Thursday, December 29, 2005

You Didn't? You Did? (And Why am I Smiling?)

It seems to me that one of the useful things about ritual is the degree to which we are aware it is devoid of content.

(I have never understood what's so bad about the idea of "running on empty." Now stopping on empty -- that's different. But running on empty is a consumation devoutly to be wished. Right. Right? Unless you don't think so.)

Nothing seals our indifference to the thing ritualized more than understanding the empty motions of the ritual even as we enact it. That's why I suppose New Year's resolutions are so popular. No one makes the mistake of thinking we mean them. New Year's resolutions are a joke at the expense of a genuine belief in the possibility of change, so of course I make them. I make them ironically since my friends will understand them ironically no matter how I intend them.

Having said that and maybe I have should have led up to this in a different way, I feel like making a more or less serious resolution. I would obviously prefer not to make it at the present time, but it is the circumstance of the holiday season that causes it to arise in my thoughts so finally whateryagonna do: Wait for warm weather? I mean really no one will take me any more seriously then actually which I'm glad you mentioned not so much mentioned but looked at me, well, knowingly, so I will make the resolution now.

How did I ever get started on this? (I know what it means when you look away.)

Oh, I'm just making small talk.

That's my resolution by the way, to pay closer attention to people who make good small talk so that I can learn how to make better small talk. It's not just how I sometimes bore people that I want to learn how to remedy. It's that when I get intimidated by the failure of the small talking it makes me feel ....


I mean, when you start to agree with things you more or less don't believe in or disagree with things you more or less do believe in just because the conversation has started to veer, and you want to be one of those people who is able to move gracefully out of one conversation and into another but to feel that you will be welcome back in the original conversation later on.

Smooth, you know. Sequential.

And I mean smooth making small talk with people whose guts I hate -- one glance and I am ready to pound their heads though not you obviously. I want to be able to talk to loathsome strangers for periods of three-to-five minutes under the influence of one-to-three glasses of wine -- or vice versa -- in a spirit of hypocritical cordiality. I want to be able to listen with feigned interest and respond in ways so deftly ironic that the people who I want to get it get it and the people I don't want to get it are somewhat baffled but unaroused.

In short, I want to be able to talk about Brokeback Mountain in a way that is both crushingly ironic and wittily, even brittily, dismissive but also deeply sympathetic and evolved because it gets cold at night and look at the Greeks.

If you had just heard me say this, you would say, "That is some crappy small talk, mister."

So I guess I have my work cut out for me.

What do you think?


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Woof! He Explained

The black dog has crept behind the house and fallen asleep, if I may borrow from Winston Churchill.

I mean I have been just a little depressed the last several weeks, and I am now discovering the damage was entirely self-inflicted. I had delayed grading the final exams and the final stories from my basic reporting class because the grades aren't due until January third, and I was so damn sure that these stories would be miserable, not in the essential sense of expressing the students' inherent mediocrity, for they are not that, but existentially mediocre by which I mean I was pretty certain I had failed to find the students where they were and move them forward.

My bad. My bad. Excrement does not fall far from the sphincter, as the acorn does not fall far from the tree.

But I have started grading, and the finals are pretty good, and the final stories are pretty good, too. Particularly for the final story, for what I call the big story, some of them figured out what I wanted them to do: That is, they talked to more than three people; they picked a topic that someone might give a damn about and they created knots on the reader's head by prompting, coaxing and facilitating those who serve as the story's source to explain and explain and explain again why the reader should give a damn.

And be skeptical about what the sources have to say, I said. And ask why. And please tell me who told you what unless you saw it or the whole world knows it already. And please put a sentence at or very near the top of the story that explains what the story is all about.

It's quite a lot to learn in a beginning reporting class into which most of the students have more or less wandered because when you are in college occasionally you do have to be somewhere of a more or less educational nature more's the pity.

I think I was pretty much hysterical near the end of the semester, threatening them with mad copy editors who would pretty much slash their story in half without reading it. I am, in short, teaching them to write the kind of stories that I didn't much like writing when I was a reporter and was vain enough to think that if my nut graf -- so despicable a term but widely used and therefore useful -- wasn't postponed until after the jump and if I didn't have at least one big flourish of style per one-sentence paragraph I was shortchanging my talent and my many fans.

So I dare them to be dull.

And I whisper to some of them, "For a good time, meet me later in feature writing," where thank god the gloves come off and we let the dog howl.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

And a Particular Christmas Blessing for Mrs. Santa's Sister

Three favorite Christmas movies now:

1) The Alistair Sim "A Christmas Carol" because Sim's face squirms with greed, then it squirms with fear, then it squirms with self-loathing, then it squirms with self-knowledge and then it squirms with pleasure and post-redemption shame. Grim Scrooges fail to convince post-redemption because they still seem too grim. Think George C. Scott. These stone Scrooges seem to have recovered from a case of indigestion. That don't have that sense of fluttery joy appropriate in a case of salvation from moral dessication. Sim is positively antic in his joy, a little bipolar even, the way they get when they forget their meds.

2) Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story," with the rasp of Darrin McGavin as the Old Man and the slightlier fruitier rasp of Jean Shepherd in the extensive voiceover. I love voiceover because I am not a person whose visual cortex is easily stimulated, and I would rather worry about what the words mean than what the pictures mean. "A Christmas Story" is word-work, a parable of probabilities. I mean when you get down to it Jesus probably isn't the Christ, and if you get a BB gun you probably won't shoot your eye out. Hmmm. That wasn't in the voiceover, so maybe my visual cortex is capable of stimulation after all.

3) But now a third favorite: "Bad Santa." What I like about Billy Bob Thornton in any role is that his physiognomy limits him to characters who are morally degenerate. Maybe they act on that degeneracy, maybe they fight ineffectually against it, maybe they have surpressed it for the moment. But they are bad people, and we better get used to it and figure out how that it figures in the plot. (The only exception to this is maybe "The Man Who Wasn't There," in which Thornton appears lobotomized, the only acting choice he had because anything more would have expressed some form of degeneracy, either active or about to pop.)

Anyway, Thornton is just wonderful as a criminal department store Santa, filthy in word and deed. (Wounded past? Sure. Who believes it? I mean, this is Billy Bob Thornton.)

Yes, he is redeemed at the very last minute because of Fat Blond Tiny Tim, who looks like an outtake from a Renaissance painting. But Thornton's redemption is expressed only in voiceover. That's rye-ut. We do not SEE the wiser and better man. We only hear him talk it up.

Because if we saw his face -- I mean, Thornton's mouth just hangs on the front of his face, as if his body is about to reject it -- we would know he was still a degenerate and Mrs. Santa's sister and Fat Blond Tiny Tim are in for it as soon as Thornton gets out of the hospital. (Shot down by the cops with a pink elephant in his outstretched hand because... But anyone who reads this blog has certainly seen the movie.)

Seeing Billy Bob Thornton's face struggling to express redemption would be a little heavy, even for a holiday movie. There's fantasy and there's fantasy.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Popcorn's Stairway to Heaven or in this case the sofa

Old Popcorn, she of the 20 winters and the 19.5 years, has been mentioned and even pictured in these dispatches before. The constraints of time reduce us to bullet points:

* ancient
* crippled
* addled
* incontinent

To which you then say Death Death Death to the old kitty, convenience trumping sentiment.

Well, to heck with you. I concede if we had a son or daughter he or she would be some kind of over-indulged crack-sodden player of Loud Music, and we would deserve our long walk through the Valley of Pain. My God what fools these parents be.

But I digress.

Point is that stretching out this old cat's life is self-indulgent and over-indulgent, but it does not reach outside our household and mar the big world. We aren't breeding a Hitler here or a George Bush either.

But I digress.

What I am getting at is that since the poor crippled old cat can't jump up on the sofa anymore -- and even though she might die any minute and I waste valuable seconds to prod her even as I write -- I have just ordered her what they call Doggy Stairs, the three-step version, which are about a foot high and may or may not help her get on the sofa. Right now she staggers around the room with a perceptible list until I pick her up and put her on the sofa. Is this not an affront to her dignity?

Well, no. Return to the bullet points. She has got about as much dignity as Gerald Ford.

But I digress.

I ordered the Doggy Stairs rather than the Kitty Stairs because there is apparently a premium for ordering what seem to be the same stairs if you order them under the rubric of Kitty Stairs. This is like dry cleaners charging more for women's clothes and so on and so on.

Also, I ordered them through a website that says they only look at the orders once a week or so -- I kid you not -- so we are in a kind of race with death here. A more loving cat owner would have ordered the Kitty Stairs, delivery guaranteed by Christmas Day.

I'm stuck here for a kicker, but my 15 minutes are up.

I suppose I could say

but I digress.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Tick Tock

I am on the clock. Ten minutes to write and then five to edit.

One of the things that has always embarrassed me about my blog is all the names I have run through, in the spirit of the garage band. It's not the music. It's the name. (Time for a joke: I have changed the name of this blog more often than Gerald Ford changes his Depends.)

This latest renaming is shall we say eponymous?

I will now be the 15 minute man. I will do the thing the name promises.

I just checked the Polder Digitial Clock Timer. Four minutes to go until editing!

Anywho, my Lady Wife and I just celebrated our 40th. In fact, we didn't celebrate it. We *noted* it by spending a weekend in San Francisco, a journey of about 30 minutes. Afterwards, I did not so much mention as was overheard saying that we were at 4-0 and a friend decided there should be an event. Using his own personal and eccentric list of those he considered our friends -- a list from which he had eliminated all those with whom he had recently had loud and bitter fights and these were quite a few -- he got about 15 people around a big square table at a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley.

And among those 15 people were some we hadn't seen in years since, as I said, it was his own personal and eccentric list.

I liked it. There was a free meal involved, plus some gifts. But Eydie and I were...uncertain. Should being married that long be a cause for public celebration?

Ah, the chime sounds and it's time to edit. Let me make my point bald and simple. Simply being married for 40 years is not in itself a cause for acclaim. We have friends who have been through many happy divorces and are happy in their current relationship, which is merely the last of many. We know one or two long-married couples that could use some divorcing. Or so it seems to us.

Personally, I think we should keep the celebrating to ourselves, since we are the only ones with any sense of whether or not it should be a celebration.

Oh, I'm almost over the limit. Time to edit and to link to the party pictures. Which is okay for me to do. Anyone who reads this far must be at least mildly curious and the pictures themselves are...

...mildly curious.

Wordplay, my friends, wordplay, though I don't have time to look up the exact rhetorical technique.