow Cole Porter's "It's Too Darn Hot." That June in Venice was too darn hot. Think super-heated. Think another 30 years of Bush indifference to global warming.

The back of the building was set directly against a narrow canal. That wall also served as the background of the performance -- which the musicians accomplished grimly but expertly, or so judged my wife who played the violin for many years. She said in spite of the fact the audience in its musical ignorance kept applauding at the wrong places, the musicians did not speed up just to get the damn thing over.

In that back wall was a long horizontal window -- wide open, naturally -- just high enough so that periodically during the music the disembodied head of a gondolier would appear, float for 15 or 20 feet and then disappear. I admired very much the way the gondoliers would glance in without a change of expression and turn away. Sometimes the top of a pole would appear as they chose that moment to give the gondola a shove. No expression at all. Utter indifference. They might as well have been Parisians. But I suppose after a while the job of gondolier is about as exciting as sitting in the engineer's seat in one of those miniature trains that run around the perimeter of a children's zoo.

Addendum/1.22.2005: My wife says the gondoliers weren't bored just being polite, respectful of the venue. What did you expect them to do, she says? Cross their eyes, stick out their tongues and wave? Pinch their noses with their free hand? Crouch down so their heads wouldn't show and risk falling off the boat? Like you cared, she says. Like you weren't staring at all that sweaty cleavage, you Philistine swine.

A cat in Venice. Posted by Hello

Same cat, same city by the sea. Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Ouch! ouchouchouchouch

I sense in the message of this t-shirt a veiled disrespect for blogs and all those who sail in them.

Still, it comes in my size.

It's the Secular Equivalent of Prayer and Fasting. (And Lamenting. I Forgot Lamenting.)

Today we greet the inauguration of our maximum leader by "not spending a damn dime." Today we talk trash to power: Include me out.

It's not a futile gesture. A gesture is just a gesture, no more than that and very hard to be less. (See point three in the first definition.)

This is an act with its own intrinsic rewards. Not spending money might even remind us where money should be spent if we only stopped to think about it. Now that I am thinking about it, fasting actually would be a good idea, too. But too late for me. I've already had a bagel with peanut butter.

A stale bagel, not a new one, in our possession long enough to very nearly be considered a family heirloom.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

He Stinks, So I Guess He Still Is

You remember how I saw the neighborhood wino actually buying wine?

You remember how I said he always smelled. (No, says the copy editor; he stank and you smelled.) But that day last month when I spotted him at Albertson's buying the jug of Carlo Rossi, he seemed on his best behavior redolence-wise. I got close and checked him out, you recall. Very reporterly, very empirical.

Today I was at the same Albertson's looking at the cognac, having made an impulse purchase at Costco and, somewhat remorseful, needing to reassure myself that your low-end Remy Martin was in fact a bargain. (Happens all the time at Costco. I buy "up" because Costco is a master of the irresistible price point.)

Anyway, I was staring at the cognac when I smelled something pungent to the point of tangible. I thought it might be me. I've been walking three brisk miles first thing every morning to get my blood pressure down. But this was familiar without being personal; it was a signature fragrance. I turned around and there behind me, in the act of checking out, was our wino.

I maneuvered until I could see what he was buying -- a big bag of fresh cranberries and a big jug of cranberry juice. Hmm.

Later I told my wife that maybe he was in the mood for a cocktail, a Cosmo or a Kiss Me Quick. She said no, that through native cunning or exposure to the advice column in Prevention Magazine, he has figured out that juices rich in vitamins will counteract the alcohol to one degree or another. She said that was what her second stepgrandfather did: He would drink mass quantities of alcohol for months at a time. Then he would stop cold and, using the battered juicer he dragged around with him even when he had no fixed abode, he would pulp his fruits and vegetables and build himself up for his next binge.

He lived into his 80s -- which was better than her third stepgrandfather or her fourth stepgrandfather did.

I like her theory. It suggests some judgment is still at work. Our wino is keeping his options open, choosing to prolong rather than accelerate -- for the moment. He plays his means of death as if they were a symphony orchestra.

Andante. Andante.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Alas, Poor Mick. I Knew Him When His Name Was Al.

My wife has always said I am a terrible Shakespeare snob, which I know I have no right to be since my expertise extends no further than yours; that is, I've had a couple courses, read most of the plays at least once and seen some productions or films of the better known plays -- seen more than a few productions or films but less than a lot.

Oh oh oh: I played Peter the servant in a college production of Romeo and Juliet.

She said I was a snob when I said something like "You should read the play before going to see it." She said if Shakespeare was not a good enough man of the theater so that the plays worked without a cheat sheet, to hell with him. But this harsh judgment, she said, was not necessary because he was a man of the theater, and the plays play if the production is done with a modern audience in mind.

But god help that audience if some snob lays his hands on the plays.

I conceded her point and have felt pretty much hoi polloi for years now. But then I read something in Mick LaSalle's review in the San Francisco Chronicle of what I will call Al Pacino's Merchant of Venice! since he plays Shylock and he is the Name, given the fact Jeremy Irons has been coasting on that serendipitous baritone for a decade or more.

This is what Mick said:

Shakespeare's comedies are different from his tragedies in one all- important way. In a tragedy, the hero ultimately understands the full import of his story and, in that way, speaks for the playwright. But in Shakespeare's comedies no one ever has the big picture. No one is in possession of the playwright's wisdom, or even ours. Instead, every character goes through life understanding only his own part in the story and, in the end, even if our favorite characters are happy, we wonder if they should be. Shakespeare almost invariably leaves us with something to worry about -- some wrong we can't forget, some sign of future trouble, some unignorable evidence of a world bigger than the happy ending.

My first reaction was What! Mick LaSalle telling me what to think about Shakespeare? I mean "speaks for the playwright"? My dear boy. We are long past assuming that we can know what the writer intended, much less that it would be useful to our deconstructing the text if we did know. We are very goddamn smart now.

critics up writers down

Also, I was at the Chronicle when Mick showed up, just a kid, the hobbit version of Jimmy Breslin. I'm not saying I changed his diapers, metaphorically or otherwise, but my god he looked about 12.

Bitter old man? I was always a bitter old man.

Anyway, I try to keep an open mind about Mick as a movie critic. I have friends who hate him because they say he doesn't know much about movies, but on the other hand he consistently comes up with a nice turn of comic phrase, and I don't read newspaper movie reviews for any great wisdom about movies, and my favorite movie reviewer is Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, and I'm not sure he knows all that much about movies either but he says funny -- when it comes to movies can he say funny!

But I really don't want Mick to tell me about Shakespeare. I felt this deeply, possibly irrationally, when I read his review. I am that much of a snob. Generally, I just toss this little blog out into the air aware that it is not the first place people go for wit and wisdom. It's like there's my unconscious, but one row down just before you walk into that ugly void is this blog, last exit to self-awareness, last row of the balcony as it were. I'm not even sure I want people to notice it. It's like I'm up there in the last row of the balcony making out with myself. But this post I am promoting, I am sending to people to get some reaction to Mick on the Bard.

Personally, I'm thinking that Shakespeare's tragic heroes don't necessarily figure it out. They understand they made one or more serious tactical, even strategic, misjudgments. But do they understand the "full import" of their story? Lear might. Hamlet doesn't -- and I understand you may disagree, but that's because you're the kind of person who wants to put Ophelia in the shower and go after her with a knife. Othello? Nah. He just gets some of the facts straight. Macbeth. You're kidding me. Romeo and Juliet are idiots, but so would you and I be if we were made up by a guy with his eye on the day's take just to be a pair of teen suicides. The tragedies are big, bombastic, neat and unlikely. Not Hamlet, of course. Not neat at all. (If you want to talk about the rest of the tragedies, you have my number.) The comedies come closer to life as it is lived in that, like mice in the elephant's cage, we must scurry and dodge, marry and breed. If Shakespeare had a gift for giving some of his foils a chance to express their humanity, doesn't that help keep the conclusion in balance rather than knocking it off center? Aren't some of his heroines ferocious realists -- hard, smart, cagey?

At this point I concede I'm not talking about the sour or late pieces where a nip here and tuck there, and you have, well, tragedy. And I don't think Mick is. I think he's talking about the comedies that are played by the colleges, revived in repertory and made into films -- As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, All's Well That Ends Well -- memory's starting to get a little shaky -- The Boys from Syracuse and .... Annie Hall.

And The Merchant of Venice. Though, you know, I've only seen The Merchant of Venice once and that was on educational TV a very long time ago. Part of the reason we were supposed to feel good about that production, I recall, is that the production was turned into an indictment of antiSemitism. Nice production. I guess I see Mick's point. Any of Shakespeare's comedies can be turned inside out -- you notice my phrasing -- and you aren't going to enjoy The Merchant of Venice unless it is turned inside. But they can also, and more easily, be produced in such a way that the final unity and harmony -- yo! we're married here; we're dancing here -- do not seem false, sentimental and bourgeois enough to make us wish someone really would break a leg.

Still, that Mick -- he had his usual nice phrase: "Even if our favorite characters are happy, we wonder if they should be."

Pretty good, right? I just don't want to take a lesson in critical analysis of Shakespeare from Mick. (Of James Joyce, sure; always be needin' help there.)

Comments anyone?

Monday, January 17, 2005

One of Our Investments is Averaging a 27 Percent Annual Return

My wife was ironing a pair of pants I wore when we took her mum around Scandinavia in September. She found a 10 Euro note in the pocket. We paid about $12.20 for it. Today it is worth $13.10. I am now organizing an expedition of select friends and pre-certified investors -- think George Soros and Warren Buffet -- to the back of my closet.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

I Do Not Shake My Booty. I Artfully Rearrange It as I Glide Across the Floor

I am calling you now, ballroom dancers of a modest -- indeed, I would hope deficient and limited -- level of skill, to come dance in the Intermediate Ballroom Dance class at Piedmont Adult School. My wife and I do not like it when we are the most Otherwise-Abled of the dancers in the intermediate class, and I fear that is the case at the moment. The beginning class is a circus of despair, but not the intermediate class.

There is still time. First class was Friday night. On the beat, walk our way quickly.

This session we are doing the Foxtrot, the Double Mambo and the West Coast Swing. (The West Coast Swing is also known as the Liz Taylor, since it is not so much a dance as a full employment strategy for divorce lawyers. My wife is utterly patient with my slips and misses in all other dance steps, but she is convinced that I am using the West Coast Swing as a way to do her harm, as a husband might who flings his arms about wildly after he is "asleep" at night.)

We have been taking ballroom dance classes on and off for almost ten years. It started when my university began holding a big winter banquet for its queens and drones at a fine San Francisco hotel. When the news first came down, it was mentioned there would be dancing afterwards, and I was so desperate in those days to cut a figure in the classroom, in the committee meeting, while having coffee at the cafe, in the hallways, while walking across Harney Plaza in full manly thoughtful analytical empathetic dialectical spiritually evolved stride that it was only natural to want to add to the legend on the dance floor.

As it turned out, ballroom dancing was the last thing on the minds of the faculty PhDs, ThDs, MFAs, MBAs and ABDs (which means all but the dissertation which means an untenured faculty member whose blood is curdled with fear 24 hours of every day) -- all these hyper-educated elites as it turns out are creatures of their times and want to do the shudder-shudder shimmyshake, not the refined and elegant waltz, foxtrot, mambo, rhumba, slithery tango....

Well, some of them like to do swings.

But ten years ago my wife and I did not know how to do any dance of any kind from any place or time. We were raised in churches that said dancing was sinful. We were told that dancing if not tantamount to intercourse was a prelude to intercourse. Later of course, we learned that though most things are not tantamount to intercourse -- including sometimes intercourse -- absolutely everything is a prelude to intercourse if done with some combination of style, good will and sympathy. So might as well dance. But by then the "dance window" in our lives had closed, though the "intercourse window" had opened. What did we know from dancing? Had never been there. Had never done that.

Anyway, under a huge misconception we signed up for dancing lessons. Though we quickly learned what we were learning had no application at the Dean's Ball, we also learned we liked taking dancing lessons. It was not so much that we like dancing per se, for in the years since we began lessons we have almost never gone where people go to just go dancing as opposed to going to class to learn how to dance -- to learn and learn and learn some more. We like structure. We like that learning component. We like dancing class the way a member of the all-volunteer army might like being taught to slit throats. There is freedom in choosing to be required to do something.

That's true for partnering, too. Dancing with other people still seems a little forward, quite possibly orgiastic. But our teachers force class participants to spend most of their time dancing with other people. It's all so retro. Ballroom dancing is premised on the man leading and the woman following -- I now forgo the many sneering jokes that might bring this sentence to a close. It is a true fact that if a husband and wife dance only with one another, rather than lead-follow they may develop the habit of merely cooperating or, even worse, the habit of follow-lead, the woman dragging the man along.

You may say in a better world the model would be different, but there is no better world within early-evening driving distance of Oakland, so we are stuck with lead-follow. It is the paradigm, and we must observe it since we spend a good deal of time dancing with other people.

(Which is not a prelude to intercourse no matter what it says in Zagat).

The class is in a gym, so there's lots of room. The teachers review and review and review. I will personally put you at ease by my lack of expertise on display in full 360 panoramic degrees. And, contrarily, if you are in a relationship that you are unable to bring to a conclusion because your significant other stills cares and you don't, it's time to show your SO that she/he has hooked up with a true demon lover.

Three little words:

West Coast Swing.


Friday, January 14, 2005

My Name is Popcorn. When the Time Comes for Me to Act, I Will be Well-Rested

I would say we are about two-thirds of the way through this experiment in Friday Cat Blogging. We only have two cats. Oliver was last week, and we have a photo of an Italian cat I'll put up next week.

I feel disinclined to come back to our cats again and again and again. When enthusiasm shades into mania, I become uncomfortable. None of this implies any disrespect for Popcorn, pictured below, who is unusual. She will be 19 in July, pretty good for a cat. Like all white cats, she is susceptible to skin cancer on the ears and nose. She had pre-cancerous lesions on her external ear structures, so we had them cut off.

I wish I had taken a picture of her right after surgery. It made us feel so much more sympathetic, and Popcorn is a cat whose standards of personal hygiene are abysmal, so she needs all the sympathy she can get. Let me just explain by saying she has four litter pans in the garage, each of them a two-by-three drip pan designed to be placed under leaky engines that I bought at an auto supply store. That's a total of 24 square feet of litter pan. Her aim is not good.

She is also diabetic. I "skin pop" three units of Humulin Lente insulin into her twice a day. I grab the skin between her shoulder blades, pull it up into a little tent and inject into the void, usually while she is eating. Three or four times she's gone into a coma, and we've rushed her to the vet after giving her an enema of sugar syrup dissolved in warm water.

She is not particularly friendly, but then again she was feral before we took her in and gradually calmed her down. She is utterly silent -- a friend says her mother trained her to be silent to keep her safe in the wild. She never says anything. She sits and stares until we notice her and guess at what she wants. Ah, one exception: We know she can vocalize. She is capable of shrieking when a strange aggressive cat comes into the yard. (That was back when she cared. She doesn't care anymore. She forgets that she's eating while she's eating. We have to remind her.)

Harboring a cat like Popcorn is an existential act. You choose to have her, and it is not a rational choice if your touchstone is consensus reality about what makes a pet fun and valuable. You would not go to the trouble, but then again you never go to the trouble unless god or Bush or some other ex cathedra voice tells you to.

My cat, my choice. To heck with you.

This is Popcorn. Her external ear structure has been surgically removed. Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Regrets, I've Had a Few, Thank God I'm Losing My Memory

I heard the joke when we first came to California:

If you try and fail in New York, you can always move to LA and try again. Or you can give up and move to San Francisco.

That does capture my sense of this place, this glittering irresistible backwater, which is the real Lotus Land, not LA.

I continue to talk talk talk about hitting 60, of the realization of all the things I will never do. Of course, you will reply: "Look at your glass! It's half full!" And I reply but it's mostly ice cubes covered with a sheen of the delicious brown goods I drained at one gulp.

Speaking of draining things at one gulp and my regret at never having taken a crack at NYC -- my wife wanted to give it a try back in her acting days and she was good but I hesitated -- in a recent New Yorker they had this wonderful capsule description, which I have copied verbatim on the fair use principle.

BRANDY LIBRARY 25 N. Moore St., at Varick St. (212-226-5545)—More often than not, bottles of liquor are kept behind the bar and at a distance from patrons. Not so at this newly opened outpost of after-dinner culture, where softly lit single-malt Scotches, amber Cognacs and Armagnacs, and glistening Calvados are lined up on shelves along each wall, just begging to be touched. And, like books in a library, hundreds of bottles are there to be sampled and perused at will. The intimate room has elegant round wood tables and soft leather chairs, the music is strictly twentieth-century jazz (the pianist Joel Forrester is at the upright on Monday nights), and there are high-end bar snacks available. It’s a space designed for lingering; the owner, Flavien Desoblin, a native Burgundian, says he’ll often sniff a glass of Armagnac twenty times before taking the first sip.

Sounds perfect and in no way hazardous to my health since those golden thimblefuls of booze sound pricey and, in my case, a keen sense of economy equals moderation.

We cannot all be intentionally virtuous.

And if the temptation grew too great? "Flavien," I would say. "That's Armagnac, not a dog you've just met."

And so I would be expelled by some burly yuppies in tight-waisted suits. But they say the slush in the gutters of New York is soft as cotton and the jeers of the winos leaning against the wall are as sweet as any siren song.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

This Email Gave Me Such a Giggle (I Picked Macaroni Salad)

Pick your dessert, then look to see what psychiatrists think about you!

No cheating!

After taking this dessert personality test, send this e-mail on to others, and be sure to put your choice of dessert in the subject line.

ALSO, SEND IT TO THE PERSON WHO SENT IT TO YOU!

Okay, if all of the desserts listed below were sitting in front of you, which would you choose?

(Sorry, you can only pick one!)

Angel Food Cake
Brownies
Lemon Meringue Pie
Vanilla Cake/Chocolate Icing
Strawberry Shortcake
Chocolate Cake/Chocolate Icing
Ice Cream
Carrot Cake
Madeline Cookies


NO! You can't change your mind once you scroll down! So think carefully what your choice will be! OK - Now that you've made your choice, this is what research says about you!

Angel Food Cake

Sweet, loving, cuddly. You love all warm and fuzzy items. A little nutty at times. Sometimes you need a hit on the crack pipe at the end of the day. Others perceive you as being childlike and immature. Prison record? Almost certainly. The lifers fought for the right to be your "daddy."

Brownies

You are adventurous, love new ideas, are a champion of underdogs and a slayer of dragons and civil servants who look at you with disrespect. When tempers flare up, you whip out your saber if you didn't have to pass through a weapon detector earlier in the evening. You are always the oddball with ideas about the way society should be organized that suggest you harbor a genocidal rage. You tend to be very loyal to words containing vowels arranged alphabetically.

Lemon Meringue Pie

Smooth, sexy, & articulate with your hands, you are an excellent after-dinner speaker until the liquor turns you into a pompous, braying fool. But don't try to walk and chew gum at the same time in states where this is illegal. A bit of a diva at times, but you have many friends chained in the cellar.

Vanilla Cake/Chocolate Icing

Fun-loving, sassy, humorous. Not very grounded in life; very indecisive and lack motivation. Content to lie in your own filth until the rain blows in through the broken window. Everyone enjoys being around you -- at a safe distance, preferably specified in a restraining order -- but you are a practical joker in the sense that Saddam Hussein was a practical joker. Others should be cautious in making you mad since people are sometimes seen departing your presence engulfed in flames. However, you are a friend for life to anyone who will let you eat off his plate.

Strawberry Shortcake

Romantic, warm, loving, more vegetable than human. You care about other people and can be counted on in a pinch, always deeply regretful that you had to turn state's evidence and show the police where your friend disposed of the gun. You tend to melt, reconstitute and continue on your mission to destroy the man who will someday liberate mankind from the domination of the machines.. You can be overly emotional and annoying at times. If that were the worst of your flaws, you would not be so universally hated.

Chocolate Cake/Chocolate Icing

Sexy, always ready to give and receive, in short a creative, adventurous, ambitious, and passionate bisexual. You have a cold exterior but are warm on the inside, leading your friends to suspect you are suffering from hypothermia.

Ice Cream

You like sports, whether it be baseball, football, basketball, soccer or death-cage curling. If you could, you would like to participate, but there are quadriplegics more coordinated than you. Christopher Reeve died calling you his bitch. You don't like to give up the remote control even though you don't have a TV. You tend to be self-centered and high maintenance, which means that unless you provide excellent gas mileage, you are not a true used car value.

Carrot Cake

You deserve to die. I would break into your house tonight and kill you myself with my bare hands, but I don't want to stand in line.

Madeline Cookies

Cultivated, a man of the word, responsive only to the finest and possessed of a degree of sophistication that enables you to integrate sensual and intellectual experience creating a single more intense level of pleasure, you have been dead for at least 150 years.

DON'T FORGET!

PUT YOUR CHOICE OF DESSERT IN SUBJECT BOX BEFORE YOU FORWARD!!!

The Universe is Filled with Dark Noise But Without It All Friendship Would Collapse Upon Itself and We Would Be Utterly Alone

So I used the word "Gilliganesque" in an email and my friend wrote back that it's not a word, and I replied, "Even with a cedilla?" and he wrote back "Why is there no cedilla in cedilla? Well, for that matter, why is there no accent in accent, why no umlaut in umlaut, why no dieresis in dieresis, why no hyphen in hyphen, and why is schwa pronounced without a schwa?"

Well, that made me pause. So then I wrote back:

"Famous linguist said a double negative equals a positive but a double positive never equals a negative to which the famous philosophy teacher replied Yeah Yeah, in what I gather was a New York City accent. (Stolen from the NY Times Sunday mag. I give up!) Though you are right, schwa should be schwuh."

Of course, I was constantly looking things up, while he was typing with his feet and doing the Times crossword with his left hand and working the final kinks out of his roadmap for world peace with his right hand and doing god knows what with his knees and elbows.

It would be nice to be really really really smart, but there's always GCP -- google, copy, paste.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Of Arms and a Couple or Three Women He Sings

Link to this and scroll down, and you will see My Student George belting out a song, probably one that he wrote, probably one about one of his failed romances. Writers need a full-range of human experience, I told George. (Ladies must beware the artist unless they are artists, too, in which case it's Katy bar the door.) As a student, George always threw himself into his research. Beware the perfectionist exploring the imperfections of love, eager to drink some honeydew, get next to some of that milk of paradise.

I enjoy those discussions about what forms of self expression great writers would choose if they were alive today. People always say Shakespeare would have written for television, Pope would have been a jockey and lived (and married) large. Homer would have played blindfold chess. I hope Chatterton would have gotten food stamps. (How many poets will Schwarzenegger's policies kill?)

Would Dante have fronted a rock band? Would Beatrice have pierced her belly button? Actually, I think Dante would have been a guide at Disneyland.

Play the game backwards, and I imagine the role Rush Limbaugh would have played as a member of The Greatest Generation.

Monday, January 10, 2005

And God Spake Unto Me and I Spake Back, Saying: "I Thought I Told You Never to Call Me at Home?"

I am sure the French have a phrase for it like nostalgie de la boue or l'esprit d'escalier. The thing that needs describing is those ideas you get while shaving that, to your surprise, still seem like pretty good ideas when that last bit of lather is wiped away from your throat. Let us call them The Philosopher in the Mirror -- le philosophe dans le miroir.

I'm not saying they are good ideas. But they are ideas. They are not just anticipating breakfast and noticing your receding gums.

Now that I have hit 60, those moments are all the more precious to me because they encourage me to think that senility isn't just around the corner. I have my little morning idea and I think, "Please god don't let my brain die before my body does." And then I think, "Not to tell you your business god but I am not inviting you to make one of those dramatically ironic strokes in which I am run down by a car and rendered completely paralyzed while my brain goes buzzing on. Jeez, don't be so literal" And then I think, "Wait. I don't even believe in god! This is a clear case of les flocons d'avoine dans la tĂȘte, or as we put it in our bastard barbarian tongue, Oatmeal in the Head."

As you see morning is a very lively time in front of my bathroom mirror.

Anyway, the idea I had this morning is this. If you believe as I do that even if there is some kind of god -- an original maker, a first cause -- It certainly takes no interest in the individual freckles on the face of Its creation, and if you also believe that there is no pantheistic oversoul of all-encompassing reality into which Oneness we can plug through meditation or inspiration, then what we know at 60 is pretty much all we are ever going to know. And it ain't much. It ain't Truth. (Age 60 is not the necessary threshold to realizing this sense of limitation, but nice round numbers do prompt one to generalize, don't they?)

I mean, our brains are little meat computers. They process information at a certain rate. They store information with a certain efficiency up to a certain capacity. Perhaps we are working far below peak efficiency in both cases, but I have been doing it for a long time so you can bet your old-age pension -- the part that Bush is going to leave intact; good luck with the rest -- that tomorrow I will be slightly less efficient than the day before and so on and so on. And somehow that makes me more acutely aware that not only am I less able methodically to add to my small store of knowing, there aren't going to be any shortcuts either.

My point is that at 60 I am sensitive about what I suppose I have always understood: There aren't going to be any revelations. My late father -- it was thinking about Pops who bedevils from the grave at all times of night and day that brought this on -- he believed that god was going to whisper in his ear at any moment. And I have some friends who believe that through some intuitive burst they may yet punch through to the floor of being -- I don't quite get the metaphysics of this but I don't press them. And I'm thinking that from an empiricist's point of view, I've turned over almost all the cards I'll ever be able to get my hands on in what is admitedly a very large deck. Of course, someone else may discover amazing new things and tell me about it, but that's not quite the same thing. And that's not what I mean. I am thinking of myself as an agent of inquiry, Now, I am not rejecting that some inner voyage of startling self-awareness is still possible, some change in intellectual perspective that would make me realign all my fragments of knowledge and see them in a new way .... Nah. I don't really believe that. Odds of my personality having some paradigm shift are some where between a very slim slim and a very robust none.

Of course, this doesn't mean some small new fact -- some bobbing ice cube -- might sink my boat as easily as an iceberg. "What's that, baby? You're running off with the yard man. Well. I did not know that."

Okay, now I'm shaved, dressed and ready for the day. I've had my little blogworthy idea, some little notion that I can toss on the blogfire to keep it hot.

...5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Time for a metaphor shift.

Blogging is like wine tasting. You have a thought. You hold it in your mouth .You roll it around. You spit it out.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Cat Blog Fever

Below you will find a picture of Oliver, who has been mentioned in dispatches before. There is something out in the blogosphere called Friday Cat Blogging, as described in the New York Times last year. Titans of Rive Gauche des Blogs like Atrios and Kevin Drum (when he was Calpundit) are/were big Friday Cat Bloggers. They are my precedent for progressives showing people pictures of their cats. Now you know.

This is Oliver. Some call him the Left Paw of Darkness. Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 06, 2005

I Asked George if He Led His Band Boldly on a Big Bass Drum? He Said No.

If a bar does not have several visible eccentricities to put one in the mood for a little mood-altering, it makes me uncomfortable. A bar should not look like the salad station at an Outback Steak House. I think in a bar one should have the sense that a degraded intelligence has been at work in the production of the decor, like the last plastic surgeon who worked on Michael Jackson's nose.

By this low standard (which is simultaneously a high standard) the Stork Club on Telegraph Avenue measures up. The wall behind the bartender -- it's a short bar that a single bartender can handle with ample down time between customers for caressing the broken veins in his nose -- is a wall of boxed Barbie dolls. Last night, I picked out the "Marilyn Monroe" Barbie right away, two rows up a little to the left, and then I quit caring.

I was at the Stork Club to meet an old student whose band was scheduled to play either at ten or midnight, one of three bands scheduled, with the order of presentation to be determined. Turned out George's band would play at midnight and I couldn't stay that late. Wednesday is a work night, that is, it's a work night for my wife, though not for me, the Sultan of Sabbatical. But it is just common sense that even so lovely a parasite as myself better not strain my goodwife's patience by carousing with the youth into the wee hours.

Also, I get so sleepy now in the wee hours. I did stay to hear part of the first band's "set" -- if that word was good enough for Thelonious Monk, it's good enough for a band calling itself Thighs of the AntiChrist....

I made that up. I wasn't really paying attention because I was there to support George's band, not the Pasty-Faced Screamers. (Oh no that's not the name that's not the name i'll stop it.) This blog has the power to make and the power to break, and I must be careful with my product endorsements. Did I mention I was drinking Jack Daniels on the rocks? I mention it now in case some public relations consultant -- understanding that even the most obscure blog may prove an asset if cultivated early on, as the Stasi cultivated cipher clerks in certain West Germany ministries -- might want to drop a case of something on me. I'm a Gentleman Blogger, not a journalist. I'm the gift that takes and keeps on taking.

Anyway, George's band is named Rum and Rebellion. I thought I knew the historical source for that, but when I googled it to get a link, I discovered I was thinking of the late 19th Century slur against the Democrats, that they were the party of Rum, Romanism and Rebellion. The Romanism part refers to Roman Catholicism, and I taught George at a Jesuit university, so I suppose I naturally assumed ... a country-punk band with a theological subtext?

When George told me his group's name, I should have done what a good reporter always does, ask him just exactly why they named the band that with an illustrative anecdote please if available. One really good thing about being a reporter is that you must become one with your ignorance, you must own your ignorance.

How dare I pretend to understand! What a bad role model! For you see George is a reporter for a daily somewhere south of here. Last night while we were enjoying our beverages under the steady empty stare of a hundred Barbies -- all different, boys and girls, but all the same -- he got several calls on his cell from his editors, asking about a story that was working for the next day. Tears of joy in an old man's eyes! USF's own, George a young man of promise with his heart in the right place, by which I mean on the Left but possessed of the highest journalistic ethics and sense of fairness.

It was his choice to become a journalist. I would never encourage a student to go into journalism no matter how great his or her talent for it. The money is not that good, newspapers are ever more timid, alternative media pay minimum wage, plus a map of the nearest dumpsters -- and TV news really is LIKE BEING LOCKED IN THE DAMN BOX THERE WITH BARBIE STARING OUT THROUGH THE CELLOPHANE.

Not always but pretty much. I didn't mean to raise my voice.

I certainly encourage students to develop their special talent or pursue their ruling passion, casting all else aside, but many jobs can serve as a vessel for talent and for passion. I will encourage a student's interest in journalism -- if that interest already exists. I am supportive and, I hope, informative. But I don't try to proselytize like a recruiting officer, like some avatar of empire.

George, however, says I encouraged him to become a reporter.

Huh.

I suppose some students can see how much I yearn for them to want to do it, to try it for a year or two, all the while carefully practicing their contraception and being careful not to run up any credit card bills. In George's case, I thought he was way out front of any encouragement I could provide. All on his own he got an internship at Mother Jones, an internship at at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a fellowship to go to Chiapas to cover some kind of international drug conference and a summer fellowship at Northwestern.

That's initiative, you may say, but a few others have it as well. I tell you now that George did something unique, something that so filled me with pride ....

This story shall begin at its beginning. My teaching style involves a certain modest flamboyance, a certain buoyancy, a certain tendency to aim at entertaining. I could give you reasons why I do it -- certain rationalizations, certain carefully crafted justifications -- but who knows what neurotic compulsions drive me? I feel like doing it the way I do it. It seems to work. I'm old: It's too late to change. I'm tenured: I don't need to change.

Okay, beginning again: First day of any of my journalism classes, I give students my home phone number. Some teachers won't, figuring they will be bothered at home. Fine, though that philosophy seems a little a priori to me. Fact is that over the years only a few students have called me in spite of the invitation. I'm actually pleased when someone does. My idea is that since it is hard to get people to agree to interviews in a timely way and since problems in organizing and writing can arise at the last minute and since as an editor I would want to know about problems sooner rather than later and to work in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect -- for all these reasons I want to be available to my students at home, particularly if I am going to enforce deadlines for their assignments.

In other words, I don't want them to be able to offer the excuse, "You weren't there." I'm always there. Call. Your cell phone plan probably has more minutes than a Tibetan prayer wheel.

Now, when I explain this to the students, I like to make my little joke. I add, "Call me any time. But if you call me after ten o'clock, one of us better be drunk."

And thus they are put at ease -- or tumbled into lives of addiction.

Five years ago. My wife and I are in bed. It's 2 a.m. or maybe 3. The phone rings. My wife answers. She starts to laugh. She hands me the phone. It's George. I don't remember what he said or what I said. The point is that there was in my statement on the first day of class a kind of dare, a kind of challenge, something that made George say, "Oh, really?"

He was curious. He wanted to know what would happen if he took me at my word. Here was an opportunity to add to his understanding of human nature. And that is why I hope George stays with journalism for a time, even if he does not make journalism his life's work. If you are a little impudent, a little cocky, somewhat willing to be just a little irritating, if you are possessed almost against your will with a certain spirit of effrontery, if you are always curious about what happens next, in the big picture or in the little picture, you might do some good as a journalist and you will certainly have some fun.

Don't quit the day job, George. Not yet. Lot of people out there sleeping soundly.


Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Darwin's Cat: Making a Difference is What We're All About

In a post about a month ago, I mentioned the prolific science fiction icon Isaac Asimov, providing a link to his Columbia University biography so that all might know and wonder. I sent a copy of that post to his niece -- if this blog had a motto it would be that of Undershaft: UNASHAMED -- who understood that, like a mind, a link is a terrible thing to waste. She clicked through only to discover her uncle's alma mater had the date of his birth wrong. She pointed this error out and:

Dear Ms. Asimov,Thank you for writing to C250 regarding the correction to the Isaac Asimov entry. We have made the correction and it can be viewed through the following link:

http://c250.columbia.edu/c250_celebrates/your_columbians/isaac_asimov.html

And so under the sponsorship of Darwin's Cat the light shines a little deeper into the dark forest. When I was growing up fundamentalist Christian, one of our favorite mantras was "Hate the sin but love the sinner." I never really got this until long after I had shed my Christianity and, looking back at my former coreligionists, it occurred to me that it was time to "Hate the stupidity but love the stupid." (A softer version is "Hate the ignorance but love the ignorant," but that's not nearly snarky enough.)

If these aren't words to live by get out of here.

Monday, January 03, 2005

"Smell You Later," says Nelson Muntz at His Most Philosophical

I surprise myself with my inattention to the needs of my readers. You don't want to just know about me, that is, what I think, what I mean and what I think I mean. You want to know how I laugh, live and love here in this little corner of these United States called Oakland. You want what the feature writers call texture and the literary critics call context and Donald Rumsfeld calls the facts on the ground. You want to be the flea in my ear, the bee in my bonnet, the ant in my picnic and -- if the gods must have it so though we pray not -- the ferret down my pants.

In short, you are just a little disappointed in me -- and a little concerned about what my opinion of you must be -- to hear only now that more than a month ago I actually saw our local wino buying wine. When I saw this, I was first startled and then deeply gratified because for all the documentary interest lavished on the world's winos, I have never seen one buying the eponymous thing itself. (Or maybe it's really synecdoche. Sort it out among yourselves.)

It was down at the Albertson's next to the drugstore. Our wino broke into the middle of the line at the "10 items or less" register, carrying a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi red. Up to this point to be honest I was not certain he was a wino. I have seen him around for years, and he has a set of characteristics that are necessary for wino status but not in themselves sufficient to be so defined. He has the filthy clothes and the dirty skin, both so creased and diplapidated it is not always sure where clothes end and man begins. His hair sticks out in stiff peaks like muddy meringue. Of his teeth and mouth it might be said the church door is open but the pews are empty. He is not talkative; in fact, I've never heard him utter a sound. He never asks for money. He stares without focus into the middle distance as if thinking deeply or not at all.

Mostly, he stinks. Up until my seeing him in the Albertson's I would have said always he stinks. Sometimes you smell him before you see him coming. Literally. When a cliche corresponds point by point with the simple truth, one weeps that the bare familiar statement has lost its power to amaze. My wife says he smells like a feedlot, which means he smells like crushed and ripened manure.

That day at the Albertson's, however, he did not smell with the same intensity as usual. Indeed, from five feet away he did not smell at all. Was this a social event? I wondered. Is the buying of a jug of wine an occasion so special he primps beforehand? I asked the cashier if he was a regular customer, and the cashier laughed and said he was, but no one has time for more than a sentence or two in the checkout at our Albertson's so I took my lemons and half and half and kept moving. I didn't ask about how he usually smelled when he came through the line with his crumpled bills, wine in hand.

So he does drink wine whatever else he consumes to maintain his trajectory. I don't know where he sleeps. A couple years ago in the neighborhood we had Crack Man, who liked to curl up for naps in the middle of the sidewalk. I called him Crack Man because when he curled up, his bulk pulled his pants down in back, exposing several inches of buttock separation. He didn't ask for money either. He just lay there on our sidewalk like a turtle with too scant a shell. I haven't seen him in a while. Maybe someone intervened.

As I said, my wino is not a beggar. For a long time we did not have beggars in our neighborhood because it lacked business dynamism and the foot traffic associated with such dynamism. When we moved here in '91, there must have been a dozen empty storefronts on our shopping street, but in the last five years we have gotten a Starbucks, a Noah's Bagels, a co-op bakery that grew out of Berkeley's famous Cheese Board, a regular Gap and a Gap for kids, a Saturday farmer's market.... It's a fine long list and goes on and on. (Meet me at Mezze for the finest of local dining. They know me. We will be treated like princes.)

I can't believe so many people on our street. I can't believe that now sometimes you can't even find parking on the second deck of the parking garage next to the Albertson's. It used to be so deserted on the second deck that unaccompanied women hesitated to park there. But we're bustling now, and with the bustle came the beggars whose presence to me is as heartening as tickbirds on the back of a prize rhinoceros. Our beggars are quite polite and reasonably neat. Their presence does indicate we are a neighborhood on the come, but I am not so Pavlovianized a dog that I give them money simply because they, like the gout, are a symptom of prosperity. I stiff them again and again and again. I would prefer they were not here, but here they are! I have no idea if they are sad stories. For all I know they drive in every day from their condos in El Sobrante.

As for our wino, I assume he is a sad story. I don't know where he sleeps, but it must be nearby since he is a regular feature of our little urban landscape. There's a church on the corner near where we usually see him. Maybe I should ask them if they have tried to help him. I would say hello to him myself, but he might knife me.

Don't you think he might? Back when I was a reporter I would have walked right up to him and had a fine conversation. To enter into a conversation with a reporter is not to enter into the reporter's world but to allow him into yours. To the reporter you are a wretched but fascinating insect. But if I talk to my wino just as a regular human being -- it being stipulated that he is probably an irregular human being -- we are entering one another's worlds. He may be walking down my street, but he's not in my world, not unless I say hello.

I suppose I could buy him an occasional gallon of wine, but I'm an ironist, not a satirist. I could throw a net over him, toss him in the trunk, get him his shots, have him spayed and put him back on the bus bench on which he sometimes sits.

Love thy neighbor as thyself, I guess, but it's so hard to know how you should treat your subject matter.



Sunday, January 02, 2005

Just to Keep in Mind That Everything is Still Clinton's Fault, Shouldn't This be the Year 5 A.C.?

That Kevin Drum at Washington Monthy -- whose politics and cat pictures I embraced back when he was the Calpundit blogger -- had an interesting post on how some decades are more than ten years long and others are less if you insist on using "decade" labels to identify zeitgeist.

This is his view of the last century:


20s: 1919-1929 (League of Nations vote to stock market crash)
30s: 1929-1941 (Great Depression)
40s: 1941-1946 (WWII)
50s: 1946-1963 (Churchill "Iron Curtain" speech to JFK assassination)
60s: 1964-1973 (Civil Rights Act to end of Vietnam War)
70s: 1973-1980 (1st oil shock/Watergate to 2nd oil shock/Iran hostage crisis)
80s: 1981-1989 (Reagan election to fall of Berlin Wall)
90s: 1990-2001 (Berlin Wall to 9/11)
00s: 2001-

I like this because of the way he starts the Fifties early and then keeps them going.

Personally, since I was born in 1944, I certainly did spend my 20s in the Sixties, all of my 30s in my own private Seventies (out of work for awhile; moving around; it kept going), stayed more in less in step with the big picture by spending my settled 40s and 50s in the settled Eighties and Nineties. But now it looks as if even though George Bush wants me to spend my 60s in his own personal rerun of the belligerent Forties, I'm afraid he's going to overshoot and we'll careen back to the doleful Thirties.

As for the ten-year period we are in right now, why call not call it the Zeros? I think that sums it up ....

Math joke. Thank you, thank you.

See What the Boys in the Back Room Are Reading and Tell Them I'm Reading the Same

This is just an impression, but perhaps someday some bored academic can do a survey. I'm think there are plenty of "subgenre" writers who actually don't participate in their subgenre as readers but only as writers. They are singing in the shower, their voice is in the shower reverberating off the tiles as it were, but their mind is at the Met. But here's the difference: They would like you to come into their bathroom to hear and watch, though a reciprocal invitation would be treated as the most awful joke.

Perhaps, a more pertinent illustration would help. Back in the days when I was trying to get my poetry into the little magazines -- and the littler and the more obscure the better, since I understood the less competition the more likely my submission would be accepted -- I found it painful to read any of the poetry in these small obscure magazines. I was reading pretty much "famous" poetry. As a literary critic, I was pretty much functioning like one of a cow's subordinate stomachs. I wasn't sure I was capable of discriminating among varieties of grass. I was satisfied with cud.

I'm wandering off the point. The point is that I was writing one kind of poetry, and that poetry, when I succeeded in placing it, was embedded in a matrix containing the very same kind of poetry, none of which I could bear to peruse for more than a minute if I hadn't written it.

The point is that I very much love my little blog, but it doesn't make me want to read most other people's blogs. There. That's clear enough.

I go up to the little icon in the upper right corner of this page and I click blindly through a dozen of the millions of other blogs hosted by this exceedingly charitable site. I have yet to stumble upon one that I've bookmarked and returned to. Indeed, I've yet to find through any means a blog I liked that was a) NOT political; b) NOT informational, that is, not designed to collect and disseminate facts and insight about some place, thing or activity, the expressive qualities of that dissemination of quite secondary importance; c) NOT written by a personal friend -- I've yet to find a blog outside any of these three categories to which I have ever returned.

So, see: I am writing something of a kind that would have absolutely no appeal to me if I weren't writing it. As a reader of brief essays, I continue to depend on gate-keeping, on turning to magazines, newspapers or published collections when it comes to sampling patiently and thoughtfully the kind of stuff I am putting in my blog.

But that doesn't mean that over time I won't find such sites, and perhaps myself be found! (I love these little associational rants of mine that I begin with no idea where they will land. The healthy mind will always find a soft cushion on which to land.) Blogs are a new and profuse form, and I choose to assume that by blundering across the face of this great blogswamp I will in the fullness of time find some spots of dry land to which I will choose to return. Or perhaps friends will direct me. I will find blogs that are not political or useful or the work of friends, and I will come back to them on a regular basis.

Odd form this personal blogging, vain and simultaneously lonely. I am curious to see what will come out of it that will last. I'll bet something does.

Meanwhile bloggers! It's our shower we'll sing if we want to.

(Should I link to Janet Leigh or Lesley Gore? The web is generous so I link to both. Both links make subtle commentary on this post.)