Monday, February 28, 2005

He Wasn't Drunk or Stoned. He Was Just Shy and Very Much Understood.

I should have said this last week. It is the nature of the media, and of columnists and opinion writers in particular, to yearn for that sweet spot in public opinion at any given moment, the one that will get them read. Many things can derail the search for that personal sweet spot. Many of those things are idiosyncratic and mysterious to the writer. You open your mouth and out come the words, who knows from where. Or the words may have been stored up, prepared long beforehand, as the ant prepares its winter feast. You've been whispering this thought to yourself every morning in the mirror for ten years. Today is the day to tell the world.

But another thing that determines where on any given day any given columnist or opinion writer finds his or her sweet spot is good old-fashioned contrarianism. And if your aim is being read, contrarianism is more reliable than idiosyncracy or long-held conviction. Calculation is all too often superior to inspiration. Everyone else is saying one thing till we are sick of it. Time to say the opposite, whether you believe it or not.

This week that will happen with Hunter Thompson. It has to. It's the nature of the enterprise. Last week we wept. This week we jeer. Ross of the Chronicle may have started the ball rolling yesterday. The pendulum is swinging. The barometer is falling. The tides rises, the tide falls. We breathe out carbon dioxide; plants breathe it in. When it comes to praise, a little more than a little is by much too much.

The great circle of life asserts itself. Hakuna Matata. All together now:

Hunter Thompson, you ignorant slut.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

When They Play the Funny-Looking Instruments, I Laugh and Laugh

Don't get mad. Get even.

That means sometimes in the coolest and most collected of moods you will need to punish yourself. It's the principle of the thing. No mercy.

Right? Right!?

Last night we were late for the symphony. First, it was my wife's fault -- and I can live with that, tormenting her in righteousness for weeks to come -- but then it was my fault and you can imagine the degree to which that made me pout.

We left ten minutes late. That was my wife's fault. She wasted valuable minutes making a delicious supper. (Stop me before I cook again!)

But the traffic on the bridge was not so bad, and we were just south of Market St. at 20 minutes till, which gave us plenty of time. Then traffic locked up. I had not checked the pan-SanFrancisky musical schedule. Didn't know there was an opera right across the street from the symphony. Cars just locked up at Van Ness. Honk honk honk. Some guy on the sidewalk waved his arms as if he were conducting.

Con brio. Honk. Honk. Honk.

It's a quarter after eight and we are still sitting there by which time it's now my fault. Finally we break free, abandoning the line at our usual parking garage -- which is full; people are lined up waiting for someone to leave.

And it's mutual, two speaking as one: Damn you. Damn us. But then no. No.

Damn you dark forces that have made us both responsible for missing ... whatever. I didn't check that either. We buy these tickets in a clump. It's all beautiful, right? I mean, why else would they do it? These people are paid professionals. Anyway, we both decide as one flesh that even though we could probably wander around and find a parking space and catch the second half of the program no we won't.

We drive down to Fifth and Mission, near the Chronicle where I used to work, which location stirs my loins with memories of glory. We park and go looking for dessert because -- I'm adapting, adopting and improving here -- Chocolate does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to man.

Lots of kids wandering around the 16 movie theaters at the Metreon. Nothing makes you more content with your childless and grandchildrenless state than a streetful of pimples on parade, each youth more loathsome than the one before.

We are feeling better every minute. We walk down to the Sheraton Palace hotel, wondering if the Garden Court is open. It's not, but we notice the menu outside the bar mentions some nice desserts. In we go and discover back there beyond the bar the nicest coziest little restaurant.

Moshe the Waiter. Charming. Kurt the maitre d. Charming. Napkins, plates and cutlery. Charming.

You may say, given our mood and our need to find in our shattered plans some compensatory moment, that had we stumbled upon a derelict hot dog cart serving Broast Rat on a Stick we would have grappled it to our bosom and turned it to our joy.

Well, duh. You want us to sit there sniping at one another because we missed Mr. Ludwig von Brahms or whoever it was?

We are fucking happily married here. Don't make us come over there and laugh at your grandchildren, those little pimps.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

When She's Worried and She Can't Sleep, She Counts Her Pennies Instead of Sheep. And She Starts to Cry.

I'm going to put my sisters-in-law on an electrical scholarship. I'm going to send them a roll of nickels, and everytime their mom -- my mother-in-law -- complains about the expense of opening and closing the garage door they can drop a coin in the Mason jar. And they will be covered. I will suggest they tell Moms Landrith she is actually making a profit.

It's not precisely a comic situation. I take that back. The comedy in the situation is directly proportional to the distance from it. Moms Landrith is 94. In some ways her intellectual capacities are uneroded. Her memory is failing, but in most cases she thinks clearly, using a lifetime's worth of "old" facts, plus whatever bits of new information happen to have stuck with her. She still has her sense of humor and her pleasure in daily life. But sometimes she quite simply maddens her two daughters with her insistence on small economies.

If you buy the large box of something and then nibble at it, at some point it will go bad. Bugs will be drawn to it. Mold will grow in it. Moisture will disappear from it and it will drift toward ossification. Moms Landrith is hesitant to let it go. "Inedible" is not a category she admits to her awareness. But some things really do become inedible. Some things become disgusting and possibly sickening. There is much surreptitious jettisoning of food, but the girls have learned to manage that pretty well.

But it is hard to surreptitiously turn on a light. It is hard to surreptitiously turn on the fan that evacuates smells from the bathroom.

It's not that she doesn't have the money. Still, I think I will form a national charity and ask you to send it your spare change. I wonder how many struggling suffering loving children of brave decent but deeply Depression-addled parents and grandparents -- I mean that Thirties Depression, not the brain thing -- need to be on an electrical scholarship?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Every Time a Famous Writer Dies, An Untenured Assistant Professor Gets His Wings

By which I mean now the son of a bitch can't talk back, the possibility of that back talk probably having caused some academics to back off their theory du jour -- though the ones with balls (guy balls; girl balls; balls is balls) would just tell the poor old sod: "You wrote it. Your job is over. Get out of my way."

So Hunter Thompson is dead, and what better time for me to pull out my lovingly battered copy of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and mine the text. It's the words themselves that matter, not the soggy memory of what might have been said and what you wished was said.

A little weird, though, to examine one's notes, to see what happened way back then at the first moment of collision with the text. My first note on the inside of the front cover:

"Tone reminds me somewhat of 'Ginger Man.' (?)"

(?) indeed! I have not thought about J.P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man" in decades. Similarity in tone? There is a kind of extravagance in both ....



However, a certain sympathy resonates between HST and JP, more circumstantial than integral. I mean I can't be the only reader -- almost certainly male, I concede -- whose number one choice in high school and early college (English major all the way) was Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"; whose number one choice in graduate school was "The Ginger Man"; and whose number one choice during those first years of teaching college English -- an early Sixties teenager suddenly teaching early Seventies teenagers -- was "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." In other words, I was a creature of the changing times when it came to books about alienation and resistance to the larger culture, those books in which you identified with the protagonist, you were the protagonist.

You protest: I thought you said we were going into the text, not down into the foul rag and bone shop of your past conformities?

Yes yes but but thinking about "The Ginger Man" -- which was pretty hot and sexy for its day -- leads me to a point of interest in F&L. It is not hot and sexy. (Huh? Why should it be? - Eds.) Whatever sexual adventures Thompson had while doing, or approximating, the events in the book are excluded. We could talk long time about this void. Maybe he was practicing abstinence! Maybe he was afraid of his wife! Maybe he had a fit of journalistic integrity! (At this point, I pick door number two with great confidence.)

Or maybe whether or not Thompson was sexually active in Las Vegas during the time he experienced -- or imagined or fever-dreamed -- the experiences that make up the book, maybe such adventures did not fit in his grand scheme. Could be a question of aesthetics, not events. And one must not forget that, as he says so often, he is "a doctor of journalism."

Which, of course, he wasn't.

Back to the sex, which in the period hymn comes not alphabetically but before the drugs and before the rock and roll and therefore attention must be paid. First some context: F&L is a male book, fuelled as much by testosterone as illegal substances, and when I teach it -- usually to a class in which women outnumber men by 2 or 3 to 1 -- I press the class to talk about the differences in response to the book depending on gender, or sexual preference for that matter. The degree to which women think F&L is an exercise in male privilege, i.e., the right to exist in a state of intoxication without fear or censure, is a question that interests me. Hateful things are needful things, when it comes to class discussion.

And there is a moment when sexual issues arise. This is the scene I push before the class to promote dialogue. "My attorney" has picked up an underage Jesus Freak female runaway who has never had a drink and to whom he has given a powerful drug. Thompson has not counted on finding his attorney "locked into some kind of preternatural courtship."

He suggests:

"It'll probably work out. We can keep her loaded and peddle her ass at the drug convention. These cops will go fifty bucks a head to beat her into submission and then gang fuck her. We can set her up in one of these back street motels, hang pictures of Jesus all over the room, then turn these pigs loose on her... Hell she's strong; she'll hold her own."


"Jesus Christ," he muttered. "I knew you were sick but I never expected to hear you actually say that kind of stuff. "


"I figure she can do four at a time," I said. "Christ, if we keep her full of acid, that's more than two grand a day, maybe three."

"You filthy bastard.!" he sputtered. "I should cave your fucking head in."

And that, I assume is the point. Thompson -- okay; Duke -- through hyperbole has begun to persuade his attorney to part kindly with Lucy rather than.... rather than whatever. Perhaps, this is actually a moral moment. But this is strong stuff, brutal and misogynistic if taken on the face of it. I think I know how it was intended to be read. I know how I want to read it since I have been charmed -- or maybe seduced -- by the narrator's previous comic fervor.

But I also think That many young readers take everything the book's protagonist says at simple face value and that Thompson/Duke MEANS WHAT HE SAYS. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, the way old men become when the gap between them and those they teach is so great that we can only guess at how they see the world. See, this is -- for me -- the moment in the book in which I must get serious, must begin a conversation with the book if I am to continue to be comfortable with it. How does he feel about women? And does it matter? does it matter? does it matter?

A point: We must not forget the book's epigraph, which puzzles me because it does not seem consistent with Thompson's idea about the advantages of semi-permanent intoxication:

"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man" -- Dr. Johnson

No. It can't be that simple.

One final thing: The scene in which Thompson proposes Lucy be prostituted reminds me of the scene in Nathaniel West's "Miss Lonelyhearts" where that increasingly unhinged custodian of a newspaper advice column hears a drunken barroom story about -- and I'm paraphrasing from memory -- a woman who was perceived as stuck up and, as a result, was taken into the backroom and "ganged proper" for three days.

That is just one scene in that novella suggesting that boys and girls we live in hell. Tore me up when I was 19 or 20. No doubt in my mind how most people would read that scene, how their attitudes would be shaped toward Miss Lonelyhearts as he listens. Now, could Thompson have had that book and that scene in mind when he talked about Lucy? Could he have been layering the meaning, flattering those who know the West novel, trying to make it hard on those readers who up to this point in F&L are taking Duke whole, taking him straight as bent as he is?

I'm just saying you can read the book more than once, more than twice, more than three times and find things to talk about.

Addendum: Well well well. My modus operandi is to write from memory and then google since Fresh and Honest and Sometimes Wrong is my motto in this little non-political blog. Thus after the fact I discover that "The Ginger Man" made at least one list of top English-language novels of the 20th Century. It was 99th, just after "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and just ahead of "The Magnificient Ambersons." Also, I did remember it correctly: lots of dr*inking and lots of f*cking.

Addendum II: An old Chronicle hand shares a thought so relevant to the matters discussed that I raise it up from "comments" to the ur-document itself:

Michael: I think your suspicion that Hunter was a pig is well founded. He hung around the Mitchell Brothers theater when that was going strong. Women were just so much meat in that venue.

And a youth adds:

I too have been a big fan since errant, dour teenhood, when I fancied addiction and ether binges would at least define me as something! But a writer friend from LA delivered the 'coup de grace' when I sent her a recent HST tribute, saying she hated to be the wet blanket, but where was the 'R' word in Hunter's ouvre: namely the (gulp) Responsibility of reminding fellow gonzo devotees that, at the very least, notes should be readable the next morning? Or perhaps not. He DID tell it like it is/was, and will be missed in this age of 'emplantation.' (is that the word?).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Ibid Says Hunter Thompson Was a Genius, But Op Cit Thinks He Just Got Lucky on the Juice

What I'm saying is that I'm not going to write about "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" until I go to my office and get my copy of the book and look at the what I've written in the margins and what I've underlined and what I've written on the flyleaf and inside the back cover and up and down the spine.

I'm saying that this is a considerable book. I've taught it in my literary journalism class many times, and it has one of the qualities that make a book last, at least for a while. It has depth, it has levels and it invites interpretation. I honor it by holding back until I have the text -- the specific words, the quotations -- to illustrate its richness of possibility. For instance -- I will say this; can't stop now; roll tape -- that Thompson's suicide is consistent with one way of reading F&L. You can argue that it's a book about the necessity of numbing one's self when confronted with the ugliness of modern life. "Man, being reasonable, must get drunk." That's Byron. At some point numbness is not enough. So you kill yourself.

Of course, 1) Thompson the man is not Thompson the implied author of F&L. We aren't naive readers. The fiction -- and it is a fiction no matter what the autobiographical background -- is complete in itself. We don't look at the real man and confuse him with "Raoul Duke." (We don't say Hamlet really hated his father in spite of all those expressions of love in the play because the Oedipus Complex obtains in the "real" world, and the fiction must fall in line.) Thompson's manner of death really is irrelevant. 2) All the other ways to read the book! You can say it's vatic, it's prophecy, it's the Delphic oracle drunk on fumes saying the big things that were (sometimes) true if terrifying. He intoxicates himself to break through rationality and tell the deep truth....

That's enough of that. I'll get the book. I'll look at my notes. I'll get the book and I'll ponce around, doing the academic dance, the Close Reading. A general comment or two right now, though. Thompson really hasn't mattered as a writer of new things for 30 years. He did Nixon and he did Vegas, and those were narratives, great stories. After that Thompson just gave us bits and pieces of the old shtick. When he was writing for the Examiner in the 80s, he was not a must-read. The talk at the M&M, that great newspaper bar, just a few steps away from the Chron and the Ex, was often about how hard it was to squeeze out of Thompson what made its way into print. A lot of it looked squeezed out, and the rumor that you would sometimes hear over drinks was that sometimes Thompson did not produce and that there was an editor at the old Ex who could and did write a Thompson piece when he didn't deliver, that he was a guy who could do Thompson in gasps as well or better than Thompson.

Was that true? So much malice at the M&M. So much jealousy. Could have been a big big lie. But I don't think I was the only one who thought the rumor might be true because so much of what he wrote in later years was not.... The word I want is incandescent. When Thompson was telling a tale, not just throwing off sparks, what he had to say could be the most incandescent vitriol. I've gone to Romanesko and clicked through some of the tributes, and some thoughtful folk have noted that Thompson doesn't matter that much to young journalists any more. I think that's true.

I'll go the office tomorrow and get my book and I'll say more.

Addendum: Brother Bob Wieder is a merry old soul. A merry old soul is he. He's got something to say about Hunter S.

Addedum II: So much nonsense being written about HST, more every moment, rising like a tsumani, which is certainly a tribute to his impact. The chum is in the water and big fish and little fish and rubber fish all try to dip their beaks. Anyway, one piece of nonsense I’ve heard just often enough to make me talk back is that bloggers are the lineal descendants of HST. Well, don’t we wish. HST was a man who managed to get paid for doing what he did back in the days before he was a name and could just throw the rag out there and get a check. I concede a few people are making a living out of blogging, but ninety-nine point many decimal places out percent of bloggers are self-published vanity press cardboard pirates. And I mean the ones with ten thousand hits and day and the big names. They spend their days huddling over the computer, not immersing themselves in the destructive element, as did HST. That's not really the point. A handful of bloggers may be sustaining themselves with their work as HST did. But I have yet to read a blogger who writes as well as HST did at his best. In the world of blogging, incoherent indignation is the coin of the realm. Anyone can froth at the mouth, but HST was an artist, poor man. God's sake he said he copied F. Scott Fitzgerald by the page word for word to find the rhythm -- and I believe him.

Let’s put it yet another way. When everyone’s an outlaw, no one is an outlaw. Thompson as proto-blogger! Don’t they wish. Don't I wish.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Why Does the Cat So Silent Walk?

Or to put it another way, why no posting since Tuesday? The answer is that some things out in the real world put a damper on feeling clever with words (as opposed to actually being clever with words, which you either is or you isn't no matter what the mood). Sometimes you feel the need to focus your energy on just how you are going to hammer on a problem. You think, you rethink what you've thought, you go back to the beginning and start thinking from the beginning.

Genesis 1:1 -- In the beginning was the problem....

The problem is of a specific nature. The city "expired" our building permit. The word "building" is a bit of a misnomer if I may use the word correctly when so few do. We got a permit not to build but to do what they like to call "voluntary earthquake retrofit." Because Eydie is one of those rare architects who really does understand structure, she understands all the weak points in our house -- which was built in the Fifties -- that make it likely to break apart in a strong earthquake. We are in "earthquake denial" about some things. We don't have jugs of water in the garage. We don't have a couple hundred dollar bills stuffed in a sack in the attic, for experts will tell you that in the aftermath of a big one and the collapse of local banking, you may need some ready case in small amounts to buy basics.

But Eydie is not in denial about the weak points in our house's great chain of being. We paid for a structural engineer to do a plan and got a permit, the idea being that we would move through the plan, one area of the house at a time as money became available. We were told -- we thought we were told -- that if we got some part of the plan done every six months and had that work inspected we could keep the permit alive on and on and on. It's in the city's interest not to have houses collapsing and people injured and general damage to the city's financial well-being that results from damaged and destroyed homes dropping off the tax rolls and owners giving up and moving away. The city should want the work done, and it should want the work inspected to make sure it's good work. (As you see, I have been making this argument to myself all this week, polishing it and focusing it.)

We had the work in one area of the house done over an 18-month period. Beams and things were "tied together" more securely. The house frame was bolted to the house foundation. Drywall was ripped off -- that is, we tore parts of the wall off -- and sheets of plywood were nailed up to help the house resist twisting and tearing in an earthquake.

After having this done for one part of the house, we ran out of ready cash. Well -- and this is just my point of view; take it for what it's worth -- we didn't so much run out as repurpose, spending some tens of thousands of dollars on various distant relatives....

Never mind. We thought we could keep the permit "alive"(I love that phraseology) if I personally with these soft hands "demoed" (I love this abbreviation) some chunks of wall and "tied down" the foundation. ("Tied down" I can take or leave. It's a little kinky.)

I could do this myself. The tool of choice is something called a "roto hammer" where the drill bit goes round and round and something in the head of the tool also goes bang-bang up and down and through the concrete of the foundation you go, making a nice hole in which you put a long steel bolt and some epoxy glue.

Position the hold-down over the bolt, screw the hold-down to the vertical stud, pop on a nut and tighten it and there you are: By some percentage the likelihood of the house falling off the foundation when it suffers a big jolt is diminished.

Last August we asked for an inspection of several hold-downs. They were approved. But, as we learned last week, we were given only a partial approval (code 97) rather than a complete approval of partial completion.... I didn't quite follow. I thought you just had to get something of substance done every six months.

When I went downtown, one city employee was a little rude, and I came back the next day to talk to his superior, who was nicer, and who told me I could appeal to his superior, essentially making the points I mentioned before: that we are doing the work as fast as we can and it's voluntary work and I'm no contractor so how would I know the right questions to ask the inspector so that he would say, "Aha! This is a code 98!"

We'll see what happens. I wrote up a very nice letter of appeal and hand delivered it. If you think this makes dull reading, think how how dull it was to live, how dull and how anxious.

The only mildly amusing part is that the first bureaucrat I talked to may have thought I was a contractor trying to play the system. He did seem to find me intrinsically irritating. I was wearing my bright orange University of Tennessee cap, which has a certain working class energy. It was a gift from my brother-in-law who lives in Tennessee. I wear it when I walk -- faithful DC readers know that I walk a brisk 3.2 miles every morning -- so I won't be run down crossing the street. It's an intense garish frightening color and, clearly labelled as originating in Tennessee, I like to think it also suggests hurt me and insane inbred hillbilly cannibals will come seeking revenge.

Or, contrarily, it may suggest that the wearer is some shitheel of a contractor, a misconception that very well may inspire the very acts of vehicular violence I'm trying to avoid, hillbilly cannibal revenge notwithstanding.

That would be ironic. Or do I just mean odd? Don't want to fall into a misnomer, not in the last paragraph. Need to bolt this essay to a firm semantic foundation.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

I am Sure My Remark Reduced Him to Tears

Occasionally, I google my name to see if the blog is gaining traction. (And on Yahoo search it is but not so much on Google.) To my surprise, I discovered that my judgment of Bush's State of the Union speech was among the potshots leavening the kudos on a CNN comments page. I was lucky number 13!

Typo, though. There went my credibility.

It Was Probably the Steroids Talking, While the Human Growth Hormone Nodded in Assent

Jose Canseco pumped up his talent with steroids -- and he did have a talent to pump up. Then he pissed it away with riotous living -- and he did have a pumped-up talent to piss away.

One does not have to be a baseball fan to be aware Canseco has just produced a book -- we assume he was somewhere in the vicinity during some fraction of its creation -- in which he celebrates his use of steroids and invites a number of former teammates to the celebration by outing them as juicers.

I have nothing in particular to say about steroids in baseball. But I do have a little bit of history with Canseco, so why not add my footnote? I wrote about him several times back during my days at the Chronicle and now it can be told....

Actually, it was told then. But I'm sure everyone has forgot, so I will tell it again.

Wrote about Canseco three times. Only interviewed him once with a kind of clubhouse collision at the end. Back in 1988 when the A's were entering their last period of true baseball glory, I was assigned a soft feature on the A's taste in music. Movies. Michael J. Fox man crushes. Whatever.

I showed up at the park the day that Tom Boswell of the Washington Post announced that Canseco was a notorious user of steroids. Oh, the boys were buzzing. Canseco and I had a pleasant conversation about god knows what trivia. I mentioned the steroid accusation. He laughed it off. I thought it was the indifference that can come only from an abiding sense of innocence, but apparently it was the indifference that comes from deep contempt for you, me, all you punkahsuckahs out there.

A year later Canseco was arrested for speeding and carrying a gun. Maybe some other stuff. For reasons still not clear to me, my superiors pulled me out of features and told me to do a What's Up with Jose? story. I followed him to court and talked to his dad and his high-school coach and so on and so on. I think I called Roger Angell to get some judgment if not apt at least elegant. It all came out a bit of a cliche: He hasn't grown up yet but probably he will unless he doesn't or possibly won't but then again.

I have no doubt that somewhere near the end of that story is a sentence or two that turned out to be prophetic given his later failures, but if so I claim no credit. Write enough long enough and you will accidentally say something.

I didn't actually interview Canseco for that story. I lurked a bit and got turned down in the clubhouse, and one morning I sat in the stands while he took some special batting practice in an otherwise empty ballpark, one of the A's pr people having promised to intercede, but he blew me off again. My editors didn't care. He was on the record all over the place. He was a great player that year, never quite that good again and pretty soon not even close to that.

None of this is in the least bit interesting now, even to me. But then in July 1990 the A's called up Jose's twin brother Ozzie. Though they were identical, in their teen years and early 20s Ozzie concentrated on pitching while Jose concentrated on playing the outfield.

And hitting. And hitting. And hitting.

Ozzie was not a very good pitcher and finally gave that up and decided to follow in his brother's footsteps, one by belated one. He was built like Jose and looked like Jose but certainly didn't hit like Jose, which suggests it wasn't all steroids that made Jose Canseco, for a brief few years, quite marvelous.

So Ozzie bounced around the minors, never doing much. The A's signed him, probably as a nod to Jose, and in midsummer 1990 they called him up to the big club. It wasn't to help them win games. He had spent too much time specializing in one aspect of baseball to turn to another aspect and excel, even though there his doppelganger was, mashing the ball.

So why bring him up? To sell tickets? To nudge Jose toward becoming a role model -- in fact, to make him a role model (mind the baby while I'm out) whether he wanted to be or not?

I was given the job of interviewing Ozzie. I was superb, I must say, at bringing some magic to stories about people on the fringes, people whose lives were just a little sad if held up the light and turned at just the right angle. And then you turned them again just a very little and the sadness was gone. I was beautiful, man.

I made my calls. Dad Canseco wasn't available, but some people in Huntsville, Alabama, where Ozzie had been playing for Oakland's Double-A team were. Thus prepared, I went into the clubhouse for a little in situ interaction. Ozzie was just too much very busy.

Tomorrow at one, he said.

Game tomorrow starts at 12:30 I said.

Oh, he said.

Look, who cared. My wife and I had promised to go to a pool party in Sacramento at the home of young Tony Bizjak, who was a fine young feature writer who had left the Chronicle to go where he and his wife could afford a house. My wife and I were about twice their age and we didn't have a house. I wanted to check this out. If the Ozzie story went away, who cared.

I did make an appointment to call him at the airport Hyatt at six Saturday after the game. I would have bet you green money he would not be there when I called.

It was hot in Sacramento. I fortified myself against the heat. With a buzz as sweet as angels humming, at six I stepped into the pool house -- this is true; a pool house -- and dialed. And there he was.

Terrific interview. I got some quotes, plenty of color, some moxie, some humility. All that was left to do was drop by the A's clubhouse before the Sunday game next day, ask Jose how he felt about his "kid" brother -- for Ozzie was younger by a minute or two -- and go to the office and write for Monday.

Went to the Coliseum. Ozzie's locker had been moved from way down at the end to right next to Jose's. Ozzie is sitting there. Jose and a couple other guys are sitting there going through a big box of baseballs signing them. I say hello to Ozzie. Jose doesn't look up.

He's gonna fuck you, Jose says to Ozzie.

I don't say anything.

He's gonna fuck you, Jose says to Ozzie and to the clubhouse.

An idiot smile blossoms on my face.

He's gonna fuck you, Jose says to Ozzie, the clubhouse and the world in general.

It's early. There aren't that many baseball players in the room, but those present have shut up and gathered round.

You know, I talk sometimes about how I was a pro, an old pro. I like to say that at the end of my time at the paper I was pretty damn good, and maybe I was and maybe I wasn't. But I tell you this:

I had my moments.

So in that locker room with the attention of all fastened upon me I turned to Ozzie and said in a loud clear voice:

"Do you think Elvis is still alive?"

And Jose and his cohorts jumped to their feet and fled to the other end of the room because I was clearly one crazy Mary Frances.

I talked to Ozzie some more, tying up loose ends. At the other end of the locker room Jose walked back and forth stroking in a masturbatory manner a long blue cylinder propped against his groin saying again and again he will fuck you he will fuck you.

Maybe it wasn't a long blue plastic cylinder. Maybe it was his steroidally inflamed penis.

Anyway, I went back to the newsroom and wrote my piece beginning it more or less like this:

"Like a mother lion protecting her cubs, like a Medal of Honor winner throwing himself on a hand grenade, A's slugger Jose Canseco did his best yesterday to protect his baby brother from the festering overtures of the malignant press..."

That's close enough. The story is from back in the day and is not available online, though autographed reproductions suitable for framing are available.

I put it all in, all the f**ks. I didn't think the editors would let it through, but it was Sunday and I guess everyone was at the beach (the cold Northern California beach walking bent into the wind not swimming) because it ran as I wrote it.

I did bring the piece around to Ozzie pretty quickly. I had asked him earlier what the sweetest possible moment he could imagine in the big leagues would be. He said it would be Ozzie and Jose Canseco hitting back to back home runs.

And then I asked him would he want to hit the first of the two home runs or the second, for it would be the second that would ignite the crowd and make its way onto Sports Center highlights and into baseball's long and heavy book of memories.

He said it did not matter. Either one.

I liked him. I liked Ozzie. He was Jose Lite, I guess. (And I don't mean he wasn't juicing. Think metaphorically.) He stayed up for nine games that year before the A's sent him down. He batted 19 times and got 2 hits.

I'll have to read Jose's book and see what it says about Ozzie.

Monday, February 14, 2005

"Nothing human disgusts me unless it's unkind, violent," said Hannah Jelkes. "Except for these Valentines. Which are just weirding me out."

Brother Greg Pabst suggests today is a day not meant for tart comment on the weaknesses of the species but for worshipping at the feet of one's golden wife. So worship, he says.


However, he adds, just to bleed off some of one's usual foul mood, why not link to the following valentines, most of which seem to have been drawn from the personal collection of Mistah (The Horror The Horror) Kurtz.

All this linking is rather lazy, isn't it? I'll have something up tomorrow of substantial wit and daunting gravity.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Mamet on Miller. How Far Wrong Can You Go with That?

David Mamet says some nice things about Arthur Miller in the Times today. He says the obvious, that when he told Miller that listening to Willy Loman and his son Biff was like listening to Mamet and his own dad the look on Miller's face made clear that Miller had "not only heard this comment thousands of times, he has probably heard it from every man who ever saw the play."

I find this a comforting thought, reaffirming as it does my notion that all men are brothers in the sense that we are all sons of the same difficult, determined, selfish, pitiful, daddy Big Daddy who naturally shrank with age and I don't mean because of the squashing of the spinal disks. Not having a son of my own, I have been deprived of the opportunity of knowing if seeing the play would have made me a better father. I rather think not. I rather think that if I had a son and all my friends had had sons, those sons would have been brothers, too, by the same uncomfortable logic.

But this is the part of Mamet's tribute that I really like, -- the healing part -- where Mamet sums up Death of a Salesman and The Crucible in the vocabulary of tragedy:

We are freed, at the end of these two dramas, not because the playwright has arrived at a solution, but because he has reconciled us to the notion that there is no solution - that it is the human lot to try and fail, and that no one is immune from self-deception. We have, through following the course of the drama, laid aside, for two hours, the delusion that we are powerful and wise, and we leave the theater better for the rest.

Bad drama reinforces our prejudices. It informs us of what we knew when we came into the theater - the infirm have rights, homosexuals are people, too, it's difficult to die. It appeals to our sense of self-worth, and, as such, is but old-fashioned melodrama come again in modern clothes (the villain here not black-mustachioed, but opposed to women, gays, racial harmony, etc.).

The good drama survives because it appeals not to the fashion of the moment, but to the problems both universal and eternal, as they are insoluble.

Hmmm. I seem to have quoted most of the tribute. But you might have missed it otherwise.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

On Weekends We Used to Sit in the Dorm and Play Monopoly All Night. *All Night!*

Some reporters have mastered the sly deployment of the throwaway sentence. It's a nice piece of the craft, a skill. But others raise it into another dimension, to the level of art.

For your reading pleasure I give you Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle doing a follow-up story concerning the San Francisco State photo-journalism student who was charged with burglary after photographing other students breaking into a car.

That's background enough. 'T is time to quote:

According to Vega and his journalism school instructors, on the night of the car burglary the freshman was working on a freelance assignment to chronicle life in and around a freshman dorm for the online college paper, the Golden Gate Xpress.

At Friday's press conference, Vega projected some of those photographs onto a large screen.

Most are normal scenes of campus life -- a student strumming his guitar in the stairwell, another vomiting in a toilet after a night of binge drinking, and a female student lying on the floor and receiving oral sex from a fellow freshman.

Someone is waving at me from the wings. Time for the ironic juxtaposition.

Nothing to do, Nellie Darling,
Oh, there's nothing to do, you say,
Let's take a trip
On the Memory Ship,
And sail back to the good old days.
Sail to the old village schoolhouse,
Anchor outside the school door,
Look in and see,
There's you and there's me,
A couple of kids once more.

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
'Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your bashful barefoot beau,
And you wrote on my slate,'I love you, Joe,
'When we were a couple of kids.

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
'Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick.
I was your queen in calico,
You were my bashful barefoot beau,
And I wrote on your slate,'I love you, Joe,
'When we were a couple of kids.'

And you wonder why I jumped at the chance to be a journalist.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Pig Chat is Coming But Meanwhile...

If you have a fast connection, this eight-minute talktalk about the future of news and news organizations is provocative, both exciting and disturbing. Who was it said no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people?

Here, by the way, is where I found the above link in a Poynter post by an old Chronicle colleague. He says the New York Times -- and I am assuming "elite" journalism in general -- needs more juvenile humor. If this is true, I may stuff myself into my old newsroom uniform, sharpen my pencils, dab some shoe polish on my temples and return to the game of games.

Or as Dave Barry has said so often to such powerful effect:

It's booger time.

Watch This Space

You see the picture below. I am collecting my thoughts before I comment.

Thursday Pig Blogging Slips to Friday

Search for "vampire pig" on Google images, and this is what you find. Someone has a lot to answer for. Posted by Hello

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Life of a School Bus Driver Grows Ever Lonelier

Working for city government as she does, my wife is first in line for all sorts of emailed official announcements. She just forwarded a California Highway Patrol press release about new traffic laws, including:

Lighting Equipment. (SB 1236, Murray). The new law permits non-distracting night vision enhancement devices which display images allowing a driver to see objects ahead better during darkness.

Headlamp Usage. (AB 1854, Simitian). This amendment to the vehicle code requires every motor vehicle, other than a motorcycle, be operated with headlamps lighted when weather conditions require the windshield wipers to be in continuous use.

Wireless Telephones. (AB 2785, Nakano). This new addition to the California Vehicle Code prohibits the driver of a school bus or transit vehicle from using a wireless telephone while driving. Exemptions are for work related use or emergency purposes.

My analysis: 1) Now I can drive like a Ninja. 2) That makes sense. Why do people hate to turn on their lights? When I was a kid, I recall that I didn't want to look like a wimp. It takes a man to (trifle) with darkness. 3) Excellent. I wouldn't want anything to interfere with their drinking on the job.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

And While You're At It Hike Up Those Britches, Little Mister

This is what San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman wrote today:

I am rethinking Jennifer Garner.

Like many other people, I have been thinking about Garner for some time now. Even before "Alias." From this moment forward, the column will veer wildly around Garner and a Top 10 Celebrity (Can't Print This Word) List (the point of which is simple: If given the chance to do someone on that list, your spouse will allow you to do them without guilt or gunplay).

Am I a filthy old bastard or did Goodman just pretty much say that Jennifer Garner is on his Celebrity Fuck List? And is his final parenthetical comment some kind of bizarre boast about a marriage in which star-fucking is a perk if the star is sufficiently fine?

I am interested because if I were his editor, I would have spiked this column -- if his supervising editor in fact has the power to do so, given my impression that Goodman is quite a popular columnist, a man who draws the eyeballs to the printed page.

Which apparent fact always startles me.

He writes about television the way I would write about television, more attitude and ego than thoughtful analysis, the How something can be said frequently thrusting aside or just flat trampling the What of it all.

I mean, ride the llama that brung you up the mountain, but sometimes I really do miss John Carman.

Why is Everyone Afraid of Him? He Looks Like Jackie Gleason

When I was a kid and rode the bus down Rugby Boulevard and then on downtown to see a cowboy double feature, I never worried about timing my arrival so that I showed up at the start of the program. I would arrive in the middle of one of the movies and follow the plot as best I could. This was not a problem. I knew who the hero was and almost certainly who the villains were, and if I did not quite understand the nuances of the plot it was probably because there were no nuances to understand.

Indeed -- and this was the intriguing part that, at the time, I lacked the perspective to be intrigued by -- coming into the middle of the movie always made my experience of it more nuanced that it would otherwise have been. What's going on? The hero has a buddy. Might he have another dimension? Buddy-as-Judas or buddy-as-weakling or buddy-as-sacrifice, by which I mean not until he gets shot down like a dog in the street, preferably from behind, does the hero really get mad. The earlier in the movie you arrive the easier it is to know what the relationships are. Or you may see that there are no relationships, that the movie will progress in irrational jumps, so you turn off certain parts of your analytical apparatus . My point is that when you are dropped into a movie or TV show in the middle, there is confusion but there is also possibility.

So one thing I like to do even today is drop into a movie on TV, preferably one I know nothing about, and try to piece together what is happening and why. I become co-creator, as it were, at least for a little while. A related pleasure is the belated discovery of hit TV shows. There isn't the same delicious ignorance -- though given the fact we don't have kids and don't watch Entertainment Tonight we are pretty ignorant of whole swaths of popular culture -- but there are still some surprises when you come aboard late. We did it with the Simpsons, which I knew, from glimpses, that I would enjoy. But I wanted to limit just how much TV I watched -- for practical logistical reasons, not from some high cultural principle -- so I waited for the moment I had the time to invest in the diversion. This was about 10 years into the run. By then the show was long since syndicated. You could see two different Simpsons every day in this market, so I caught up fast.

Same thing with Seinfeld. It wasn't until the fourth season that my wife coaxed me into watching. It takes maybe two episodes to pick up the basic relationships there, but because of recurring characters and references to past episodes some of the action has an elusive telegraphic quality that, if you are a newcomer, gives it the momentary flash of ambiguity that suggests more "art" than was originally intended. (Also, by the fourth season, Seinfeld had a polish and confidence that really wasn't there at first. The earlier episodes, before things were sorted out, bring more pleasure when seen out of chronology. It's TV as archeology.)

All this is leading up to the fact I have just discovered the Sopranos. My wife is a screamer. Even the mildest surprise in a movie or on TV will make her cry out. I don't mean fanged beasts leaping out and tearing off heads. I mean someone in a sitcom jumping out of the closet. She is ready to be startled. Violent surprises are even worse because she hates violence of any kind. She is appalled. She buries her head in her hands and moans. Right away I knew enough about the Sopranos to understand it was not something we should watch together. I decided not to watch at all. Given the limited number of episodes and the fact it was on cable, following it would clearly take more effort -- more planning -- than I wanted to invest.

Oh. Sometimes we subscribe to HBO, sometimes we don't. There will be a special offer to lure me back, and then the price goes back up and I go, "Sex and the City, ewwwwww," and we cancel.

This December HBO had another sweet offer -- and as it happened they were rerunning the most recent season of the Sopranos, two or three different episodes a night. I had a little cold or something, so I watched an episode -- too lazy to turn it off, I guess. And then I watched another. Hmm. Looks like I covered a whole season. That Tony. He's got some trouble there.

In early January, HBO rolled out its "On Demand" feature. Anytime I wanted I could watch The Sopranos episodes 36 through 41-- any time -- and last week they added three or four more episodes. And now I am a Sopranos guy. I don't quite know if Tony's character is describing an arc or if he's stuck. He's loyal to family right up to the moment he has to kill you. Is he learning? Is he slipping? This therapy thing? Is it being satirized or endorsed? Did Carmela do the nasty with Furio? I'm guessing not, and it's fun to guess. Guys that were around in 2002 aren't there anymore. Dead? Witness protection? A lot of history is obviously there, and coming in in the middle, I am guessing, deciphering, extrapolating.

I'm not confused or frustrated by the gaps. I'm titillated and intrigued, roused to speculation.

It's Shakespeare at home, isn't it? I have become increasingly concerned about how it will all end. Tony kills Christopher? Christopher betrays Tony? One of those has to happen if it's Shakespeare at home. Or maybe it's just Eugene O'Neill at home -- late O'Neill -- and everyone will end up sitting there in the dark in wretched resignation. I do not think it will be a bloodbath. I think it really is that nuanced. Probably all kinds of foreshadowing are back there in the early episodes. Probably your Soprano veterans are two steps ahead in every new episode, calling out the dialogue and saying, "Oh, he's dead" before anyone has even pulled a gun.

I am absorbed by it. My mind jumps forward to what may be and then steps back and wonders what was. At some point when I can no longer stand it I will rent or borrow the early episodes. But at the moment my "blanks" -- the empty spaces in my knowledge that I am coloring using my own crayon -- are too delicious to fill in, not quite yet.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

If the Carlisle Indians Couldn't Win, I'm Glad the Canton Bulldogs Did

That is to say: Is it over yet? Super Bowl parties are not the ideal vehicle for actually watching the game even when there is a big screen TV and those in attendance are all as devoted to the study of football as a physicist is to subatomic particles or Madonna to the Kabbala.

This is true because of the nature of group behavior. Even when you are listening to classical music or attending serious theater -- events where the default setting of the audience is silence, even worshipfulness -- you are aware of the reactions of those around you, peripheral yet unmistakable. Signs of restlessness, murmurs of laughter, adjacent bodies twitching in agreement or resistance -- all are part of the matrix in which you are embedded and all influence your reaction to the performance. All divert your attention from it.

Consider then what a geometric increase in the intensity of blurring and displacing takes place when you are witnessing an event in reaction to which you are supposed to show to your fellow spectators your pain or pleasure as part of the ritual, as in the case of a rock concert or a fine rural evening of snake handling and talking in tongues. Consider particularly the case of men viewing certain sporting events, those where it is to your credit if you display not only a great deal of insight into the game as it is played today but also of the history of the game and the intricacies of the game. This knowledge is not to be displayed by raising your hand and waiting to be called upon but by shrieking it into the ears of others and having it shrieked back. You are what the anthropologists might call a participant observer. This isn't Star Trek and the Prime Directive. You are here to interfere.

In short, watching the Super Bowl with friends is a kind of performance piece in which everyone serves as audience to more than the game. A Super Bowl party is a game outside the game, wrapped around the football contest as the crowd is wrapped around the television. Lay on top of that the fact in such a testosterone-sodden situation the premium is on humor based on aggression since the nature of the game should be mirrored in the tone of remarks.

All this can produce a pretty tense situation, particularly if you are not well acquainted with all those at the Super Bowl party. Even if you are with friends toward whom you are kindly disposed and even if the war-by-another-name never escalates beyond banter, you WILL suffer some degree of preoccupation.

What was that? They got the ball back? How? Huh? What?

another beer sure another beer sure another beer sure

So I don't feel bad that I really did not follow Super Bowl Crosses and Hockey Sticks all that closely on Sunday because I was at an additional disadvantage. I was not in some pleasant climate-controlled suburban living room but parked next to the San Francisco Bay in the company of Big Pat Daugherty and a half dozen of his friends watching the Super Bowl to windward of Daugherty's camper.

To the inherent difficulties in paying attention to the game in the presence of others, add the following:

a) Daugherty set up his camper -- it has this little awning that rolls out from the side; cute -- on the eastern bank of San Francisco Bay facing the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, the San Francisco skyline, etbeautifulcetera. One's attention is naturally drawn away.

b) Orient yourself. To look at the television, it was necessary to face west. Many interesting things happen in the west in the afternoon, including the setting of the sun. Daugherty pinned up what looked like a Salvation Army blanket to defeat the glare, but the sun was in my little eyes.

c) Okay. Wonderful host that he was, Daugherty supplemented the rather small color tv at the center of the football creche with a really pretty tiny black-and-white tv placed in front of me over to the side out there in the rays of the dying sun. Was it like watching the game on my thumbnail? As they say on Jeopardy, "What is Duh?"

d) Okay again. Daugherty was afraid the tiny tv added to the little tv would be too great a drain on the bank of batteries stored under the sleeping shelf in the back of his camper. And right he was. In the middle of the third quarter we lost power. Daugherty did start his truck and we were able to run the tiny tv by plugging it into his cigaret lighter. So there I was sharing my thumbnail.

In cruel summary: It was cold, it was dark, it was windy, the sun had long since slunk away, the only other idiot in sight was some guy in a battered pickup trying to teach his girlfriend how to drive a stickshift by lurching up and down the parking lot where we were set up -- and we were being hassled by security guards from the nearby racetrack (even though Daugherty said it really wasn't their parking lot) because somehow someone had set something or other on fire in the vicinity of the camper.

All of us were fouled with drink, and one of Daugherty's guests had been celebrating steadily from a gallon jug of spiced rum all afternoon and, having gone barking mad, wrapped himself in Daugherty's Salvation Army blanket and advanced to the water's edge where he threatened the waves with a large piece of driftwood. Think of Moses trying to part the Red Sea while working through some issues.

We huddled shivering near the truck and cursed his madness and his poetry.

At this point, Daugherty had an Okie moment and went into a monologue of his own in which he quoted long passages from Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" to the effect that there were apples to pick in Washington and if we could only get up there there would be jobs for all of us.

Game, what game? It was one of the finest evenings of my life.

Addendum: Those of you who took the time to listen to any of the audio reports I recorded on Sunday and posted in real time to this blog may object that there is a discrepancy between those oral accounts and this recapitulation. I can only say that heaven is an edited version of hell and vice versa.

Take the facts; sift and select; there's the truth of it.

Addendum II (Love those Roman numerals): The common denominator between the Carlisle Indians and the Canton Bulldogs? Jim Thorpe.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Real Insiders Call It Peanut Noir

I just heard on NPR that the movie Sideways has resulted in a nationwide increase in the consumption of pinot noir and that in the Bay Area some restaurants say their sales of pinot noir have increased one hundred percent.

Just for the record I have been drinking it for years. Can't claim I can tell the difference between the good and the bad or the dear and the cheap. I'm not saying I understand the grape or the nuances of its production, its fermenting, its blending, its psycho-sexual torment during its typically difficult adolescence and so on and so on.

But by god I will order me some of it when I get the chance on account of the taste -- great with hot dogs, not so good with fried pies -- and I do not drink it because of a "bad hair" movie.

The First of Many Many Apres Super Bowl Thoughts

I don't have any problem with the idea that, as Terrell Owens announced, God intervened in the physical world on a micro level so that Owens' ankle healed faster than medical science believed possible. I am puzzled, however, that He intervened not to insure an Eagles victory but simply to allow them to cover the spread.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Emergency Early Warning to the Friends of Patrick Daugherty and Richard Anderson

This blog is very much like a mini-market. We have a handful of regulars and a larger number of visitors -- a much larger number -- who drop by. I would assume that both might easily be confused by what is about to happen.

This is in the way of an explanation: Tomorrow I will be enjoying the super bowl with sports columnist Patrick Daugherty and friends Richard Anderson and Jeffrey Pressman. With some regularity we will be posting "audio reports" from what I have been told is a expanse of green grass near a landfill in Albany, California, where P. Daugherty parks his camper so that he can watch the Super Bowl on his hand-held tv. He does this because he is creative, somewhat avant garde, perhaps fey, not a little twee.

Anyway, this is what he does. During the Super Bowl we will be making regular audio posts to this blog so that the many Daugherty/Anderson fans can ... listen to whatever these boyos have to say.

And in the words of the murderous/famous Robert Blake, that's the name of that tune.

Attend here tomorrow for a series of audio posts that will provide .... Daugherty hasn't been to confession in a while, nor have I been to therapy. What you hear is what you get.

Super Bowl Report: The Inside Dopes

this is an audio post - click to play

Saturday Witchhunt Blogging

Mr. Hamlet he said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." But Mr. Rosencrantz and Mr. Guildenstern they didn't know what he was talking about.
Posted by Hello

They Came For...

First they came for Barney and I did not speak out because I was not a purple dinosaur.

Then they came for Tinky Winky and I did not speak out because I was not tiny, mute and nominally British.

Then they came for Spongebob Squarepants and I did not speak out because I was not a common household cleaning product.

And then they came for Superman and the Incredible Hulk, who were married in City Hall in San Francisco last year.

That's when I said, "Uh-oh. Better stick with someone your own size."

Addendum: Can't do it. Can't just leave this post hanging without linking to the original, which in its way is simply a more vigorous restatement of the golden rule for perilous and paranoid times.

III and X on the XXXVI. Pats down XXIV to XIII with a little more than DCCLXXXVI seconds to play. What a Grand Dies Dominica vi Februarius MMV!

Which exhausts my fund of Super Jokes. For a worthy rant, may I suggest Brother Robert (Bob) Wieder explaining how to figure out which sock puppet to root for tomorrow when you don't have a dog in the fight.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Beauty and the Dignity of the Drone are Often Underestimated

Travel stories are written in second-person imperative. (You) Book the tour. (You) See the church. (You) Enjoy the meal. (You) Buy the coconut.

It is in that spirit I am tempted to write. Those of you who live in or near a big city or even a pretty big city -- so that should be all of you -- I tell you now to spend a long warm weekday afternoon in that part of downtown where the building are tallest and the workers are best dressed, and there are plenty of those special little lunch-only restaurants where if a man comes down from one of the tall buildings often enough in the true spirit of conviviality, he becomes known.

And welcome. And cherished.

It's still a pleasant way to spend noon and afternoon if you are on your own and not in the company of one of the human fixtures of these dark lunch places with the dark wood and the antique waiters. (If you already work downtown: Go have coffee. Steal some pencils. Study needed inventions. Now.)

Simply walking between tall buildings and being walked past by the women and men dressed for office life is a spectacle. We do live in a scruffy age. Jeans, t-shirts, hair color, various rude and occasionally infected piercings, various slovenly ways of walking and talking -- I understand that the lack of finish is now the finish, and it's fine with me.

It's all just a la mode, and one style succeeds another. Each generation sheds its skin like a snake and wears another and it's all the same.


I was raised in a time when being neat and crisp was a sign of adulthood, and so I get a kind of lift from seeing the men in their suits and ties and the women in their suits and modest blouses. And, of course, you see young women showing their nice legs, wearing little windblown dresses that flatter their various shapes. They do not show their tummies the way so many of the young ladies do now. How you ever thought about how many tummies are really ready for prime time.? As an absolute number it is small, as a percentage it is minuscule.

I concede that uniforms are oppressive, regimentation is stultifying, that these towers are hives, not palaces, and that the life of the organization man or women is pretty often an anxious one. These handsomely appointed folk walking so briskly past do not seem to be smiling a great deal. But for all that I still enjoy the spectacle very much. I like to see business on parade. It reminds me of my childhood, those first trips "downtown" to go to a department store, ride the escalator, eat at a soda fountain and see all the grownups in grownup clothes. Oh I like seeing it still, if only from an anthropological viewpoint.

And when one has a friend who, as I promised earlier, is a true citizen of the place, now semi-retired, and who is waiting for you in one of those dark little restaurants at the best table in the best corner of the dining room, where we are served by Gary, whose real name is not Gary because he's not from around here, and who is 74 and who only works two days a week now just to enjoy his regular customers....

My friend is a jewel seated on a cushion of hospitality. Gary sees that my friend's wine glass is empty. He does not need to be instructed. He fills. We do not need menus. We are filled with trust and confidence. The pasta? Yes, the pasta.

My friend has so many appropriate stories because the history of this part of San Francisco is his thing. He explains that Emperor Norton, the 19th century derelict who managed to turn himself into a living treasure when San Francisco was young and raw, never paid for a meal in a Barbary Coast restaurant, at least not in one where the general refinement was perhaps in question. The Emperor would enter and be directed to a seat squarely and prominently right in the middle of things. And then the proprietor would hang by the door and if he saw a right prosperous middle-class family come into view -- Der poppa, Der mama, Der many bairns -- he would rush out and explain to Der poppa that the one the only the iconic Emperor Norton was at that moment enjoying a leisurely meal in this very restaurant, and that the proprietor would gladly place the family at the very next table. And so Der many bairns, these young San Franciscans, would have a day to talk of forever. And how could Der poppa-- who might otherwise have noticed that the restaurant was not up to his usual standard -- resist?

This and many tales of life in the Financial District were told to me. An expedition to downtown is always fun on a weekday when you are playing hooky and you really have no place to be anytime soon. You don't have to place yourself in the hands of a habitue. But it really is more fun if you can find such a guide.

I think I'll sign my friend up and rent him out. Or would that be pimping the past?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Thursday Pig Blogging Salutes the Super Bowl: Memories of Janet

If you click here, you will be directed to a picture of Muppet diva Miss Piggy in the midst of suffering her own wardrobe malfunction. It is quite enough to imagine it. I daresay none of my regulars will click through.

May I suggest this magnificent bundt cake instead?

Late Night Addendum: I'm afraid there has been a misunderstanding. What I am trying to do is employ one of the great moral truths that lie at the very essence of the internet -- that you have the ability to link quickly to additional information but you really don't have to -- to move us all along toward virtue. The necessary point is that you have the opportunity to ogle Miss Piggy. How can wood be brave in the absence of fire? To be deprived of that opportunity is to possess mere "fugitive and cloistered virtue," to quote Mr. John Milton.

That was why Janet Jackson's behavior at the last Super Bowl was such an affront. There her bosom was, bang! But before you had the opportunity to cease your seeing, it was snatched off screen making you twice the victim. Where was the opportunity to decide? Where was the opportunity to knock your children to the floor and sit on their heads?

There "it" was and there "it" wasn't, as if something that wasn't supposed to lasted an instant too long and rose to the level of perception. It makes me wonder how much subliminal filth we are being exposed to every day.

Barbara Boxer: Flashing her bosom at Frist and Santorum in less than a blink of an eye. Barbra Streisand: Dress up over her head every split second. Hillary Clinton cutting the ribbon at the opening of some new grammar school: I'm feeling mooned. Are you feeling mooned? Look there right now!

Too late.

But I digress. Here is your chance to don't look now, to not look back and see what's gaining on you.

Maybe it's bundt cake. Maybe it's not.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Jerry Lewis Would Have Said, "HEY LADY!"

I am pretty sure I saw the actress Linda Hunt sitting by Lake Merritt as I walked past on my morning constitutional. There she was dressed in black just sitting on the grass looking at the birds, which were mostly coots and gulls. I do not mean the actress Helen Hunt, who was on TV for a long time and won an Oscar in that movie with Jack Nicholson in which you remember he plays a misogynist who is converted by....

Not that Hunt. This is the Hunt who is very short, well under five feet, and won an Oscar playing a man in "The Year of Living Dangerously" with Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson in 1983. Her voice is somewhat anomalous: deep, vibrant, too much voice really for one so small.

Folks around here who listen to public radio are familiar with her because she is host of the City Arts & Lecture interview show, which is produced in San Francisco. (I google her and I see that she is referred to as the "on-air" host.)

It probably was her.

This is the kind of celebrity sighting I can enjoy. Small-scale celebrities caught out among the people are what I like, seeing them as part of the fabric of life. The unusual in the guise of the usual. I'm pretty sure I once held open a coin-operated newspaper box so that Ralph Barbieri, who is co-host -- on-air co-host -- of a local sports talk show, could grab a Chronicle. He didn't have a quarter at that moment. (Emphasis added.)

Several years ago I saw the really tall pitcher Randy Johnson at a restaurant on Grand Avenue near where we live. It was back when he played with the Mariners, and they were in town. I handled that sighting the way I believe such moments should be handled. Recognition, then one glance prolonged slightly, then a smooth turn of the head and careful avoidance for the rest of the time the celebrity is in your vicinity.

Pointing, interrupting, buzzing, asking for an autograph -- my god.

What do they say about end zone celebrations by professional football players? They say, "Act like you've been there before."

Or to put it another way act as if you have some semblance of a life.

Now the only celebrity with whom I was ever tempted to interact was Patrick Stewart, whom my wife and I saw while we were sitting in front of the Maritime Museum near Ghirardelli Square at Fisherman's Wharf. He walked past us very self-possessed, moving fast enough to stay ahead of the bow wave of recognition he was creating.

I wanted to shout after him just one word: "Sejanus."

You see back in the Seventies in "I, Claudius," which is maybe the greatest TV drama ever done, Stewart had a very small role, that of Sejanus, who does some light murder for Caligula (who was played by John Hurt) before Claudius (played by Derek Jacobi) succeeds him as emperor.

"I, Claudius" is a snob's in-joke. Back when Frazier Crane was a character on Cheers, he told Sam he had the whole series on tape, which showed both his excellent taste and his failure -- chronic? momentary? -- to understand that Sam Malone would have no idea what in the hell he was talking about. It was also the show's writers and producers showing off.

A lovely and delicate piece of snobbery.

Patrick Stewart is, now and will ever be Captain Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a television show I enjoyed very much. Very first episode I recognized him from "I, Claudius." But I didn't recall the character's name. I looked it up -- to have it handy if the opportunity arose to insinuate my democratic but intermittently rarified appreciation for the popular arts. Or to put it another way I wanted to be prepared to play a variation on old-fashioned name dropping, to snob it up.

Okay. Stewart is walking past. The sudden urge arises to connect but to do so in a way that shows a cultivation, a kind of Keatsian negative capability, that is, the ability to simultaneously appreciate a talent narrowcast and a talent broadcast, to pander to his Englishness, to suggest that my word what have you been up to since that splendid "I, Claudius," probably some West End work or at the National....

He was 25 yards away. It was too late for me to shout anything and hope to be heard. And my good luck, I must say. It would have been just a little pretentious (editors: just a little?) and kind of a putdown for him now that I think about it.

My wife was staring with frank and uncomplicated interest. She can take Star Trek or leave it. She said she hadn't realized how short he was. I asked if she remembered that he was in "I, Claudius." She said it was certainly the best television ever, but even thinking about that scene where Caligula ate the baby still gave her the creeps.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Samplin' Emily

this is an audio post - click to play

Or, If You Prefer, Our Lady of the Hydrogen Fusion

My wife was ten minutes late for work this morning because she started reading the story in today's Chronicle about the takeover by SBC of AT&T and, as she read, we talked about the breakup of Ma Bell in the eighties and -- going further back -- of Bell labs and, of course, the labs' contribution to junior high school life in the fifties, "Our Mr. Sun."

I must have seen it a half dozen times in one class or another. It was wonderful. So wonderful. Such a classy way for a teacher -- science class, homeroom, home economics, probably even traffic school -- to get a chance to draw a deep breath and go outside for a cigarette. It was a perfectly riveting film. I remember the huge pagan burning sun filling the screen. I remember a mixture of scientists and animations that made me want more than anything to become a scientist and wear a long white lab coat and understand the world in simple declarative sentences.

Of course, in the end it was tales in books about hearts and minds that finally got me -- call it the earthbound astronomy of the imagination -- and I became a watcher rather than a toucher. I ended up just another book rat, filled with sadness when also in the Chronicle this morning the comic strip artist Stephan Pastis wrote "discretely" when he meant "discreetly."

A scientist says things like "discrete particles" and knows what he means. (Or as Harvard President Larry Summers would add: "And I do mean 'he.' You there honey. Get me some coffee. )

He or she. She or he. Or better even: "Scientists say ...... and know what they mean." There. Wordboy pulls his weight.

So: "Our Mr. Sun" didn't pull me into its orbit but pull it did. A quick google provides a surprise. Frank Capra directed it and wrote the script! It is a wonderful sun! Of course, someday it will go nova, but it will have had a wonderful life. Every time it stimulates photosynthesis, an angel gets a coffee break.

And look at the cast:

Eddie Albert is The Fiction Writer -- soon Green Acres would exert its pull. Frank Baxter is Dr. Research, a characterization quite distinct from his later role as Mr. Scientist in "Hemo the Magnificent." Richard Carlson is ... somebody. But who can forget Richard Carlson in "It Came from Outer Space" or as the undercover Commie in "I Led Three Lives"?

The brilliantly raspy-voiced Sterling Holloway is "Chloro Phyll." And Marvin Miller, who as Michael Anthony gave away the checks on "The Millionaire," is the voice of "Mr. Sun." (Today that million-dollar check would be worth a cool $6.5 mil. Okay!)

Wordsworth said it best, though to be fair he was describing Revolutionary France and not Eisenhower America:

Bliss it was to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

Bliss. In the fifties you figured you would get a job with a big corporation like AT&T and spend the rest of your life there and then retire with a nice pension. In fact, in the December 29, 2004, Economist there's an article describing how we are losing our social mobility here in the U.S., about how our "meritocracy" is failing to deliver. According to the Economist, the experts say those long careers at huge companies provided talented people without fancy degrees and family connections -- those with no degrees, no connections -- a chance to work their way up from the mailroom to the boardroom.

Good good days in many ways.

And if Chloro Phyll and Mr. Sun were gay, as are so many in the world of animation if you look closely enough...?

So be it. So be it.