Friday, April 29, 2005

White Man Walking (Because He Sure Can't Dance)

I have nothing nothing to go with the above. I was walking home after dropping my wife at her job this morning, and the first part came into my head. And I thought, "Where is this going?" (I mean, where is it going in terms of generating words growing to thoughts to cogency you know. Duh!) And then the second part came to mind, and I thought, "That's as far as it goes. Use it or lose it."

Because baby I can dance, though I'm strictly ballroom.

Anyway, my little word flurry sounds like the title to a collection of something. Personally, I think it's as good or better than George Carlin's "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" a title that does not draw me to the book.

So, we got an email about a meeting soon to be convened at our local Baptist Church to deal with the fact that as our neighborhood has staged its comeback over the last decade, among the throngs newly drawn to it are quite a few homeless people. The title of the email was "The homeless in our midst."

And I thought, "The Homeless in the Mist," which evoked the image of them huddled like waifs or rising up like zombies.

I need a third something. Remember the Rule of Three. We're going to visit my mum-in-law soon and with some luck she will talk about something being "half-faced," as is her wont. Mum: "What a half-faced thing to do!"

My wife's not going to tell her. I'm not going to tell her. This white man's going to keep walking, all the way back to where this little piece began.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Like e.e. cummings' big Olaf, There is Some Sh*t Oliver Won't Eat

First let me apologize for the asterisk. I'm doing it for the sake of the children (obviously) but also for the sake of the search engines. Somewhere someplace out there some graduate student is researching evasion and elision in online scatology.

I want to be a footnote in someone's doctoral dissertation.

But returning to our theme, as some of you may know there is something out there called Chicken Soup for the Soul, which as far as I can tell consists of a series of simple inspirational stories designed to put some joy, if not lead, in life's limp pencil. I know very little about the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series other than that the concept sounds hearty, happy, sappy and maybe just a little condescending.

(And don't you break in and say, "The concept sounds like sh*t." That's my footnote, little buddy. Second citation. Ibid.)

But I have read none of these tiny tomes. I fear the worst, though. I think I'll just give it a miss if it's all the same to you.

However -- and this will interest you -- it seems that CSftS has extended itself in odd and surprising ways, like a Michael Crichton virus. There at the pet store the other day for under $3 was a small sample bag of "Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul," in this case a dry cat food product. Well, my heart leapt up. Part of me wanted to buy it in the same spirit I once bought a six-pack of Billy Beer. The disconnect -- this long march from some kind of literary low concept to peddling cat kibble -- is so astonishingly large that the whole thing seems like a Mad Magazine spoof. So cat be damned in one sense. Buying the stuff would be a kind of joke. It would be something we could pull out of the cupboard to amuse our friends. That was our rationalization as we dragged it off the shelf. But truth was our cat is a finicky cat, and if the cat liked it we knew we would buy it for the cat again and again and again, the way one buys bunion remedy or hemorrhoid cream, the need overwhelming the connotation.

Bunions. Hemorrhoids. J. Alfred Prufrock.

I grow old. I grow old.
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

This is not chicken soup, my friend. This is great poetry. But I seem to have wandered off the point.

In a spirit of love tempered by shame, we poured out the food for Oliver. Well, I'll be darned. Oliver hated the stuff. It is the first dry cat food we have ever given him he refused to touch. We freshened it. We left it out overnight. Oliver still did not touch it.

What it is, I guess, is that Oliver is dark very dark. What he wants is some Dostoevsky Notes-from-Underground Existential Cat Treats. What he wants is some J.P. Sartre Nausea-ating Tuna on a Stick. What he wants is some Samuel Beckett Krapp's Last Beef with Rice in Aspic. At the very least he might take a little Charles Dickens Bleak House Tartar Control Lamb Crunchies with Cheese.

I mean, Oliver knows animals died to put that food on his plate. But who's going to go in the soup to nourish the poor chicken's soul?

Addendum: mistah cummings he dead but here's his poem.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Know When to Hold 'Em. Know When to Fold 'Em. Know When to Go Online and Buy from Someplace in New Jersey.

Bear with me. One thing always makes me think of another.

I gamble on some things, and other things I don't gamble on. I am trying to tease out the difference between the circumstances in which I take risks in the hope of reward and the ones in which I don't. I mean, am I a man of principle or am I not? When we go to Las Vegas, I am willing to go right up to my limit and lose every cent. But that limit is $20. In Las Vegas I'm no gambler, and that's in the first best meaning of the word: to determine the probability that something will happen, to find the point of advantage in that knowledge and to find someone who will take the other side of the probability, money to be exchanged in the aftermath of the event.

I don't do that.

As far as my health is concerned, I'm not sure how my conduct should be described. I do love sugar and foods infused with oil. But I have just enough self control to keep myself, oh, unpleasantly plump but still something less than obese, so I do qualify my risk. And I do go to the doctor every year or so. And I have been walking on weekdays to try to get my blood pressure down. I'm not as diligent about my health as I could be, but I'm not in denial about the danger to it, either. Oh yeah. I gave up my beloved pipe and cigars several years ago for health reasons. So I'm not sure what the appropriate vocabulary would be to describe the degree to which I flirt with death or disability in the way I live my life. I'm not relying on megavitamins or esoteric herbs to keep me healthy, in blind hopeful defiance of the best medical research to the contrary. In summary, I would say that I am not particularly prudent, but I would draw the line at saying I'm "taking a gamble" with my health. When it comes to describing my moderately risky health practices, if we use "gamble" I'm thinking that's moving rather far down the list of common definitions of the term. I mean, I'm not putting something at risk in the hope of later gain. I'm choosing a series of small pleasures now -- a chocolate doughnut, sitting quite still for long periods on my broad behind -- in the hope that something does NOT happen in the future. I mean dying earlier rather than later, more rather than less debilitated as the end approaches. Of course, I could get run over tomorrow. How many strips of bacon is that possibility worth?

I go great gobs of time between pieces of bacon. I'm not exactly gambling with my health, am I?

But oh oh I am drawn to another kind of conduct that is a kind of gamble. I wrestle with it even as I write. We are finally ready to buy a digital camera, and -- to save $50 or less -- I am drawn to these online operations that Froogle or Yahoo or make it so easy to find. Butterfly. Digital Foto. Buydig. I'm not sure if they are reliable. There are these other websites, like and that rate them. But how do you tell if the rating websites are themselves reliable? Why take the risk? But possibly because of some essential male pleasure in having dominance over gadgets, I want to extract a bargain from the whole anguished process of deciding which gadget to choose among many gadgets. The pleasure of being able to brag about a low price! The satisfaction of not being forced to line up with the suckers and pay a premium, i.e., full "manufacturer's suggested." Common sense tells me that some of these online businesses are cons or, at least, cheats, peddling gray market or refurbished goods. But I am drawn to the gamble, to taking the chance, not only to save the money but to find if it could be true. It's epistemological. Could these businesses be honest? No, that's not the question. The question is are any of these businesses honest, and is there adequate information on the web -- in chat rooms and search engine feedback -- for me to determine which is which?

It strikes me as something man should know, like knowing where you can save a nickel on a gallon of gas. Is it possible for me to be a canny shopper? Of course, I might not learn anything. I might simply get lucky. I'm assuming some of these outfits are a kind of Ponzi scheme, by which I mean some customers will be cheated and others won't. I'm drawn to the risk, and a risk it is even if you pay by credit card since disputing a bill is a laborious and unpleasant job.

I have at least twice in my life run out of gas because I declined to buy gas at a certain price and then been horrified to pass station after station offering it at a higher price. I had to keep going until a found a price that did not call my initial judgment into question. Stupid. I could have been killed. For a total cash accrual of 75 cents.

OhOh. I understand. It's Russian Roulette. Gee. I'm daring God to prove he exists and that he likes me by letting me buy a really nice camera at slightly above cost, the evidence of a cruel indifferent universe consisting of my $300 and getting nothing. Turn right at Masochism but stop before you get to Death Wish. Gee.

Man, I am crazy. Or as my wife sometimes says, "You are a man. Crazy."

Monday, April 25, 2005

It's a King Lear Thing: If You Haven't Been Vain and Powerful, You Won't Understand

When Bush meets with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia today, our president needs to be ready to put it all on the table. If the Crown Prince says -- and his English is good so he won't need a translator -- that he will be glad to pump another million barrels a day if Bush gives him one of the twins to beef up the hidden harem, well greater love hath no chief executive than to sign over one of his ditz girls to make sure the SUVs run on time.

If events in this country continue down their current path -- low taxes, crumbling infrastructure, bad school systems, the rise of theocracy -- in 20 years all of us may be living on Thai model, sending off our young girls as "maids" and our young men as "house boys" to those nations with the oil and the T-bills.

For once, let the sacrifice start at the top.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

No Need to Crowd. There's Information Enough for Everyone.

Yes, I imagine that regular DC(AD)ers -- which does sound like some kind of childhood transgender attention deficit disorder -- are reduced to just little cinders of curiosity concerning last Sunday's fantasy baseball draft so brilliantly described in these pixels.

The thing to say when the draft is over is: "I like my team." I said the "thing to say" when last week's draft ended. And today I still like my team, though I am not sure if my team likes me so very much. I am in last place at the moment, which means nothing this early in the season. But the vexing thing that produces a fit of high anxiety is how terrible my pitchers are going. I'm digging myself into the proverbial hole, and the depth of that hole does mean something.

I have won 4 games but lost 13 games for a winning percentage of .0235. And there's no remedy. Unlike most fantasy leagues, we don't have huge rosters. We don't move players in and out of the lineup and score by the week. We aren't day traders. More or less, we are stuck with what we bought. Now this cuts way down on the Think Time necessary to "participate" in the league. With what rhetorical precision I capture the word participate in quotation marks, meaning it does not mean quite what you think it means. Because our lineups are more or less fixed, we participate in the league the way one participates in television. We sit and watch.

This saves time. We have drafted in haste. Now we repent in leisure. If the league requires only the smallest investment in time, so the monetary investment is less every year. Since 1986, the buy-in has been $50 from each of us. If we had raised that amount to reflect inflation, this year it would have been $85.65. Or to put it another way, our $50 today is worth $29.19 in 1986 dollars. As I sit in last place, all this comforts me. Other than my pro-rated $29.19, the only other thing I have at stake is my habit of having a few cups of red wine as the draft proceeds. The last two years, the cups have swamped my little rowboat of reason in the last hour of the draft. I have gotten just tiddly enough that if there were a fantasy baseball breathalyzer, the result would come back "Unsafe to draft at any speed."

This year I stopped bidding at a key position so that I would not pay "too much," though as a result I was left with unused and useless money. Also, I lost track of who was available at a key position. My thoughts were fuzzy, my decision-making muddled. This is a pleasant state of affairs but not a pleasant state of mind. If I do not finish at least fourth this year, as a matter of pride I will have to become my own designated drafter and sit there next year, calm, sour and sober, trying merely to win.

Is there anything men do of a competitive nature that does not tie their pride in knots?

Apparently, no.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Honeymooners: Me and the New Pope

I work at a school that is associated with the Catholic church but is not funded by the Catholic church. We have a small endowment. Alumni and supporters make donations. Most of our money comes from the tuition paid by our students. But even though we are not supported by the institutional Catholic church, we exist -- and I would even say thrive -- because we are a Catholic university of the Jesuit variety. I have heard people say the Jesuits are not quite as Catholic as they should be, but I am not a Catholic. I have read that the old Pope and the new Pope, when he served the old Pope, were none too pleased with the Jesuits, particularly in South America. As I said, I am not a Catholic. The Jesuits can speak for themselves.

I am no expert in the values and beliefs of the new Pope, though I know who he is. I know what his reputation is. I recognize the weight the Pope has in the world for both Catholic and non-Catholic. So it is not that I think I do not have the right to have an opinion about how the new Pope will weigh on the world. But as someone teaching in perfect contentment at a Catholic school, I think it would be presumptuous to have opinions -- immediate, vivid, provocative -- simply for the blog-drunk sport of it. If I am going to be fierce about the new Pope, I think I should take my time, check my facts, hone my theories of cause and effect.

I'm not saying that anyone cares what I blog about the Pope. I'm not saying that he signs my check. I'm just saying that if I go back up the line from those who sign my checks, there the Pope is. I have a responsibility to be thoughtful. But I have no right to be indifferent. Because of my connection with the university, I can't regard the Pope the way I regarded King Zog of Albania. At some point I need to develop an opinion, one that is extensive and honest and fearless though not abusive. If I hesitate, it's not as if my job would be at risk if I'm critical or rewarded if I'm adulatory. It's not as if my students give a damn what I think about this Pope or any Pope for that matter; at least, none have so far.

I know the Jesuits wouldn't respect a premature judgment, but on the other hand I know they wouldn't respect my refusing to judge. I don't know that much about them, but I know that.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Successful Experiment

I could not remember Keanu Reeves name. This was just a minute ago. Why I wanted to remember his name is not pertinent because there is no good reason for wanting to remember his name other than the possibility of winning a big prize in a nationwide contest. Or on a TV show like Jeopardy, though it would have to be a special edition of geriatric Jeopardy or marijuana-addled Jeopardy in which long pauses are somehow part of the fun.

You could call it Dead Air Jeopardy.

But I digress. (Which is my catchphrase for the week. I use it whenever there's a danger of dead air.)

Anyway, I'm trying to remember Keanu Reeves name but River Phoenix keeps coming to mind. The similarities in sound, personal circumstance and just plain oddity must set up similar brain waves or adjacent neural paths. I send out my little blood hounds into the memory maze, and it is no surprise they tree the wrong factoid. I call them off and send them scampering away but back they come, unable to shake the River Phoenix scent.

It's vexing to fail to remember. It's a distraction from the real work at hand. I waste five minutes remembering various Keanu Reeves movies, including the "Much Ado About Nothing" he did with Kenneth Branagh, which added a whole new chapter to "Great Moments of 20th Century Miscasting."

Didn't help. Nothing could call off the memory hounds so I could call them on in a different direction.

But I'm home. I've got time to figure out how to quit wasting time. I sat down at the computer and typed "Matrix" into Google search. And then I did the experiment.

I said to myself: "You will strike the key and in a moment you will have before you a name to go with a face. Knowing that you will so soon know should eliminate the anxiety, thereby resetting your memory and clearing your brain cache. You now have ten seconds to remember before I stirke the key."And I remembered in two seconds: Keanu Reeves.

Sometimes working with my memory is like watching a glacier recede. What I want to know is under there, but I hope you haven't already had lunch.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

La Draft Est Finie

Yes I use the feminine "la." The draft she is a woman. She is a wench, a witch, a temptress but most she is a power lifter. You try to take the kiss, she take your face and scrub the wall until the wall is tired.

I think she is from Marseilles. Zut! Alors! Yes we remember him, Mr. Prosciutto "Zut" Alors, the great teammate of Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown.

The draft for the Patrick Finley Memorial Fantasy Baseball League is punishing but a great pleasure. It's not like the SATs, which can send you to hell or Fresno State, whichever comes first. Like poetry, the draft makes nothing happen.

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

But I digress.

I wrote the other day with great seriousness about the draft. I treated the draft as if it were a funeral at sea. I draped it in colors. I played a mournful song and tipped the draft overboard while standing at rigid attention.

Bah. Humbug.

(And yes Poobah "Bah" Humbug caught Addie Joss' second no hitter, the one in Chicago on a day when you could see the storm approaching over the lake with sparks of lightning in the clouds, and Humbug kept saying, "There ain't no God but Humbug. Just look at me and throw the damn ball, son.")

(But I digress.)

The draft is not general. The draft is very specific. It is a series of details, each of which matters very much. I mean we do an auction draft. Most fantasy leagues consist of owners making a list of players and then picking in turn until all the available players are chosen, though some adjustments to the lists are made as the choosing unfolds. I won't bore you with why. If you care, you know why, and if you don't care ... you haven't read this far.

Anyway, ours is an auction draft, which means we buy players position by position. Preparing a plan is one thing, but executing that plan is something very different. Not only must you value players accurately based on your prediction of how well they will fare this year and in terms of how we score in our league. You must anticipate how others will value players based on their prediction of how well they will fare this year. You must also anticipate the degree to which your league comrades are idiots. If your predicted values are right, and everyone else is wrong, then you are wrong. The new pope would not like this. It's all relative.

For example, let us say you (meaning me) are so very much smarter than everyone else. You understand that catcher Ivan Rodriquez is worth $6.25 and catcher Javy Lopez is worth $6. And you are right. You are the true prophet. Six months later at the end of the season their performance will be just as you said. But during the draft you bid "Pudge" -- as we, the cognoscenti, know him -- up to $6 and win his services and you are so proud. You have achieved a small bargain. But then Mr. Lopez is "thrown out" -- and thus I am introducing you to the nomenclature of draft day; I am making you an insider -- and someone buys him for $3. Let us say all the other catchers are worth somewhere between $2 and 25 cents, which is our minimum bid. All the catchers sell for a quarter. You and all those who paid a quarter for a quarter catcher are even. The Lopez buyer and all those who bought quarter catchers who were worth more than a quarter have the advantage over you.

And they are stupid stupid stupid!

Unless in fact they understand your vanity about valuing players accurately even if those values are expensive and they have played you as they might have played the fuzzy kitten.

How wonderful this shifting specificity. (I am thinking quantum physics here.) The drafting at each position -- the thinking about and bidding and not bidding for each player -- becomes a game within a game within a game. It makes the draft tense, joyful, irresistible.

I might add two make that three more things:

1) To some extent the draft is alcohol-fuelled. Not so much as it once was, but as I promised in last Thursday's post Brother Peter Moore opened several bottles of most agreeable red. And I brought along a fifth of cognac for my coffee. Hmm. Let me say that again. Hmm. (I don't mean, "Ummmm" as in "Ummmm, ummmm, good." I mean a thoughtful, "Hmmmm. Maybe that's why my draft endgame was so muddled?")

2) To some extent the draft is testosterone-fuelled, though much less than it once was. But occasionally macho moments arise when participants get into a stare down, a bid up, a moment of vicarious penile peacock flourish. I still remember the great bidding war for Jim Rice back there in either '85 or '86 with Brother Bob Wieder. We were fouled with drink, my friend, and no it isn't pretty to think so. We may try to play at confrontation now, but it's shadow, a feint, a pantomime, a sham. It never really gets started. It fizzles on the vine. The ghost has left that particular machine.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing.

Methinks I doth digress too much.

3) Finally, if you think your player values are just right, and everyone else is paying too little or too much, you can become so obsessed with not paying too much and with getting the very best bargains available that you save your money for super bargains that never come, and suddenly the draft is over and you have money left. Money left is worthless. You don't get it back. You can't invest it for next year. Money left at the end of the draft is tin.

Yesterday at the end of the draft I had money left.

Call me The Tinman.

(Actually, I'm the Six Bunny-Wunnies. It's a long story.)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

D-Day Minus Three

The Patrick Finley Memorial Fantasy Baseball League holds its annual draft on Sunday, nearly two weeks after the season has started, because we are dilettantes. Every other fantasy league in the world drafts before the season has begun, when so much is still uncertain. But we wait till the season is two weeks old so we have to do minimal preparation. Our attitude, like our wine, will be French. One of the things that keeps out league going as it wheezes into its 22nd year is that Peter Moore hosts the draft, and Peter Moore works for a wine importer and Peter Moore is a generous man and always opens a bottle or two of French wine, not the expensive stuff but still of excellent value because of his excellent judgment in wine.

Peter Moore. Peter Moore. Peter Moore. Consider this a trade out, Peter Moore. You have just been embedded in this blog the way Herb Caen used to mention whatever airline was comping him when he was off to France in search of his roots or to some sunny beach in Mexico in search a more even, thorough and sumptuous tan for his female companion.

It is true that the league is not what it was. It is in its second act and working on its second wind. Patrick Finley -- who founded the league and whose passion for the psy-ops side of noisily preparing for the draft and then undermining the opposition on draft day made the the league both comic and melodramatic -- has been dead for ten years. The gloom from his death still manifests itself in odd ways. (Perhaps, I'm just being superstitious. Beware the Amityville Umpire. Or something.) Since Patrick's death, the league has contributed to the demise of one friendship and the damaging of another. For many years, a friend held the league entry fees until the end of the season. A dispute arose over the slow pace of his payout, and I piled on for what I thought was the fun of it, but it appeared my friend was not amused. That's when the draft moved to Peter's. Then last year another old friend showed up on draft day after I had assured everyone he wasn't coming based on the veritable salad of mixed signals he was sending me. There he was. I had promised everyone I would throw him out if he showed up, but of course I didn't. He drafted a team that took the lead in early June and held it to the end. Nothing wrong with that. The problem was that the further ahead he got, the more he insulted the rest of the league, suggesting not just that we were incompetent at our little fantasy game but that we were fools, oafs and cretins for playing it at all. I'm bland emotionally, passive, inert even, but he infuriated me with his taunts. I took it personally. I didn't think it was kind. I am a great believer that you should know when you have tasted blood at which point you rinse out and apologize. Edged emails were exchanged. Serrated emails you might say.

I suppose this indicates the league's importance to me in that it seems to provoke deep feeling. Maybe the whole thing is an exercise in male codification. From the dark lonely jungle of our egos, we pound on our drums in the hope someone understands. Oh, put a rosin bag in it, Robertson. If all human interaction is a kind of a game, then why be surprised that a game produces such pointed and freighted human interactivity?

On the other hand, I haven't really talked about the research we do beforehand, which is as hermitlike as you could wish, very secret. We are all underground men when it comes to our research. In the old days it was easier. I would buy a baseball magazine, make a list of players I liked and then when the season started, check the list against what was actually happening. Now with the Internet, a great deal of information is available, constantly gushing forth and constantly being revised, but much of it is contradictory and some just plain wrong. I try to ignore it if I can't confirm it. Skeptic patience, that's me. As a method I can only say that last year I finished out of the money. On the other hand, I wouldn't have invaded Iraq.

Addendum: Here's a link to last year's league standings -- minus the winner. I took him out as a joke, then tried to put him back and failed. The league software apparently has a moral center.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Tattoo

Along about the fifth inning of the Giants game on Saturday, the kid in front of us took off his shirt. On his back was the outline of a cross, scapula to scapula, cervical to lumbar vertebrae. The extremeties of the cross were scalloped. I'm guessing it's a style with a specific name, and I did several google searches -- "cross glossary," "cross types" and so on -- and couldn't match the shape. My wife thought she'd seen crosses of a similar shape on rosaries. I don't suppose it matters, but the Internet does make you think there aren't more than three degrees of separation between you and every fact under the sun.

In the middle of the cross were the words Galatians 2:20. Many years ago I was familiar with the epistle to the early Christians in that part of what is now modern Turkey, but I'm long past remembering particular Bible verses. Galatians 2:20 was actually the first thing I looked up, even before the shape of the cross, because the guy had a pale scruffy White Power look, and I was curious to see if I was being invited to consider a piece of anti-Semitic scripture. Or anti-female. Or just patriarchal.

Galatians 2:20 is not such a verse. It's pro-Jesus, not compelling to an old lapsed Christian like myself but not irritating either. I remember being told when I was young that if you could but get an unbeliever to read certain verses the gospel would pierce their hearts. I recall the notion was that God would prepare certain hearts at certain moments, and you never knew when the susceptible moment and your proselytizing would intersect. That was why we were supposed to carry our Bibles to school so that the curious would inquire or the scornful would scorn, in either case giving us the opportunity to share a verse or two. John 3:16 was the verse of choice in these situations, and still is judging by the signs you see waved at the camera at athletic events. There was supposed to be a special moment, you see, and if through your timidity that moment was lost, then let the eternal damnation of that soul be on your conscience. That did not particulary concern me since my understanding was that there were no bad consciences in heaven, only eternal bliss. It did, however, seem somewhat unfair that God would prepare hearts to receive his message only at certain moments. Why not intrude into human hearts perpetually? Why intrude selectively? The subtleties of the operation of salvation always puzzled me.

Still, taking your Bible to school was one thing. Having your back tattooed seems quite another, a rather bold upping of the ante. That's a real commitment. Going back on your faith after having your back tattooed -- that would be turning your back on your back. That would be foregoing your tribal identity.

That's how I think of tattoos, as an act of tribal identity. That's why young people with extensive tattooing of any kind are objects of my concern. When I was 17 or 18, I certainly wouldn't like to have chosen a certain set of pictures to be bolted to the walls of my life, as it were, for the next 60 years. Tastes change. Tribal loyalties change. Even faith can change. Not so good an idea, I'm thinking, to lock in your identity so early on. I'm not talking about a butterfly on your shoulder blade or a nice "AFT" for American Federation of Teachers on your left buttock -- which would also be quite a sly little joke as well as a union label. A discreet tattoo would be the kind of ontological nuance a supreme court justice might be pleased to have. What worries me is using your body as a canvas at a time of your life when your taste -- which at that age is more a series of impulses than actual taste -- is still evolving. How will these gaudy impulses play out? If I were in my early 20s, rather than a tattoo I would get a video camera and do a hundred interviews with a hundred emphatically tattooed people my own age. I'd keep in touch with my subjects, and every seven years or so come back to them and try to determine the degree to which their tattoos have limited or burdened them.

Or liberated them. Possible in the short term. But it's the long term that intrigues me. We are a fluid culture. We aren't snakes. We can't shed our skins.

I'm imagining. It's a hot day and look at the beautiful woman in the turtleneck with the long sleeves. A tattoo is more than a bikini wax. You have established a new status quo.

If it's a verse you want, how about Ecclesiastes 3:1?

To everything there is a season.

In magic marker, I think, which washes right off.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

It Wasn't Just a Lost Cause, It Was a Big Waste of Time. Oh, And a Lot of People Died. You Could Look It Up.

When I went North to go to college I took with me for display in my dorm room a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the greatest and grandest of America's beautiful losers.

Not. Not.

I knew why I did it. I did it because I was confused about what it meant to be a Southerner. I was not sure it was a good thing, but I did not want to appear weak by conceding it was not a good thing before the discussion had even begun. Also, with my accent it was pretty clear I was a Southerner, but the picture made it clear I was making it clear. No apologies for being a Southerner. Apologies for the South? Ah, that was different.

I told my family I was going up there to find a Yankee girl to marry. They thought it was because I couldn't find a Southern one, but actually it was because I didn't want a Southern one. I just felt like some honesty. I just wanted someone blunt, who would say what she had to say even if I didn't agree with it. This was not a proposition carefully thought through, and my experience with Southern girls was based on a small sample. Honesty can be found down South, and misrepresentation, both gross and simple, can be found all the way to the Arctic Circle and beyond. But I did have the sense, understood and articulated only in retrospect, that as a Southerner I was trapped in a philosophical, emotional and intellectual twilight, and hooking up with a Southern girl would be the final snare. My people so very much enjoyed the past, bad movie that it was.

There was this war and we lost. You could feel one way, or you could feel the other. You could seethe about losing the war -- which makes sense; no fun losing. Or you could be glad about losing as if it were an inherited martyrdom, a kind of crucifixion. Of course, this made no sense at all, but confusion on so vast a scale had its benefits. We had a lovely sense of justified inertia, of having lost something (poor us) in the War of Southern Impotence, though just what was lost my family was pretty damn vague about or maybe I mean evasive. For they had the grace to know that the slavery thing should be set right off there to one side, well off to one side. This was a noble war that could only be noble because it was lost, a lost cause. Let's not think about the cause or let us say the cause was every damn thing except what the cause was.

States' rights. States' rights to do what? I would have these little internal dialogues, though in school I kept my mouth shut, as I was raised to do. My parents were actually pretty "good on race" in the context of the times. They did not mess me up there. Still, they loved that damn war. The failure to arrive at the war's ends justified us going on and on a century later about the means -- battles, marches, maps, stategies and sufferings -- and the good men who Wore the Gray. It was so murky, murky thinking, murky talk about the "Yankees" ravaging the Shenandoah Valley, though nobody in my family had any vivid stories about rape or burning or whatnot. It was always twilight in our thoughts. We were squinting. We couldn't make out what we meant. And we were the good people, my family and I, not the crackers, not the rednecks, not the Segs, not the people who used the N-word, which we didn't.

All my fine memories of my alleged disquiet. But when I went away to college in the North I took a picture of Robert E. Lee with me. And if you asked me why, it was out of pride in being a child of the twilight. I think of Keat's negative capability, that state of mind "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

I'm thinking: What a stupid war, what a stupid place, what stupid people but don't you say it to me I am a poet I will hit your face. That was me back then. I married me my Yankee girl. Finally, I had the good sense to move to California, where the problems aren't my problems in the sense they aren't like some hereditary bone cancer you can't remember never having.

Why this rant? The Daily Kos had a link to this very fine essay by Ed Kilgore of the DNC on Appomattox Court House of all things. He seems to have overcome his confusion.

Friday, April 08, 2005

A Box of Wine Beneath the Bough, a Comic Book and Thou Beside Me Snoring in the Wilderness...

The great box wine experiment is now in its second week or is it in its third, which time frame tells you why there is a great box wine experiment. We are wine sippers who might have a nice glass with supper if it's something you can legitimately have wine with. But we are not always sure, so sometimes we draw back. For instance, I made some sauerkraut last night, and I certainly wouldn't drink wine with that. Beer was made for sauerkraut, though come to think of it I think I had a diet ginger ale. Those who mate wine and food -- their art the perfect seraphic indissoluble bond -- would tell me and my wife to get us to a gustatory nunnery. Here I am saying wine and sauerkraut don't go, but now I play the game of Dare and Google, a game of my own invention which involves saying something with absolute authority and then googling the truth of it.

And I find in the case of sauerkraut and wine:

Domaine du Colombier 1997 Crozes-Hermitage ($12.99)Clear pale straw color. Heady, perfumed floral aromas over fresh pears. Flavors follow the nose, dry and tart, sweet pears and citric acidity lingering in a long, consistent finish. My wife picks up a whiff of the controversial "cat-spray" or "boxwood" character and finds it offensive, but for me it's at the threshold of perception and not at all unpleasant. U.S. importer: Kysela Pere et Fils Ltd., Winchester, Va. (Nov. 5, 1998)

FOOD MATCH: Works fine with leftover pork and sauerkraut, a combination that calls for a full-bodied, aromatic white.

So there it is. Sauerkraut and wine are joined at the hip. My point is that my wife and I in our gentle ignorance do like an occasional glass, but our timid definition of occasional means a bottle can sit partially consumed in our fridge for a long time. That's not good for the wine. Oxidation. The taste rusts. So having read in our very own SF Chronicle that there are some good box wines out there, I poked around our neighborhood Albertson's (where a ring of pickpockets is operating, but that's another story) and found back on the far wall a modest assortment of box wines, including some the Chron recommended.

The magic, the Chron said, is the bladder in the box, the wine bladder somehow vacuum laden so no air comes in contact with the wine no matter how slowly you dribble it out. We tried the Hardy's Stamp of Australia chardonnay and the Hardy's Stamp of Australia syrah.

The chardonnay really seems bland. One is tempted to gulp it. The syrah at least tries to have a conversation with the inside of my mouth. There is at least some What's That? going on. I don't know what "that" might be or even if there's a that there. It may be when I taste wine I am tasting the externalities -- the ritual with the cork, the art on the label, the feel of the bottle in my hand as I pour. Perhaps what I am tasting when I taste wine is all these sensations twined together.

When I taste the wines I am describing, I may be incapable of thinking outside the box.

I just made myself smile. As for the box wine, we shall see. I paid good yankee money for these two boxes of wine, and I will drink them to their dregs. They don't have dregs, of course. I may not be a wine connoisseur, but I remember when you could get a fine set of dregs in an inexpensive bottle of wine. What the dregs were I don't know.

An expatriate tequila worm come to a sad end? Wouldn't it be pretty -- and just a little French -- to think so.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

But Don't Drop the Day on Your Foot

Mad props to Saul Bellow, just mad props. (The sex-mad old men -- the prince the pope, the scribbler who was not least among them -- are dropping like flies. Their flies. Sexy sexy pants joke. Get it? Okay, not the pope with the sexy doings, the actual coupling. But with the sex MAD, yes.) Meanwhile, having barely escaped that very long parenthetical comment, just let me say I will reread "Seize the Day," knowing going in that it will satisfy me as much as every other time I've read it. I love Daddy stories, as all my faithful readers know, and StD is a two-daddy story, the distant real one and the rogue phony one. And both betray poor poor Tommy Wilhelm who only wants to be rich and be loved. What the ending of the story means I am not sure, but having opinions is my job, and I'll get back to you later.

Otherly, I am cleaning up the old home office and am going through a stack of old reporter's notebooks that have collected in a box lid in the corner on the floor. I am addicted to reporter's notebooks, the ones from Stationer's Inc. in Richmond, Virginia, with the word "Reporter's" in script angling up to the right of the top of the thick orangeish cardboard cover.

It is in the singular. The notebook of one reporter. The accomplishment shall be individual. Also on the front the notebooks is a place to put your name and phone number so you can get it back if you drop it. The notebooks fit nicely in both coat and pants pocket. They are pretentious in just the right way, so handy and efficacious that even though I always felt a little campy whipping out my notebook, as if it were the next best thing to having the word press stuck in the band of my snap-brim hat, they are a tool that does its job.

I buy a gross every year or so and give them out in reporting class, figuring the students might be inspired. If you look like a reporter, that gives you the freedom to act like one. I have absolutely no reason to think that any of my students find the magic in those notebooks that I find. I give them out, but the students seem to prefer yellow legal pads, which are unwieldy. If you are carrying a yellow legal pad, you look like you are doing a survey for soap.

I still use my notebooks for all sorts of notetaking. I took my feature writing class to a coffee shop to listen to live music, which they would then review. One of the musicians said, "I don't know how to do this so I'll just get started," which I carefully wrote down, a note I rediscovered today. I was going to tell the students how this comment would lead very nicely into a comment on the quality of the performance, whether good or bad. Today, it reminds me of Akira Kurasawa saying, "If I wait till I am ready, I will never be ready." It all boils down to the same thing: The price of good art is a lot of really bad art. I wonder what my students would make of that. Note to self: Find out.

In another one of my notebooks, I have some jumbled observations from the day and a half we spent in Paris last fall on the way home from Scandinavia. By the time we hit Paris, my mother-in-law was stiff, weary and showing signs of the heart problems that now have her in and out of the hospital. We could see the problems, but we were pretty sure we were going to get her home alive. My wife and I were working hard to keep her moving -- literally laying on the hands and propping up and tugging and guiding -- so there was little time for delicate apercus. But I did my best. It was Paris. We did a short tour of Notre Dame, and I described the side of the cathedral as a "grotesque of gargoyles." Not bad. I was definitely not waiting till I was ready.

Apparently somewhere we saw a realistic head-and-shoulders bust of a naked woman in some shop window, priced at many Euros. My wife said something about the distance between it and real art, and I wrote, "The problem is not the discrepancy. People will pay for the discrepancy." There's a bit of Oscar Wilde in that, if only the circumstances arise when it would make sense. Or maybe it doesn't need to make sense; maybe it only needs to sound elegantly bitchy.

On one of the Seine bridges we saw what I assume were a couple of tourists doing some serious osculation. I made a couple of notes. The first was that it would be amusing to put together an international glossary of the equivalent in other languages of the phrase, "Get a room.!" The equivalents would definitely have to capture its quality of imperative discomfort. And I also wrote, "This is serious kissing. It looks as if he's licking the crumbs off her face. It's the the sort of thing that would disgust even a mother cat."

I like cats.

We went to the Louvre. I wrote, "The Louvre consumes you, and you pass through its colorful intestine...." It goes on. I don't think I was being ironic. Still, that is really good bad writing. It dares to be bad. Consume it and let it pass through the colorful intestine of your mind.

Page after page of trying hard, and I am pleased to discover that I was trying to grab something for later. I was not resigned to forgetting. Ah, such a man of the world je suis: "Accommodation with the Parisians is simple. You want their beauty and they want your money. Relations are sometimes testy but are fundamentally good natured because of the mutual satisfaction. Though not delighted at your presence, they are resigned to it for you are a cloud with a silver lining -- in a variety of denominations."

So wise, so world weary, so de trop or do I mean soigne? Sauteed? That can't be it. I am shrugging my shoulders. Sacred blue. Sacred blue.

Thirty-six hours in Paris. I made a note.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Bully One. Pulpit Zero.

My wife has been calling me every half hour from the anti-Schwarzenegger demonstration in front of the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. She says it's exhilarating to be part of a crowd of nurses, teachers and public-sector workers who are there to remind the governor there are no stunt men in politics. But as long as there are chauffeured limos and back doors, I suppose Schwarzenegger needs a stunt man the way the Invisible Man needed a stand in. No governor in sight, my wife said. He's inside with the demonstrably rich and the impudently powerful. I can imagine them staring at Schwarzenegger and thinking my god this man is my own personal wet dream.

If no governor, there are a good number of cops, however. My wife said it was frightening when the police began to put on their riot gear. My wife said she has no idea why. A few speeches, a few chants. Maybe some of the teachers are using their outdoor voices, but that is the extent of the aggression in the crowd. I'm proud of my wife for going. I suddenly wonder if the duties I thought I had to attend to were duties at all. Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point. At some point one person too many gets sick and equilibrium is overcome and a plague ensues. Therefore and by analogy, the idea of the individual in the crowd is dignified, the particle becomes a catalyst.


Time for a plague of noise, of determination not to shut up. All this I believe, but from another point of view I'm just talking out loud till my wife gets home.

Woke Up. Got Out of Bed.

I wonder how often waiters give you "real" coffee when you ask for decaf? This is an early morning question. I don't mean it's a question you ask because someone is serving you coffee early in the morning. It's a question you ask early in the morning after you wake up restless and a little agitated well before sunrise. But is that the way it works? Wouldn't caffeine keep you awake at bedtime rather than waking you up and then keeping you up in the middle of the night? Hm. The answer to that is ... of merely academic instance. Knowing why I'm awake won't put me back to sleep.

Typing is making me a little drowsy. I'm not writing; that's not the word. I'm just typing, though editing later on can turn typing into writing. You can't edit a sleepless night, though. I mean you can't erase the erasure; that is, I can't delete this post and suddenly be refreshed. So I'll let this stand.

Yawn if you like. If this bores you, some night it may come in useful. I know my own eyes are growing heav

Monday, April 04, 2005

Who Was That Masked Man?

If one does not watch television news, for whatever the reason, events like the pope's death are simply a flutter in one's peripheral vision. Newspapers and blogs allow one to share in commentary on the meaning of the event and so get at causes and effects. But as for the spectacle and the wash of emotion, the opening day of baseball season is more real, more vivid to me.

I am addicted to certain emotions in motion but not to others. Same kind of selective ignorance for Reagan's death. Lesson one for beginning reporters is how wrong phrases like "The world mourned" or "The nation cheered" are. Only laziness or cowardice or cynicism produces such generalizations. What contempt for language and for the intelligence of those who read you.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

I Would Have Said Eric Byrnes, But the Letter 'Z' is So Darn Funny

We are in the midst here in Oakland of a political contest based on a brilliant idea but doomed to ruin by faulty execution. The outcome will be sheer folly. In the neighborhood where we live, our city council member has quit in the middle of his term, and the election to replace him is being done by mail-in ballot, which I think is splendid. Coaxing the voter, making it easy for the voter, is democracy pure and simple. Let's get the citizenry voting, I say, and hope that making it easy to do removes an anxiety, makes the act seem inevitable in the way that brushing your teeth is inevitable, and thus creates an incentive to learn more about the candidates. If that does not create wiser voters intent on the good of the republic, perhaps it will move self-interested voters a little closer to understanding what their self-interest actually is. If not admirable or enlightened, at least the results will be coherent.

So far so good. There's a window of several weeks between getting the ballot and the deadline for sending it in. I think this softer deadline will make it more likely that voters will pursue answers to their questions about the candidates rather than making their vote a last minute decision, impulsive and confused. We shall see. But the defect in all this is that this election does not allow for a runoff, and nine candidates are running. In theory a candidate could win with a little more than 11 percent of the vote. A council member chosen by a third or less of the electorate seems all but guaranteed.

One of the candidates asked for permission to put a sign in our yard. We said no. The campaign put a sign in front of our house in the little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb. We have declared hegemony over this strip of grass. I now tell you that I have doctored the sign. It now says the incumbent council member supports Barry Zito for the seat he is vacating.

In the aftermath of vigorous and controversial off-season trading in which star pitchers were sent hither and thither, Barry Zito is now the ace of the Oakland A's pitching staff. I am proud to support him on opening day and every other day.

Hmmmmm. I seem to be turning this whole election into some kind of joke. But the politicians got there first.

Addendum: My wife says the information on our yard sign consists of more than words. In spite of the alteration, shape and color may communicate to some that we support a certain candidate whom we do not support. As for the apparent enthusiasm for Barry Zito, viewers may simply assume we have a teenaged son who is adding to the original sentiment of the sign but not obliterating it. I believe the word is palimpsest. Also, Zito gave up four earned runs in six innings. The sign comes down.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

In the Valley of the Blind, Identify the Guy Who Just Happens to Enjoy Wearing Dark Glasses

When you are interviewing for a job, it's hard to know when you should boil over and when a nice simmer will do just fine. I am talking about the serial interview, when you are passed from person to person, though you can have about the same experience in a group interview with you on one side of the table and what looks like the Michael Jackson defense team is on the other. But only one of them can be Johnnie Cochran, right?

I mean toward whom do you direct the heat, the sparkle, the snap, the crackle, the pop. Who are all these people? It's like looking at mug shots after you've witnessed a crime. Who matters and who doesn't? Who do I really have to sell?

I am thinking about this because we are in the middle of hiring a new faculty member, and I am on the search committee. I recall 15 years ago when I was beginning the move from the newspaper to academe. I interviewed at a midwestern university where it seemed I talked to everyone. I went from office to office to office as if I were speed dating. One man in particular seemed a player. He was a full professor, beefy and confident, with a window with a view and a huge wooden rolltop desk that must have exacted a mighty toll in hernias getting it into place. Hire me? He was talking about the future of the unit five years down the road long after I was hired. Turned out he was a departmental pariah, one of those guys you often find in academia, someone who was once a mandarin and a deal maker but who has since been shunted aside, though no one takes away his office, his title or, in this case, his patina of self-importance. Indeed, I think my visit with him was an opportunity to give that patina a bit of a polish.

The misunderstanding on my part of what was in essence a masquerade led to some disappointment, also on my part, later on.

A year later I interviewed at USF. One of the members of the search committee took me aside and told me about "the dean," the person I would be talking with who really mattered, adding a tip or two for handling him, the most useful one being that he did not suffer fools gladly. He really didn't like fools. You needed to present, perform and score some points when you interviewed with him. If he dismissed you as a lightweight, you were done, no matter how much the hiring committee liked you. My source added this was a good guy, a smart guy, a guy who seemed to have the knack for hiring good people. He was not advising me to placate the lunatic, only that the next hour was the game and that no matter how many points I had scored earlier in the day, here the contest would be decided.

I did not wet my pants. I did what needed to be done. (And by the way my young friends: There is no greater source of strength and calm than applying for a job you might like while occupying a job you do like. Need is poison.)

The dean and I talked as men of the world will talk, as men of respect -- I believe this is a Sicilian term -- eyeing one another and gauging strength, weakness and mutual advantage. The rest is glorious history. I've given would-be hires much the same warning since, though now we have a new dean and the warning is quite properly a little different.

I sometimes add a little something extra. When it's a big hiring committee I'm on, and the job being filled covers something I know little about and the person who fills it will not be working closely with me, naturally I will defer to my colleagues. My job is not to guess but to second-guess, once others have expressed their preference. So I have sometimes told job candidates that I am the least important person they will talk to during their time on campus and to dispense with trying to sell me on something I know almost nothing about. Ask me questions, I say. Don't play to me. Pump me. Oh of course this is also an interviewing ploy on my part, but I only say it if my description of my relative status is also true, if I might be able to tip the scales but certainly not to set the balance.

By the way, in regard to the current search this is not the case. Booyah. I am kicking the tires and checking under the hood and slamming the doors, sometimes hard. I am sitting at the table with both elbows on it.

I told my wife:

Don't tread on me. Dr. No is in the house.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Daily April Fool: All the News That's Fit to Doubt

Today is the day we doubt what we read and what we hear on the news.

It would be better if we saved some of that skepticism for the rest of the year. We would have to process information more slowly. We would have to opinionate less often. We would have to care about fewer things because in that state of mind we would be responsible for working harder to "know" less. (Let's hope we would do enough work to remove those quotation marks.)

All this came to mind because of this headline:

Ms. Wheelchair loses crown after standing up

It seems to be true, but it always pays to wonder.