Thursday, June 29, 2006

Voice on Water

An old friend is stopping with us, his famille nouvelle in tow. I mean he is accompanied by his very new girl friend whose pregnancy is just slightly newer.

I admire someone for whom the thought and the deed walk side by side rather than straining in tandem. Good job, old friend.

He and I went to the Giants game last night -- ManTime, etc.

It was a night game, so when we walked back up the Embarcadero to BART, we had Bay looks to the right. (Walking along the Bay after baseball is a common theme here at top 'o the cat, I know. But be patient.)

A little north of where the Embarcadero passes under the Bay Bridge, we stopped for a look back. The lights on the bridge were reflected in the water, bright little pathways in the foreground.

My friend said in Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," that's what he's talking about.

(I do not quote my friend directly because so often when one does so, it is actually blunt and vigorous paraphrase, quotation marks be damned. One is actually improving on the original. But I will not take this liberty with my friend, who talks better than I can remember -- or write.)

Safe from the desecration of quotation from memory, he went on. He said light on water was what Stevens was describing when he talked about the fishing boats with lights on their masts at night. He said the masts "portioned out the sea." Their reflections lay on the water and moved on the water as the water moved, he said.

And then he quoted the passage from the poem, which I looked up today and quote now.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

I suppose there was a time when many people knew reams of poetry and tattered their welcome among friend and stranger by unleashing their memories at the slightest provocation.

That time is long gone. My friends spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility was a treat, a treat better than baseball, at least better than this particular game.

And -- hey! -- maybe now we also know what the lady liked so soon and so well.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I Fail, Therefore I Am

I have always assumed to the level of truism that one of the things courted by newspaper columnists -- at least the personal columnists and certainly the humor columnists -- is failure as long as it is somewhere short of disaster. Comic ineptitude and selective inadequacy are extremely engaging qualities, it seems to me. I remember when Bill Mandel was writing a column for the old Examiner and he would recall his cosseted youth in New York City, in Manhattan for god's sakes.

I hated him where he stood.

Someone told me they felt the same way about Adair Lara's BMW or maybe it was her Volvo, which would be very different thing, wouldn't it?

I still remember when Jon Carroll took singing lessons and had to perform at a recital and how bad he was hahahahahahahahahaha.

His teacher was so proud because he was so brave.

You just wanted to hug his neck.

But this survey for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists suggests the columnists themselves may think otherwise about the skill involved in displaying unskillfulness.

The question was:

Sometimes I undertake activities likely to end in failure or embarrassment just to have something to write about. And the answers were:

Newspaper Columnists Fulltime (24) Disagree 38 percent
Newspaper Columnists Parttime (35) Disagree 47
Freelance Columnists (81) Disagree 40
Humor Columnists (65) Disagree 40

"No opinion" and "Strongly disagree" covered about another third of the respondents in all four cases, so it seems clear -- or as clear as such a small sample can suggest, and that suggestion a very modest one -- that columnists are NOT pursuing the opportune pratfall on quite the scale I had imagined.

In the case of humor columnists, I am particularly surprised.

So much for the idea that my whole life has been one long, you know, preparation.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Yes, I Realize the "Threat" Below is Lame Beyond Lame

What do you want me to do? Vote for Nader?

There is lame and there is evil.

(By the way, someday it may actually be said of Nader: "The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.")

Wasting Some Words

I'm working away watching Lehrer out of the corner of my eye and what to that wondering eye should appear but U.S. senators debating the amendment to ban flag burning. I see California's own DiFi take the camera and shortly thereafter, trembling with righteous anger as only an old man can tremble (oh the courage of knowing that any *emotional exertion* may lay him low) I fire up the computer and write this email.


I did not realize you support the constitutional amendment to make flag burning a crime. I cannot begin to express the depth of my disappointment. I understand how those who would like to cut the First Amendment back to nothing -- like Hatch and Cornyn -- would support this, but I certainly never placed you in that camp. I can only assume it's a matter of principle because you don't need to take this position as a matter of electoral politics. That actually frightens me. I can only say that as a response to your support for the flag-burning amendment I would still vote for you in a tight race -- better you than a Neanderthal Republican -- but if I come to the conclusion you are going to win, I'll put my vote elsewhere. I am sometimes impatient when those to the left of me howl about "symbolic" acts that degrade the Consitution. Now, I'm howling. I think this amendent is dangerous. It's more than a symbolic action.

Michael Robertson

Little clicker on the DiFi web page says some 300,000 emails have flowed through it. Well, the stupider of her interns need something to do. Still, I feel better. Kind of a King Lear howling thing, maybe?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Once I Did Bellow Out "Goddess Bless America" and Was Looked at Askance

Though as loyal Oakland residents and thus Oakland A's fans and ever thus haters of the SF Giants and all who sail in her (if only when they play our beautiful A's), one of the best experiences in the enjoyment of baseball in America is taking BART to SF, walking south along the Embarcadero to Noveau Candlestick and then back again after the game.

Sea meets city. Palm trees, bridge views, the occasional old-timey street car and then perhaps a quick stop at the Ferry Building shops to buy a pizza stone and some Lambchopper cheese.

(I kid you not. Which thanks to Turner Classic Movies on cable I now realize was Captain Queeg's signature interjection in "The Caine Mutiny." Bogie!)

And so it happened yesterday. The A's won -- hurrah.

But when we sprang up in the middle of the 7th for a little "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" -- and I always sing "root, root, root for the home team" because I am a traditionalist -- PA said but first let's sing along to "God Bless America."

And down The Lady E. and I sat. We don't do theism cum nationalism at ballgames. Theism cum nationalism: That way lies death, madness and the end of time.

Even as we speak.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Why the Terrible Silence?

Because I'm writing like a fool on two projects.

1) I am grinding outThe Great Demographic Report I will present to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists a week from today in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. You'd like a teaser, a nice little tidbit of info from my vast research?

Look here then. Just how old are these columnists I surveyed?

70+ 20 percent
60+ 14
50+ 25
40+ 30

30+ 8
20+ 4

Salaried Newspaper Columnists
70+ 10 percent
60+ 23
50+ 36
40+ 23
30+ 10
20+ 5

Median for both groups 51

Gold. Pure gold.

2) I am adding sparkle to that novel that for the last 25 years has huddled in the dust at the back of the drawer in consecutive places of Robertson habitation. It's all about life at a fundamentalist Christian college. I think the time has come for this particular flower to blossom. And here's a sample from it:

Clement D. Soyboy had pranced out from behind the lectern like a drum major. He began waving his hands over his head and chanting. So far he had gotten a few Praise the Lords and a Halleleujah – not much. But from the back of the gym where all the football players sat together came a response to his call.

“VICK-tree VICK-tree VICK-tree over masturbation.”

Now the cry came from all corners, brazen, joyful and from the football team (I supposed) equivocal.

I was fascinated by Clement D. Soyboy’s hands. He was lean, long and bony, not much of a pretty man. He had started to hop and to stretch, showing a fashionable length of cuff as he strained to touch the big pink cardboard hand that hung above. Dean Henry Plimsoll sprang to his feet and moved to the stage upon which he leaped in a great squatting jump like a Cossack.

Clement D. Soyboy ceased his hopping, awaiting the Dean’s intervention, and the sound level dropped except toward the back where it rose higher still.

The Dean stripped off his jacket, tossed it aside with what can only be described as a flourish and reached for Clement D. Soyboy.

“I want to be the first to shake that hand!” he cried.

“I wouldn’t,” I whispered to Cliffy.

Not gold. Platinum.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Love and Shadows

A friend came over for the evening recently. My wife remarked that he looked a little more relaxed, a little less stressed, for the first time in a long time. I had to agree. Could it have something to do with the fact his long-time love had died not that long ago?

Yeah, I think that might be it because she had been sick for a long time, and he had been her caregiver. They had lived together -- more or less, on their own particular terms. They lived adjacently. Their lives intermingled. He once said their relationship was deep and satisfying but puzzling to some. Her friends didn't much like him. His friends didn't much like her.

She was in her way well-known and after she died she got written about, at some length, with some quotes from one or two people who -- at least based on the internal evidence of the piece -- hadn't been around her in a while. Maybe they had, but the story did not establish the point.

Our friend wasn't mentioned, though he and she had been together for 20 years in the mode previously described. His omission made me think about the nature of the obituary and the instant biography. Maybe our friend withdrew from participation in this first little history, choosing for all sorts of reasons to reserve the details of their intimacy, perhaps even the fact of that intimacy. Perhaps, the hole in the story about his lost love was there because of a delicacy on his part. Or perhaps her friends really did NOT like him and were now choosing to erase after the fact what they could not alter in life.

So this particular first draft of history seems to have been wrong, or at least incomplete. I don't know why. Someday I'll ask our friend, but only after his sadness has receded a good deal more.

I don't know if this particular moment of "not being" matters to him. And who cares what matters to history? But still here in this blog is a nice little clue for any future biographers of her -- or of him. Both are writers, and you never know which way reputation is going to tilt way down the road.

Not that it will matter. We aren't talking about Jesus and Mary Magdalene here, not to my knowledge. But as I said my friend and his friend were a very private couple.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Will This Prove to Be the Tipping Point?

The Oakland Tribune publishes my letter to the editor. This may not be the beginning of the end for the Bush administration. But I say with confidence that it is the end of the beginning of its dissolution.


Grotesque proposal

THE IDEA that the Bush administration wants to cut, and ultimately terminate, funding for NPR and PBS — two things that actually work — while continuing to mindlessly pour money into the Iraq debacle is grotesque.

I do not think everything I hear or see on these two entities is wise and good. But compared to mainstream radio and mainstream TV, NPR and PBS are magnificent, superior by several orders of magnitude.

Michael Robertson


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Ziphiidae Do Dah

Big Pat Daugherty is a winner. He plays to win.

If it were nuclear war, he would hit your command centers with bunker busters, sabotage your mobile missiles as they hid in the forest and swarm your missile submarines with swift silent attack subs under flags of convenience.

If he were seducing your wife, he would go with the French wine, the Italian shoes and the dry British wit AND make sure you had a special invitation to Pebble Beach so you would be out of the picture for the whole weekend.

If he had to shave his back, so be it. He would shave his back.

If he were playing fictionary -- not if; I mean last night when we were playing fictionary -- Big Pat goes for the win, not the wussycat tie.

Imagine the situation. The game is three hours old. The score is knotted: Woozy Host, Mme. Chocolatier, Big Pat seven points apiece. The tie ensued when Woozy Host, having the dictionary last, had come to the conclusion that picking out words with truly odd definitions was not getting it done. The players were just too sharp, too receptive to the most unlikely possibilities. WH went with pushzta, which means a plain in Hungary. He thought that so bland a definition would be dismissed as a rather lame attempt by a player gone drink-sodden and that the very genius of the group for coming up with weirdly inventive definitions would result in no one voting for Hungarian plain and WH winning seven points as a result.

Failure: Three players guess right, resulting in the final seven-each tie.

Now, your typical Oako-libo group would be delighted with such a socio-comic result: We're all good enough together. But Big Pat said no no no.

Tie breaker!

BP, WH and Mme. Chocolatier did scissors, paper, rock to decide who got to decide. Big Pat went scissors; Woozy Host and MC went paper. (There's your symbolism for all to see!)

Note what Big Pat did at this juncture. A lesser man would have given someone else the dictionary to pick the final word, knowing full well that in fictionary if you pick the word, it's all or nothing at all. If even a single person picks the correct definition, you get nothing. Meanwhile, your rivals have two opportunities to score, either by guessing correctly or by gulling others into choosing their bogus definitions.

Big Pat put a little more torque in his jock, took the dictionary and picked ziphiidae:

Which is toothed whales, something something whales ranging in length from 18-30 feet.

The smart money came to the conclusion that the 18-30 feet suffix was one of those too-specific additions -- one of those instances of trying to do too much, of failing to shut up when the shutting up is good -- that undermine rather than support the credibility of the definition.

No one picked "toothed whales something something 18-30 feet in length." WH did some inane definition about instruments of ritual Etruscan sacrifice. Big Pat got seven points to win going away. Mme. Chocolatier got some votes; indeed, enough others got enough votes to pound Woozy Host back into 5th place.

Magnificently played, Big Pat. Your victory was a truly horripilating experience.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Situation Normal: All Fall Down

Was it not Fitzgerald in his magisterial grave-robbing of Omar Khayyam who produced the line:

"The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter - and the Bird is on the Wing"

(Question mark down here somewhere. Can't find anything in the AP Stylebook to help me out.)

Of course, it was! I don't ask any rhetorical questions the answers to which I haven't googled.

Anyway, the point is that in my new identity as the Speedy Gonzalez of bloggers, I need quick hits and simple ideas.

Here's one: Though playing the game is not the only way to produce interest in a sport, it certainly helps. Thus, a factor in America's indifference to "world football" -- oh we call it soccer and how dumb we are -- is the fact so many of us haven't played it.

Here's my idea. All it needs is millions of dollars to implement. Create age-appropriate skills-appropriate soccer leagues in which Americans can learn soccer by doing. I imagine myself placed in a group of fat old out-of-shape guys and gals who are then taught the game of soccer, which we would play and play and play on weekends and perhaps in the long evenings of summer.

The point is that we would all be equally decrepit and thus we would be competitive if laughably incompetent. "Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast," we would call out to one another. Afterward, there would be adult beverages.

(Oh yeah. We would all have to take a 70-question inventory to determine fundamental decency and niceness. Send the assholes over to the Ann Coulter Debating Society.)

And thus through happy play we would learn enough about soccer to understand that something is happening when nothing appears to be happening.

As in baseball.

And here's a Whoa Dude moment. So where did the word soccer come from? Blame the English!!
Soccer is an abbreviation for Association Football. The Football
Association was formed in London in October 1863 when representatives
of eleven clubs and schools met in an attempt to standardize the rules
of the game. One of the rules prohibited the carrying of the ball, a
rule that would lead to the Rugby-oriented clubs leaving the
Association several months later. The name Association Football was
coined to distinguish it from Rugby.

By 1889, the abbreviation socca' was in use, and the spelling soccer
had made its appearance by 1895.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Bloody Wonderful: Take That, Republican Butcher Boys

This from MoveOn, which does not just suggest that you write a letter to protest the Repub's gutting of NPR/PBS -- in the words of Bill Frist: "If it looks like a cat, gut it" -- nor does it merely offer to collect such letters. MoveOn makes it simple to write your email/letter and then send it to the newspaper of your choice. "Ease of usage" is a wonderful tool. Kudos to MoveOn!

Step 1: Select a newpaper

Local PapersCirculation # Sent

San Francisco Chronicle 514,265 50

The San Francisco Bay Guardian 153,000 8

Alameda Times Star 67,834 2

Oakland Tribune 67,702 8

Regional PapersCirculation # Sent

The Sacramento Bee 302,804 12

San Jose Mercury News 276,787 15

Contra Costa Times 187,630 8

Metro 105,000 2

National PapersCirculation # Sent

USA Today 2,602,556 136

The Wall Street Journal 1,820,600 69

The New York Times 1,130,740 138

Los Angeles Times 1,014,044 102

Washington Post 796,367 71

Step 3: Enter Your Address & Send


Step 2: Write your letter

Use the talking points below the composition window for ideas.



Talking Points
  • President Bush is pushing to slash NPR and PBS funding—and eliminate funding entirely in two years.

  • In just a week, more than 1.5 million Americans have asked Congress to oppose this move.

  • Under pressure, Congress restored some funding for this year, but House Republicans just voted to eliminate all funding in two years.

  • Unbelievably, the cuts start by terminating support for commercial-free children's shows like "Sesame Street," "Clifford," and "Maya and Miguel."

  • Americans trust public broadcasting more than any other news source. This is an ideological attack on our free press.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Girls in Their Summer Dresses Redux

Lunch with Brother Pabst today at Gio's on Commercial Street in the great beating heart of the San Francisco Financial District. Pabst knows the crew there because when he was in the ad game -- before being hit on the head and losing his bearings and becoming an adjunct college professor -- he worked in the area and seems to have begun many an if-it-doesn't-sell-it's-not-creative afternoon at Gio's horseshoe bar.

He is known and when one is with him, one is treated nice. Gary the septuagenarian waiter sees an empty wine glass and fills it, a ManTribe ritual old as fermentation.

The key to a pleasant lunch is for one person to be slightly but not decisively more interesting than the other, the "slightly more" being true in the case of Pabst, who has had a varied career in advertising, plus he has four children all of whom have been willing to put their shoulder to the anecdote.

For instance, one of his kids decided to work in Cairo for a while and learn Arabic during which time he fell in love with a local girl and popped down to the office where they register such things and became a Muslim so he could marry her. It is my strong impression that "popped down" captures the rigor of the thing.

But in particular Pabst has stories from the big tainted world-of-work, and when so-called pros (he advertising; I journalism) end up working in academe oh they do sometimes yearn to recall -- and in the spirit of reciprocity listen to recollections of -- those distant days way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine.

Actually, I was never much for shoeshines, though my smile was worth a set of burglar's tools.

Anyway, Pabst has interesting stories, somewhat superior to mine I concede, but I've got some good stories, too, to fill the chinks in the conversation. Buy me lunch and hear them all.

Bright day in downtown SF, a day of adequate warmth, which you can't always count on here in the summer. Lots of women in power suits looking quite splendid, like socially acceptable dominatrixes. I walk slow and weave a little, hoping they jostle me as they pass.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Punching-in-Data Drunk

All day entering data. Hungry for light, food, lively music, arm around wife's waist, a strong drink.

Took break to stroke cat. Looked at cat and thought:

"If you belonged to Bill Frist, he'd gut you like a fish."

Seems Like Old Times

Now that I have adopted the philosophy that a little more than a little is by much too much -- see previous post or brush up your Shakespeare -- I now appear comet-like, with great intervals between. Actually, I'm working on my scholarship today, entering the data from some paper questionnaires into the online data base that enables me easily to find (perhaps where there is nothing to find) patterns or traces of patterns or psychic intimations of pattern in the numbers.

The questionnaires were filled out by newspaper columnists of various ages, salaries and market sizes. I'll be presenting on this topic in Boston the end of this month (invitation only; don't look those 'dog eyes' at me, little mister!) and the question that is producing the best answers is a fill-in-the-blanks:

Writing a column __________ a week is like _________________.

My favorite answer so far is: "Writing a column three times a week is like cooking lunch for the United Nations three times a week."

There's a nice oxymoron implicit in that analogy: arrogance and humility.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Shut up, he explained

I got this link from reinventing college media, a website that holds my hand as I shiver in the sleet of the brave new multimedia world. The essay linked to is all about how the smart modern blogger does not try to post every day in an effort to draw readers into your poppy field and make them lie down and be with your forever. Turns out that posting too often -- since more and more of your sophisticated blog readers are relying on an RSS feed that gives them a heads up when you post -- can hurt readership for two reasons, one slightly less obvious than the other.

1) Obvious reason. When your philosophy of writing is wall pelting -- keep tossing and maybe something will stick -- naturally you will lose readers. It's not like being a newspaper columnist where adequacy once or twice a week is enough. (Ruthless natural selection in blogworld. So much for false claims of Intelligent Design.)

2) Even if your daily posting is pretty good but not quite splendid, a reader who might otherwise stick with you might drop you because that RSS feed keeps pulling him/her back in. Occasionally it's worth the trip. But every day? Don't think so. A similar thing true of those without RSS feeds who drop by once in a while only in that case the problem is backlog: maybe it's going to be good but too much to wade through.

Now that I think about it, these concepts have certainly affected my consumption of one regrettably obscure blog and one pretty well known one. Brother Bob Wieder does not post often, but he is always funny -- consistent lows of seven, highs of nine on the Richter -- so I read everything he writes, infrequent though that is, and try to comment often to keep him in the game.

Link to him over there on the left lane of this blog through the link Laughing with Oboglo.

But I have thrice subscribed to the Huffington Report and thrice dropped it. The content is almost always liberal-minded and thus of the kind I should like. But there's just too much of it, and I find it repetitive and not all that wonderful when consumed in mass quantities. I am just too busy to do my own gatekeeping.

So I'll just shut the fuck up for the rest of today and certainly tomorrow and probably Tuesday, which looks pretty busy and the rest of the week who knows I don't have a crystal ball.

Already I see the smiles of relief.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

In My Speedo

Blogger has been down today and when it hasn't been down it's been slow. Three times I've sat down to write, and it has taken so long for me to get to what Blogger somewhat optimistically labels the "create" page that by the time I've gotten there I've lost the urge, the edge, the thread of confidence -- whatever you want to call it -- and turned to other things.

The point seems to be that given the time to think about blogging, I hesitate to blog. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but blog work is an hors d'oeuvre, to be served hot or not at all. (I believe the hasty imprecision of that comparison makes my point.)

I envy the persistence of the all-day political bloggers who have a message, a focus, a series of talking points even if those TPs consist of the ability to whack back at someone else's talking points in the mode of Andre Agassi in his prime. You know: Send it back over the net harder than it came.

We are all familiar with the stereotype of the typical "professional" blogger: a guy sitting there in his underwear in a darkened room reading and typing, reading and typing 12 hours a day. (A few of them sit there in someone else's underwear. And none dare call it treason.)

Blogging the way I do it is like a guy playing a round of golf in a golf cart. Charge down the fairway, jump out of the cart and whack the ball in the general direction of the flag and if you can't see the flag, whack it anyway. In fact, why even get out of the cart? Embrace your inner polo player. Stretch out your strong right hand and whack the ball without ever throttling down.

That means you don't sift your mind for ideas. It's like the lottery. Turn the basket and pull out a ping pong ball and go with that.

As Socrates said: Know thyself. And if that doesn't work: Take your best shot.

The timer just went off. That's all I got, but I'll Be Back. It worked for Schwarzenegger.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Witticism

I'm writing an email in which I am attempting to do justice to a recent bit of family nonsense (over the hills and far away; no one you know) and out comes the comment:

"It's a circus, my friend, and the clowns just keep coming out of the car."

The Lord loveth a cheerful blogger.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

NavelGazing and ThumbSucking Begone!

This old blog is kind of a cross between a Christmas letter and Dear Diary, but so what? The life you have lived is the life you've got. I read what I wrote yesterday and I think: sad but true. So just to add some ballast -- to compensate for the list to port, as it were -- I will include a bit from an email I got from Birney Jarvis who was a reporter at the Chronicle for part of the time I was there. I won't even provide much context for this other than to say Birney remains the only journalist I know who prepped for the job by being a Hell's Angel. Sometimes some of the kids ask if the news business really was a little less inhibited in the old days, at which point I tell about Birney and the Six-Inch Punch one afternoon in the old M&M, the newspaper bar just down from the Chron.

That's context enough. In media res, people.

I only hit the man in the M&M once--and that was because he had knocked Jerry and the young lady (whose name I can't recall) backwards by his interruption. In my Hell's Angels days, things might have been different.... As to the dog, I was very lucky and, perhaps, so was the beast. I was backing away and punches lack steam when doing so. I hit the dog hard enough to snap a small bone in my hand, and in my hey-day that would not have happened because karate-ka (experts; I am a 7th Dan) "train" their hands, literally, by smashing them against makawara boards and bricks and boards, while toughening the skin by punching buckets of salt-seasoned gravel. Ah, for the Good Ol' Days.

Birney, he moved down to Alabama years and years ago where I believe his wife's people owned some property, and, you know, he says recently he joined the church and got baptized. Anyway, the dog was a pit bull belonging to a neighbor down there in Alabama that came at him. (The dog came at him. If the neighbor had come at him, I would have written "who.")

Birney turned the other cheek but that was just to line up the punch.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Out Beyond the Village Border/Pointing in the Air/Stand Her Towers Seen Far Distant/When the Day is Fair

I got my undergraduate degree 40 years ago, and for 40 years I never saw the name of my alma mater in print, other than on my own resume.

And not always on that. Sometimes when asked to write down for one database or another where I got my BA I have put down Landrith College.

Landrith is my wife's maiden name.

In this blog I have always referred to my undergraduate school as Whooping Jesus Bible College, which gets at the nature of the place or at least my attitude toward it.

In truth, the name of my alma mater is Taylor University. It has at last -- and I would speculate probably never again -- been prominent in the national news. It is the place where those two girls went to school -- you know; those girls -- who were in the terrible automobile accident and whose identities were switched as their shattered bodies lay on the highway.

One set of friends and relatives buried their beloved child, sister, classmate etc. etc. Another set of etc. sat by the bedside of etc. as she lay in a coma, from which to the general joy she is even now emerging.

But everyone had it backwards. She who was alive is long dead. She who was dead had a kind of resurrection, once somebody bothered to check the dental records.

What a story. It's been all over the place. Lowell Boileau, netking of Detroit and my old Taylor roommate, says: Think made-for-TV movie.

But I think: Taylor Taylor Taylor. It lives in memory while things more recent have faded. From one source or another I hear that it has acquired some new buildings. What a bright and grinning place it is now, I am told. As fundamentalist Christianity has lacquered its public face in the U.S. in recent years, so has Taylor.

But my god it was a dungheap 40 years ago. It was ugly and desolate and isolated. Think Indiana death trip. Most of the buildings were old, and the newer ones were shabby. Buildings don't matter, of course. Academically, it was.... First word that comes to mind is mediocre, though I'm tempted to say,"Occasionally it rose to mediocrity."

I try that on my wife, who is also a graduate.

"I hated it I hated it I hated it," she says. "But I had a few good teachers."

She recalls them. Dr. Jim Young who taught drama and who was publicly castigated for doing a production of Saroyan's "The Cave Dwellers" in which one of the characters used the word "damn." I think it was the Dean of Students who stood up and walked out of the performance when that word was uttered.

Dr. Young left to teach at the University of Wisconsin. Then, my wife remembered the biology teacher who said you could think evolution was correct and also be a Christian. Shortly thereafter, he left to teach at William and Mary.

None of my English professors were that memorable. I tend to recall all the faculty members who were failed missionaries, jumped-up high school teachers, guys with MA's who (I was convinced) couldn't manage a Ph.D. program , the religious enthusiasts who did have Ph.D.s and who came running back to the strait jacket. (You could read their bios. They never taught anywhere else. They were it in to the finish.)

The strait jacket. We couldn't drink, smoke or dance. We were allowed "occasional hand holding." We were required to go to chapel three times a week. But those were the shadows on the wall. The narrowness that mattered was intellectual, and I still feel its constraints.

You see, a school can be small with meager facilities and marginal faculty but it still can be a wonderful place for a bright young person if it encourages curiosity and the questioning of absolutes. Taylor said think all you want as long as you arrive at the predetermined conclusion.

The sad thing is that I chose to go to Taylor because on some level I understood that if I started to think about the details of my narrow Christian faith -- of its contradictions and its esoterica -- that faith would be in danger. I worked at my intellectual paralysis.

But I couldn't keep it up. Once distant from my family, against my will I began to think for myself, and my faith evaporated, leaving a thin bitter layer of doubt behind. I kept my mouth shut, of course, for I was a good boy such a good boy, as horrible as that is to admit now. I was a silent critic. Without having wished to rebel, now to my delight I became a rebel at minimum emotional and intellectual cost because the environment in which I existed was so narrow that the most modest transgressions -- not smoking or drinking but merely sitting in the car or standing in the bar with those who smoked and drank -- produced the most exhilarating sense of moral banditry.

Now, my wife was different. She has always had more courage than I, so she voiced her doubts and was criticized and isolated. (She also fell into one of those "mean girls" situations common enough, I suppose, but even worse when sanctimony is added.) She got in trouble and was always on the verge of expulsion for the hated "bad attitude." I kept my mouth shut, and no one knew I was there.

At this point the attentive reader has arrived at a question. (I tell my reporting students that one must understand the questions that arise in the reader's mind. Ignore them and the reader does not know whether you are a rogue or a fool. Indeed, the reader may square the circle by deciding you are both.)

The attentive reader asks why I didn't transfer out and why she who would become my wife did not do the same . (We didn't hook up until her last semester. Our sexual awakening was not a factor in our remaining. Though as sexual awakenings go, it is my understanding it was first rate.)

We didn't because we were afraid to. We are ashamed that we were afraid, that mediocrity suited us so well. Taylor was the devil we knew; out there somewhere lay the devil we didn't know, even though we didn't believe in the devil. We are ashamed of Taylor for being what it was, and that makes our shame all the greater for hanging around because we were scared of the big world, of parental disapproval.

But that's not all, as they say in the late-night TV commercials. This is where you get into the paradoxical nature of our feelings about Taylor. My wife and I wonder if, in fact, we had gone to some first-class state school or to some highly ranked private college that -- as timid as we were as a result of our having been raised up under glass as it were -- whether we might not have retreated further into sectarian narrowness, frightened by all the secular temptations, including the temptation to think.

Was it a good thing for us to go to such a bad school? We got together there, after all, our attraction sealed by our mutual loathing of the place, and all our friends who said we were an odd couple whose relationship had no future have gone through more marriages and more relationships than democracy in Iraq has had false starts.

So: I don't know. It's a puzzle. (We have a friend whose parents met in a Nazi concentration camp. There's a puzzle for her to chew on.) We hated how Taylor was then. I suspect we wouldn't much like how it is now, since it sounds as if it is now just a little dangerous, if you think right-wing religion is dangerous. One of my old Taylor friends says the school is now considered part of the "Christian Ivy League." Whoa. Conundrum. Oxymoron. I googled that description and came up empty. I googled Taylor's academic ranking and discovered that among "Midwestern Comprehensive Colleges," U.S. News rates it just below St. Mary's College and Calvin College but better than St. Norbert and Ohio Northern University.

(But, you ask, how does it compare to Landrith College.)

What does it all mean, Alfie? I have explored these memories to prepare an answer to a question the recent stories about Taylor have presented me.

It is a simple question: If I had a child and lost that child in a way so doubly cruel -- having learned that the "saved" child is not yours and that your child has been buried in someone else's name -- would I prefer to think that this dear lost child no longer sees through a glass darkly but now face to face, the face that of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

In other words, would I prefer the delusion to the pain?

No. No! Wrong question.

The real question is what might I say to parents in that situation. I hope I would give them a big hug and shed tears, and if they said, "She's in heaven with Jesus now, isn't she?" I hope I would keep my mouth shut. But then, of course, later when as dear friends we talked knee-to-knee of those truths that true friends share....

God, this is morbid and pointless. Suddenly I've conjured up a roomful of imaginary Christian friends telling me their babies are dead!? But then again Taylor was a place where I exercised my emotions, not my brain, and I think what I've learned from this ramble through memory is....

Life: a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel, an essay without an ending to those who blog.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Summer Reading Tip

It's pretty simple. Before you start reading a book, go online to find out how a dollar in the year of the book's publication compares in value with a dollar today. Write that figure -- $1 = $1.67; $1= $12.24 -- inside the front cover, and you will be spared at least one of the many possible textual uncertainties you will be facing.

I have begun this practice because part of my summer reading is intellectual labor -- I am determined to read a little Adorno this working holiday -- and part of it is brain-deadening fun, which in my case means I will reread some of the old detective novels I first enjoyed decades ago: the Raymond Chandlers, the Ross McDonalds, the Rex Stouts, the Dashiell Hammetts.

In fact, I started early this summer, knocking off Hammett's "Red Harvest" as an antidote to grading final exams, my having recently read somewhere that "Red Harvest" is actually a very good novel. (It isn't.)

I've added Tony Hillerman and Robert Parker to my summer mix over the years, but it's still a very small universe. I read a few new trash books; I reread a few that I've read before.

Why I find it comforting to retreat into this genre -- and it's a double retreat verging on surrender when one is returning to novels read once twice three times before -- is a topic for another time.

But there's no hurry. Why I reread in a genre that does not repay reexamination can't be a nice reason or a healthy reason. That said, I have come up with a trick to make it marginally less an exercise in escape into the past, where things are simple and people are stupid. Money always matters in detective fiction, often as a motive for murder, just as often as part of the code that explains the detective's Code.

In Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" Lauren Bacall (I mean Vivian Regan; back-formation occurs above and beyond linguistics) accuses Marlowe of being in it for the money. He says:

All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps and say thank you very much, if you have any trouble, I hope you'll think of me, I'll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up.

And I'm thinking (in AP style): He said 25 bucks a day? Just how much is that?

Using my favorite inflation calculator, I determine that if the novel were being written today, Marlowe would be charging $328 a day. Does this color my experience of the narrative?

Well, I understand from internal evidence spread across six novels that Marlowe certainly did not have a client five days out of seven and that he didn't have paid vacations or health insurance. I doubt he had an accountant to advise him to deduct for weapons, torn clothing and chipped teeth.

All that stipulated and the implications of it understood, if I were working as an Associate Professor at the University of San Francisco in 1939 and my compensation were precisely the same in relative dollars then as it is now, I would be making a very little more per day than Marlowe.

I would say to the Dean:

I am so money greedy that for twenty-six bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey and tweed patches on my elbows, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it, and I hold office hours twice a week, sometimes three times a week.

The inflation-adjusted value of things is just something I like knowing. It works for Jane Austen, too, by the way. When the gentry start talking about 400 pounds a year, try this inflation calculator , which -- so they claim and I'm having too much fun to say not -- can more or less tell us how the cost of living in Britain back to the year 1264 compares to the cost of living today.

And thus one may compute that Darcy's 10,000 pounds a year equals $831,671 a year today.

In the words of Mr Bennett: "May you have my daughter's hand in marriage? Fo' shizzle, sir! Fo' shizzle!"

I Am an Index

Brother Greg Pabst's comment on "What Didn't You Do in the War, Daddy" is very fine. They also serve who recall why they didn't.

Friday, June 02, 2006

I Wasted 15 Minutes on the Word "Excrement"

I live in fear that the New Yorker will cancel its weekly caption contest, since there is definitely something twee, arch and even rococo in the fact of reading New Yorker cartoons, much less in trying to write captions for them. At some point, staff will conclude that the caption contest is too sharp a reminder of the great gulf fixed between the pretensions of their average subscriber and the fine healthy regnant vulgarity of your average Entertainment Weekly reader, and that the winds of the times do not blow their way.

New Yorker cartoons and those that sail in them are so nuanced, so self-satisfied in the apercu, the irony, the dying fall of just the right word, just the right rhythm. In short, if you are a fan of New Yorker cartoons, chances are five-to-two that you are just some damn liberal, rapt about words -- or should I say wrapped about by words, which fall down around your ankles and trip you up while those damned right wingers win the day with their high-decibel, blunt-force talking points.

Naturally, I am a fan of New Yorker cartoons and want more than I want firm ice for the polar bears to be mentioned in dispatches someday; i.e., make finalist in the weekly contest.

Some weeks I can't come up with any caption, not even a lame one. I have no idea how the typical contestant proceeds. I'm guessing the majority grab what comes off the top of their heads, polish it a little and let it go. I'm pretty sure most of the captions are the same six jokes. I know that's true. A month or two ago, I got an email from the magazine thanking me for entering and pointing out that yes indeed most entries make use of common themes. I don't remember if the email advised being more off the wall or advised more polishing.

But back to how the typical contestant arrives at a result. How many, I wonder, use the mechanical approach; that is, making a list of situations suggested by the cartoon and of the cliches surrounding that situation and then substituting elements into the verbal expression of those situations and those cliches to produce a nice incongruity? That's what I did with this weeks' cartoon.

From the basic situation, I derived:

* dull marriage (reading in bed; wife's dismissive expression)
* wife uttering zinger (her mouth is open; his is hidden)

And one of the common cliches of a difficult marriage is:

* a disapproving mother-in-law, whose views may or may not reflect that of the mother-in-law's child

* the possibility, however unlikely, that the disapproval of said mother-in-law is really not disapproval and that the injured spouse is overreacting or misinterpreting

So now we come to the initial incongruity expressed in the image and upon which the caption will almost certainly be based: husband is a fly. (And isn't it interesting that every sour cliche about marriage leads us to assume he is her husband?)

At this point, I googled basic fly facts. For a while, I thought I might get something out of "fruit fly." There could be a joke in there somewhere in which the husband prefers to call himself a "vegan fly." (A gay fly joke would be hurtful). As I said in the headline to this post, I thought there might be a joke in the word "excrement" -- but that didn't go anywhere; I couldn't come up with a premise, though I thought perhaps the wife could be reading a Julia Child recipe book in which.... I think not.

But then as a I read about flies and filth and disease vectors, I thought about flies back home in Virginia and what a nuisance they were and the word came: screen door. In 30 seconds, I had:

"I'm sure Mother's screen door has nothing to do with you, Dear."

Is this a first-rate caption? No. The idea that screen doors keep flies out is probably clear enough -- though I suddenly wonder if the average urban, air-conditioned reader of the New Yorker knows, or even remembers, what a screen door is. And he's a pretty big fly. He seems quite dexterous. He's holding a newspaper, after all....

Ah well. A caption does not need to point in directions that vex rather than amuse.

I'm sorry. I spent the 15 minutes I was supposed to be spending creating a post creating this joke. It must be enough that it is recognizably a joke. And it's not crude. Everything is so crude now. You are not surprised that one joke I immediately thought of was:

"Of course, I understand that if you eat shit you won't die. I was making a point."

So so so.... junior high. So junior high. But how we laughed and laughed in junior high.

Okay, one more just to save my reputation. The wife is speaking, sharing something she has just read.

And then he says, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."

To which she adds.... I can't think of a kicker.

Sigh. Perhaps I can get Wieder the comedy writer or Pabst the ad man or Carroll the novelist to finish that one off. They are funny fellows, funnier than I, and that is why I put up with them, though their faults are legion, wanton even.

Addendum: I dug this out of my old emails. I am not tempted for myself, but it would make a nice gag gift for a friend if you worked his name in.

P. S. has the perfect way to help you Captioneers immortalize your caption contributions. Our new Caption It! Cartoons allow you to purchase a contest cartoon print with your caption. And at the introductory price of only $49.95, who can resist the fame? Visit here for more information. And as always, if you are a Club member, you will receive complimentary standard shipping* on your order.

Second addendum: A friend points out that the thing in bed is not a fly. Flies don't have antennae.

Never mind.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Well, I'll Be Damned. I Will.

After my early morning post in which I dared all by throwing my considerable support -- all 220 pounds and that's in the morning naked having eased onto the scale -- behind Barack Obama, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a link to this -- which I know means nothing more than that a handful of other people who know how to search the Internet seem to be dreaming the dream:

There’s an alternate measure, one that still captures the preferences of committed political activists while remaining more egalitarian in its measurement. Over at Vote Democrat 2008, we offer bumper stickers, buttons and t-shirts that promote various Democratic bids for the presidency in 2008 — candidacies both “serious” and “frivolous.” Unlike the mainstream pundits, we think which are which is a matter for you to decide, voting with your committed statements. For someone to buy a sticker, button or shirt promoting a presidential candidate takes some gumption, since it involves the commitment to publicly state one’s endorsement of a candidate. The relative popularity of the contenders in sales of these items is an indicator of the size of the set of core supporters, ready to mobilize when a full presidential campaign gets underway.

We’ve been keeping track of trends in the sale of Election 2008 stickers, buttons and shirts since the debacle of November 2004. With another month past us now, here’s an update with results for the most recent month of April 2006:

Relative Sales of Election 2008 Presidential Bumper Stickers for Democratic Party Candidates in April 2006

Well, Why Not?

I just want a Democrat who doesn't sound like the same old political Muzak. ' Course, your average Republican sounds like Wagner played on a banjo, so I'll take the Muzak if I have to.

Oh, I really like the "sample," which indicates this is all a work in progress.