Monday, October 30, 2006

What He Deconstructs Stays Deconstructed

How did I miss this? Dr. Indiana Jones fails to get tenure over at McSweeney's.

Though Dr. Jones conducts "field research" far more often than anyone else in the department, he has consistently failed to report the results of his excavations, provide any credible evidence of attending the archaeological conferences he claims to attend, or produce a single published article in any peer-reviewed journal.

And his relations with women are definitely hegemonic.

Rattling My Keys in My Pocket to Indicate I'm Still Here

Not symptom free but no longer infectious so back at work. Not feeling so good. Couldn't hear much of what was said by students in first class so talked nonstop, perhaps erratically.

Was that fear in their eyes?

Ears popped during second class so shut up and let class out early.

(No, it was pity. I've seen it before.)

Read the Economist tonight as I groaned in the tub. Economist did a big takeout on France, which is apparently now the sick man of Europe. Too much central planning, you know. Too much good health care and benefits. Too many psychology majors, a fourth of all the psychology majors in Europe.

And all the sociology majors? You don't want to know.

So the French are glum.

Though interesingly enough the French are apparently stung -- so the Economist says -- not so much by dissatisfaction with the conditions of life but with France's declining reputation for the potency of its economy, of the strength of its purchasing power, of the international reputation of its universities.

I could go on .... Well, not really. I don't exactly remember what came next.

Two odd facts, two factoids that stick even as the larger generalizations fall away.

* 78 percent of French electricity is produced by nuclear power plants

* 80 percent of the world's Viagra -- and all of the Viagra sold in the U.S. -- is manufactured in France

As I said just rattling my keys, occupying my space, giving the Google worm something to look at as it crawls the Web.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I Summon the Scholars and Loose Them on the Problem

My wifey taking pictures of my sissy and her hubby at Yosemite.

Now, tell me this. Why does one take pictures of people taking pictures of other people? I believe it's an iconic image, one found in many photo albums and slide shows. And I have no doubt there is a postmodern element in this, some kind of implicit irony in observing the deflected gaze, some kind of commentary on the artificial pleasure of the subject and the all-too-real intensity of the "artist" in action. It's probably an arrogant and invasive act. Or maybe it's just double the love.

I know we had a job candidate here at USF a couple of years ago whose research involved how the makers of photographic equipment, particularly camera film, successfully sold the Western world on the notion that cameras were not be used, at least by average folk, to catch life as it was happening but to record individuals posed and presenting themselves at their unnatural best. Photography was kind of a party trick. She was answering the question: Why do we smile our respective heads off in photographs? Who are these stiff but jolly people?

Come on scholars. Dig in!

Of course, on one level, it's obvious what I'm doing. I'm getting a picture that's spontaneous at one end of it and posed at the other. It's both real and artificial. I'm getting two for one. I'm a real philosopher/photographer king.

I think that's postmodern. Or maybe I'm just being cheap. But with a digital camera there's nothing to save!

Ironic. Postmodern!

Except for the fact aren't my wifey my sissy and her hubby just cute as bugs? Couldn't you just eat 'em up?

The Way We Were: Another Post from the Past

Perhaps you were wondering why the strange name for the blog? Here's the tip of the iceberg, a public comment that carefully skips past the Freudian roots, the placement fees from the big corporations, the coded messages to the saucer fleet hiding behind the moon.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

In Praise of Darwin's Cat (I Was Going to Call My Blog "I Am the Beautiful Stranger," But the FAA, the FDA and the FFA Complained)

Perhaps the best way to deal with this announcement is through Q & A.

Q: Exactly what was wrong with Us Tarzan, Them Jane, which was the title of this blog for less than a week?

A: First, let me thank you for taking time away from your small but key role in the James Bond movies to be with us today. Now, to your question. That's what I asked my wife when UTTJ was greeted with lack of enthusiasm and some downright hostility. She said it was the fact that if readers took the name at its word, it seemed to say this was a blog about the emotional gulf between men and women, a gulf that resulted from men's baser, or at least less refined, nature. It also suggested this was a "manly" blog, i.e,. a blog aimed at male readers.

Q: And neither of these things is true?

A: Neither of these things is true. My choice of that name suggests the dangers of casual irony. You say or write something because you assume your listener or reader understands how that comment is contrary to what you're about and thus the listener or reader has the insider's pleasure of understanding that what is said is not meant literally, that, in fact, it's meant contrarily. It's even more opaque than that. It's like little suburban kids in baggy pants, pretending they are hip-hop ghetto warriors. There's a "Yes, I am, No, I'm not, but it's your fault if you are not able to tell the difference" quality to this kind of wordplay. There's a smirking quality in this kind of irony. It's characterisic of so much modern conversation. (Pause) The name didn't work. The fun -- if fun there was -- did not compensate for the confusion.

Q: And you think Darwin's Cat is less confusing?

A: Does it confuse you?

Q: Hmmmm. Darwin's Cat is familiar, tantalizingly so. I'm pretty sure I've heard it before, but I can't place the source, and that embarrasses me a little. It could be the name of some kind of some famous thought experiment, like Schrodinger's Cat, or it could be a British children's game or a famous brainteaser or a poem by Ogden Nash or -- and this is probably it -- the name of a science fiction novel or, more likely, a book of elegant but accessible science writing by someone like the late Stephen Jay Gould...

A: Like Gould's "The Panda's Thumb" or Carl Sagan's "Bocca's Brain." Yeah. That's why I picked it. It sounds as if it has more historical or philosophical resonance than it actually does. If you Google it, you will find pictures of a number of cats named Darwin and what is supposed to be a three-handkerchief book called "A Cat Named Darwin." You will find a passing reference in a vitamin ad to the fact Darwin apparently noted deafness in white cats. That's all you'll find. Darwin's Cat is apparently a unique name for a blog. Which is more than I can say for "A Blog to be Named Later" or "Blog is My Co-Pilot," both of which I liked. I don't think anyone else is using Darwin's Cat.

Q: Well, if it has no philosophical or historical resonance....

A: I did not say that. I think putting Darwin in the name of my blog positions me culturally just as putting a Darwin fish on my car bumper would. I hope it does, anyway. Darwin rules and superstition drools, etc. Now, the cat part is something else again. If referring to Darwin is a kind of specialized, though not an esoteric, reference, my mentioning kitties is an effort to drag in millions and millions and millions of like-minded blog readers. Personally, if you put the word "cat" in a blog title, I am likely to take a look, hoping there are some lovely kitty pictures. It's interesting how "Friday cat blogging" became popular on some liberal political sites in the last year or two, and that suggests a connection between proud independent animals and proud independent political thought. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe it just suggests cat lovers see the world as a kind of big Star Trek convention, metaphorically speaking, and always want to break out their Spock ears, also metaphorically speaking. I know I have sometimes gone to a blog with the word "cat" in the title just to reassure myself cats are treated with respect on that blog. To love is to dwell in madness. I speak here as a cat person.

Q: (Long silence) There's no verb in your new blog name. Headlines should have actions verbs.

A: A blog title is not a headline, which is a title that tells us something about a particular piece of writing. A blog title is a label -- one of my old editors used to tell me to beware of "label" heads but this is not a head -- that may or may not tell you something interesting about the ambition and intentions of the blog. I am thinking the name of a blog functions like the name of a rock band. Most of the time the name doesn't really matter. It's the music that matters. Most of the time the name is secondary. I understand there are exceptions, like The Dead Kennedys. I could have named this blog The Dead Reagans, but that would not only be impudent and imprudent, it would also suggest a political agenda or emphasis this blog doesn't have. Actually, using the word Darwin does suggest a political inclination -- a kind of background radiation, as it were -- but I'm thinking that any damage that the word "Darwin" does to this blog by warning away readers, the word "cat" will more than make up for it.

Q: Did you seriously consider other names?

A: Yes. Some of them are listed in the comments after Renaming Controversy Rages, Threatens to Divert Attention From Bush's Fascist Coup. But the one I was most seriously considering, which I have not mentioned elsewhere, was Last Exit to Oakland, which is obviously a play on "Last Exit to Brooklyn" by Hubert Selby. It was one of those books I read in the Sixties that had an impact on my thinking in the sense that it encouraged me to think. That is, it was so terrible and dark and bleak and unforgiving, it was a useful corrective to my way of thinking at the time. "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathaniel West had a similar effect, though many critics apparently consider "Miss Lonelyhearts" a comedy, though I wasn't laughing. I had had such a sheltered upbringing, religiously narrow but also culturally narrow in every way, I "learned about life" more through books than through, well, Life! It seems accurate and no exaggeration to sat that some books pulverized my view of things. I would read them, but I wouldn't really think about what I read at the time of reading, if that makes sense. Then, gradually I would unclench and let myself think about what I had read and how it had affected me emotionally. The emotional effect had already happened, but only later would I actually think about what I had read, as the dust of the destruction of my preconceptions settled. To call this blog Last Exit to Oakland would have been a kind of self-referential homage. But, oh, is it a bleak book. Thinking about it 40 years later is still disturbing. Hey, I'm still in denial. And if anyone actually got the reference and recalled the book, it would have suggested a very negative image of Oakland. I decided to go with "Darwin's Cat" and to hell with it. When it comes to blog names, first do no harm, right?

A: What if your several of readers don't like this name?

Q: I will be flattered by their concern. But as the poet said, "A blog by any other name would smell as sweet -- as long as the name is not unduly ironic."

Friday, October 27, 2006

My Ear is Still Stopped Up. It was Worth It.

See the tufa.

Go to Mono Lake in the crisp beautiful fall and see the towers that rose beneath its akaline waters (by a natural process that my wife, the biologist, will be glad to explain, appointment only) and which were exposed when thirsty Southern California tapped the rivers that fed it and which -- if all agreements are kept -- will disappear once more beneath as the lake regains some (but not all) of the water stolen from it.

Not every environmental battle is a lost cause.

This is some of what you get if you go on through Yosemite to the eastern slope of the Sierras. It's even a little lonesome over there come this time of year. Apparently not everyone understands that it is worth the trip -- and a stopped-up ear from all the up and down when you have a cold.

P.S. Click on the photos and then click again for an even tighter look. I love digital. It's a "blind pig" technology.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Huh. Now in the Technorati Top Half Mil. There Doesn't Seem to be a Prize or Anything Else of a Commemorative Nature

Darwin's Cat Presents the 15-Minute Man

If Ignorance is Bliss, Tis Folly to be Wise

If I have to choose between the guillotine and a death of a thousand cuts, guess what?

The last three national elections have been torment. Particularly in 2000 and in 2004, moment by moment scrutiny of the election returns -- particularly if you were plugged into Drudge who was leaking the early exit polls -- produced the most acute pain when it seemed the Democrats would win in spite of cheating etc. And then the cheating etc. kicked in, and that was that.

I was on sabbatical in 2004 and sat at the computer all day monitoring every ebb and flow in the news.

And till midafternoon PST, it was all flow. Zogby declared Kerry the winner.


So this year no media. About 4 p.m. I'll step away from the computer. Maybe we will go to a movie. Maybe we will play hearts. And there is always the proverbial good book, perhaps "Lord of the Rings," which Rick Santorum says is God's roman a clef about us and Iraq.

Either we will win back the House or we won't. My moment by moment pulse-taking of the vote-counting will make no difference to the outcome. It's just like the California lottery. I'll take my pain or my pleasure in one lump sum.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reading Kamiya Even When He's Wrong Is a Perverse Pleasure, Much (I Suppose) Like the Perversion to Which Kamiya Confesses

And what he confesses is that the breaking of Hank Aaron's home run record by Barry Bonds will stroke his gonads with a velvet touch and he will explode with joy.

Ah. How well Kamiya writes, and any occasion on which he writes is an occasion of joy. (Full disclosure: Back in the day, Kamiya was in our fantasy baseball league, and we beat him like a drum -- mostly I beat him like a drum -- and he quit the league to spend more time with his family. Not that any of that factors in today. But truth will out, and if it won't, I'll out it. Harumph.)

Still, in all and in brief, I immediately nominate his essay as one of the Top Ten Sports Utterances of 2006, in spite of the fact its thesis is as creepy as a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

But oh so clever Kamiya he is. Read it yourself and wonder. I could quote and quote until I had stolen it all. But what actually interests me the most is, in fact, not one of the essay's most brilliant passages. It is a throwaway embeded in a brilliant passage:

(Sport is) not supposed to ... force you to confront the fact that you are a moral relativist, a hypocrite, a proto-fascist, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a lying, self-serving sack of shit.

But that's what the Barry Bonds saga has done to us Giants fans. (OK, there may be a few who have rejected Barry, but I don't know any.) Sports has turned us into a horde of Mark Foleys, but with one big difference: We refuse to resign and remain defiantly in our hot tubs, wallowing in a sea of congressional pages. Me and Mr. Bonds -- we got a thang going on. We both know that it's wrong -- well, he doesn't, but I do -- but it's much too strong to let it go.

Could that be true? Do only a "few" Giants fans reject Barry? Will all of them drink the Kool Aid?

I didn't like him when I thought it was the talent talking, before the steroids. I am, of course, an A's fan, though we see eight Giants' games a year, and in my eyes he was like Jose Canseco, an execrable entertainment about whom my feelings at his moments of success were decidedly mixed. Also, my dislike was fed by accounts of his treatment of sportswriters, which reminded me of my own unpleasant experiences the dozen times I did stories that required my going into a baseball clubhouse.

But none of that matters. Here is the pebble we must cast into the stream of history. I was living in the South when Hank Aaron passed Ruth, and the bigots were out in force and it wasn't hard to choose sides. I don't care how big a Giants fan you are. Bonds doesn't have the right to have Aaron's record because occasionally sport is more than sport, just for the blink of an eye.

But Kamiya sure can write -- he could write about the phonebook and hold us riveted. And, God, our standards are low when it comes to writing about sports. So when someone rises out of that swamp, like some testosterone Birth of Venus ....

Attention must be paid, my friend. Attention must be paid.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Banana Fana Fo Fana? No, Something New.

There are two ways to be a pundit. The more popular one is simply to belabor the obvious, perhaps in the hope of creating the illusion that it is fresh or, more likely, through sheer repetition challenging the growing notion that it is fallacious by saying it again and again without alteration as if no objection merited changing one's initial argument by even an iota.

Or you can say something fresh. But on the Internet fresh doesn't last very long. The window is less than an hour, probably 50 minutes at most, and during that brief time it would seem that after something happens, if there are no new developments, everything that can be said is said. There are just too many people saying too much, and some know what they are talking about.

That's why most pundits are repeaters. That's why I despair of being a pundit. I'm not brazen enough and not nearly clever enough when it comes to repackaging.

So you can't imagine how proud I am that my friend Brother Bob Wieder has flashed some second class punditry. (I mean, of course, some punditry of the first rank but of the second of the two types I have described above.)

He writes that Bush can't leave Iraq until Saddam is dead. The point of the whole enterprise -- the only point that hasn't crumbled into dust -- is that heck yes we *did* overthrow Saddam. But as Brother Wieder points out, if we leave with Saddam still alive, of course there's a chance a deal will be cut -- perhaps the Baathists placated? perhaps the country divided? -- and Saddam will come out of this with his head still on his shoulders, hey maybe even some kind of top dog?

As I explicate Brother Wieder, preventing that is the bottom line for Bush. That is the one thing that really is unacceptable.

There would be then absolutely no aspect of Bush's Iraq war which was not a total failure. He would go, in history, from failed president to laughingstock. As long as Saddam lives on, so does our large-scale military presence.

I had never thought of it in quite that way. Kudos to Brother Wieder.

P.S. Oh yeah. If Saddam is still alive and in custody come the last day of the Bush presidency, well, think Richard III.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

I mean it in this sense. My ear canals or my inner ear or my inner sound psychic or whatever mechanism that sucks information out of vibrations in the air is on the fritz because of my cold, and I can't hear much of anything. I am hearing words but not all of them, not enough of them, to know what is being said. It is quite interesting how quickly one tires of saying,"I'm sorry. You'll have to say that again," choosing rather to retreat into ignoring what it is being said or pretending to understand what is being said even when one does not.

Oh, the picture at the top of this. I'm thinking the severity of the ear problem is related to taking my sis and her husband to Yosemite for the weekend while coming down with a cold. Too much ear-popping up and down while the viruses ran wild.

My sister says her daughter Amy -- our niece -- had stopped-up ears for a month once. Great. I'll be in purgatory, but my students will be in hell.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Remember 'Frank Sinatra Has a Cold'?

So does Michael Robertson.

While I recover, you can talk amongst yourselves or you could read that remarkable exercise in turning exclusion and observation into a portrait of a man who at a certain stage of celebrity needed only to be seen to be known.

In the feature writing game, we call this a seminal work.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Well, I Give Myself an 'A' for Effort

Bad day in class. You could see the doubt and feel the weariness of my shtik, of my use of the Socratic method as a bludgeon.

There are two theories about grading. (There could be three or even four. But I'm the 15-minute man, so no long thoughts need apply.) One is you grade hard, reward progress and toss the grades from the first half of the semester. You assume improvement, and as the students improve, grim turns to grin.

Or you can grade on the curve, as it were, from day one. You have done this so many years. You pretty much know where the grades will end up, and that kid who starts with a C may learn something, may do better -- and we are talking here of written work -- but still continue to get C's.

I have always graded on improvement, but in recent years I have gotten harsher. News writing is an odd, even stylized, approach to storytelling. It is unnatural, and it takes unnatural harshness to make that point. To hell with the delayed lead! Tell me *now.*

But on days like today when you can see the resistance and the genuine disappointment -- and myself the most disappointed because these are reasonably bright kids so why can't I *make* my point? it's not like craps; there's skill involved; you make your own odds -- you think, "Why not the usual two A's, B-minus for everyone else and to hell with it?"

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

If He'd Said, 'Take my Wife, Please,' He'd Still Have the Job

I'm just going to link to the comment by Steve Lyons made on national TV -- indeed, made in my hearing since I was listening to the very game -- and widely construed as racist and which resulted in his being fired.

I don't think it shows he's racist. I think it shows that as his little brain buzzed in an attempt to create what might pass as a clever remark he strained too hard. He attempted to juxtapose elements that had arisen in the course of the broadcast to create the semi-hostile banter than passes for camaraderie in the world of men. Barney, the dinosaur, would have sung a friendly song to Lou Pinella. But in the world of men, all you can do is come up with an insult to show your esteem for other male animals. I believe they call it reverse, or perhaps inverse, rhetoric.

But poor Steve Lyons did it incompetently. The joke was obscure. The possibility -- attenuated though it was -- that he was ridiculing Spanish speakers was all that was left. As a humorist, he proved an incompetent technician. That is a pretty good reason for being fired. But his failure was one of professionalism, not of morality.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Classic Cat Blogging

Here's one from the past to fill the void in our hearts left by the failure of our local baseball team.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Game of Cat and Mouse is Not a Game to the Mouse

Unless we catch the mouse using a live-capture trap -- and I'll get on that soon or at least by tomorrow -- the mouse will die. Oliver will kill the mouse. He spent much of yesterday sitting in the lower study on the square in the rug that says Pasta Peaachallo Genova looking at the filing cabinet that the mouse is probably -- and, to Oliver, certainly -- using as a refuge.

Oliver is serious about this. He has sacrificed valuable sleeping time to sit on the rug looking at the filing cabinet. He is motivated. Suddenly the phrase "unblinking stare" comes to mind. He doesn't seem malevolent. He is very very intent and quite patient. I have only seen him that patient when he is sleeping, though perhaps "patient" is not quite the word in that instance. He works very hard at sleeping.

Now that he is on the case, he is vigilant. My word, Oliver, don't let me interrupt you.

We knew we had a mouse several days before he did. My wife pulled out the sliding cupboard in the lower study and found that something had gnawed through the plastic wrapper on the shortbread crust suitable for Frenchified fruitified delights and eaten a little of it. She immediately decided a rat had done so, but I argued that maybe it was a weird kind of crumbling and perhaps an associated expansion of gases....

I was in denial about the whole thing. But there was collateral evidence, the kind rodents leave. I preferred to think it was a tiny little mouse. I hoped it would eat and run, if indeed a mouse it was.

A mouse it is. (Or a rat. I prefer to think not.) Suddenly yesterday Oliver was sniffing at the cabinet and, digging in, positioning himself for the long haul. I was irrationally pleased at his new initiative. For in some ways a cat is like that useless child who lives in the basement and spends his free time on the Internet and doesn't even date, though you wonder what kind of woman would have him if he did date and you really aren't sure you want to find out.

A cat is like that, though more decorative and not given to playing music loud or smoking... Just what are you smoking down there, Mister!

When one of these underfoot residents of your home shows focus and purpose, you are naturally pleased. It's killing a mouse. At least, it's doing something.

All day yesterday I would wander down to check on the progress. I even brought Oliver a snack (dry cat food; field rations), so he could eat without relaxing his guard. He ate like a warrior, his head pointing ever toward the filing cabinet.

He was still there when he went to bed last night. This morning when we woke up he was in bed with us. This is as it should be. He needs his rest. Perhaps, yesterday was too intense. Balance in all things, you know. Indeed, I am writing this using my laptop sitting on the sofa in the living room with Popcorn pressed against my right leg and Oliver to her right, his side pressed against the bottom of her feet, This is unusual. Oliver is chronically afraid of Popcorn, and he never curls up so close, much less with actual touching.

Perhaps, the dynamic of the household has changed. Perhaps, Popcorn understands that for all the long hours of yesterday Oliver was on the job, ready to confront Nemesis wherever it arose, which in the case of yesterday was behind the cabinet in the lower study.

Maybe this is a World War I moment and Oliver has rotated himself out of the trenches. The sofa is Paris, and this a respite from the horror. Popcorn is his cher mam'zelle.

I have never felt safer. If not captured and executed, the mouse is at least contained. A line has been drawn in the study. I am sure that Oliver will be returning shortly to the rug in the study. With his eyes closed, he is making plans, fitting tactics to his larger strategy.

It is a simple fact determined by either map or compass that the lower study is oriented to the west to collect the warm afternoon sun.

Thus, I may report that, for now

all is quiet on the western front.

Update: Oliver has not resumed his post. Is he a deserter? More likely, after a good night's sleep wedged between my wife and myself, he simply forgot about the mouse. Or maybe he killed it and ate it in the dark of the night. There's no mouse in the live-catch trap. On the other hand, the live-catch trap is an unimpressive mechanism, so the absence of the mouse in the trap does not guarantee the absence of the mouse elsewhere. When the situation becomes definitive, it will be mentioned in dispatches.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

So Much for Magical Thinking

My beautiful Oakland A's lost in spite of my invoking the spirit of the old ones, the bunny-wunnies that dwell in outer darkness and only come forth to feed.

See below. I guess we care about athletic teams in which we place our confidence because those teams act out in symbolic terms the ancient urge to conquest for which nature red in tooth and claw has selected some and neglected others. That the shadow carnage is restricted to vocabulary -- we killed 'em -- means it's all a kind of sublimation, right?

And if you shrug and respond, "We murder to dissect," aha, AHA. That's just another game, innit?

Course, if you bet on these things and lose, I guess they really do break your legs, though not in a competitive way.

As Custer said to His Troopers

"The bunny-wunnies will come. I know they will come."

The local ballteam is surrounded by Tigers, and its collective back is against the wall.

So, drawing on primitive name magic, I am "improving" the name of our local ball team to The Lucky Seven Oakland Bunny-Wunnies of Fremont.

Friday, October 13, 2006

That Voodoo I Do-Do So Well

Only the most faithful readers of this blog will understand my intent when I tell you that I have officially renamed the Oakland A's the Six Oakland Bunny-Wunnies of Fremont.

Powerful juju, my friend.

Charming. Charming. Very Charming.

It's the iron rule of three: Three sources make a story, three strikes make an out, three items make a post.

It's true. Only the discovery of the third of these drove me to the keyboard.

1) Walking this morning listening to public radio, I heard a newscast in which a health official said, yes, we have identified a beef lot a mile from a spinach field as the source of the death-dealing ecoli that has upset the nation's spinach cart. But hold on, he said. There are blanks still be filled in, links to be determined. "I won't say that we have identified the smoking cow," he said.

2) In the Chron this morning a story about Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket books. Accompanying it is this picture with this cutline: "Daniel Handler jumps off a park bench in San Francisco with Annalese Levaggi, who just happened to be passing by." (And the photographer who took the picture is a Pulitzer Prize winner, which shows.)

3) As I said two items don't make a post, so imagine my delight when I go a couple pages deeper into the Daily Datebook to discover an ad for the Market Street Cinema, which is XXX and proud of it. There on the right side of the ad just next to the lady and her pole it says: "Convention badges allow 1/2 off."

I am stopping right now. Three items are a post. Four items are a diatribe.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Like Pimps, Artists Prostitute the World in the Name of Their Art

Don't they? Isn't that the Romantic paradigm, along with the default notion that chipmunks are beautiful?

Yesterday, I slapped together a few words about the Janet Malcolm/Joan Didion idea -- which each of those very able writers may or may not take seriously -- that journalists prey on those they write about, seducing and exploiting them in service of the story. I cribbed from a 13-year old Jon Carroll column defending the Joan Didion take on the perils of writing nonfiction.

This morning Brother Bob Wieder responded:

All very nice, but it sort of all rests on the single piling of loyalty to the reader as the prime directive, which it isn't. Plenty of writers, and there might be an argument to be made that most writers, at heart or right up front are primarily loyal to themselves, or a cause, or a philosophy, or an agenda, or a paycheck, or numerous other ors. Absent that pillar, the rest of the commentary is somewhat ramshackle.

I actually agree with Brother Bob, though I would take it one step further. First let me point out the obvious. What I tell the youth that I claim to instruct is that, when it comes to the true dilemmas of fact gathering and misleading sources, all the ethical codes for journalists that I am familiar with more or less say:

Don't don't don't.

Unless you have to.

The best and brightest rationale for "having to" is, of course, the need to inform the public so that the public can make wise political decisions and preserve the republic.

But, also of course, there is another reason I mention to the students, the one that Brother Bob walks right up to, though he does not actually pass through the door, for over the door is written: Vanity.

You know that deep in their hearts more than one nonfiction writer thinks of his or her work as a kind of art. Their ideology is beauty. They think they are serving readers' desire -- nay, the readers' need -- for the well-made tale, transcendent in its telling, not just in its message. I think lots of serious nonfiction writers are not comfortable teasing that thread out of the fabric of their self justification. But I think that thread is there, all the more sinister for being unacknowledged.

I tell my students to think about the lure of art. I tell them that if you get really good at this, you may decide to sacrifice those folk you use as subject matter to the triumph of your art, indeed to its mere possibility.

That's what artists do, right? Art can be a danger for even the lowliest of journalists, dreaming of aesthetics while prattling on about journalism's duty to the State.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I Would Call This 'True Lies,' But That's the Title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie. Ewwwwwwww!

Talking about Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" in feature writing today and was caught as always in the cleft stick of how right she is, with what hyperbole she overinflates that rightness and how anyway she ends up blaming the people journalists interview for being such a grand set of chumps, since didn't their mothers tell them they should know better?

Or to put it another way, rhetorically speaking Ms. Malcolm rubs her tummy and the top of her head at the same time. Her book doesn't quite say what it says.

Recalled something Jon Carroll wrote a long time ago on Malcolm. Looked it up. Pretty good. And here it is.

He stole from me. Why shouldn't I steal from him?

Joan Didion's famous epigram that ``a writer is always selling somebody out'' has often been interpreted as a Janet Malcolm-like indictment of the vampire treachery that is at the heart of writing. But it's actually more subtle than that.

If you tell the truth, you are often selling out the people who are near to you, who have agreed to talk to you, who have told you their stories, who have gone on travels with you. Writers are not nice people, although they may be charming enough.

But: If you don't tell the truth, you are selling out the readers. And as a professional matter, that is where the loyalties of the writer lie.

A WRITER IS a kind of holy sociopath. A writer -- a good one, anyway -- is always in danger of getting run out of town or denounced from the pulpit or charged with self-indulgence or willful obscurantism or just plain rudeness.

Very few people actually like that experience. Most people want love and approval -- this is not exactly a secret. So why bite the hand that feeds you? Because the hand is corrupt. Why air dirty laundry? Because dirty laundry doesn't get cleaner sitting in a basket.

And because a story needs to be told. All writers start out as readers; all writers have read stories that spoke to them, that opened worlds, that dissected emotions, that explained relationships, that showed them other ways of being. Writers start out being drunk on someone else's words; they spend their lives trying to create equally potent brews.

.... Writing is not just a game they play in New York, although, of course, it's that, too. Writing is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. Someone has to tell those stories. The telling is always risky.

There's a story about the reaction to Truman Capote's ``Answered Prayers,'' his dissection of the New York society circles of which he was so much a part. Many of his friends were portrayed therein, thinly disguised and distinctly unlovable. They were furious. They cut him dead. They accused him of secret note- taking, which he freely confessed.

``What did they expect?'' he said. ``I'm a writer.''

And as a result, we are left with a document that outlines very accurately a certain kind of society at a certain moment in American history. Would that it were a better document, but quality is not the issue.

You can never know really whether what you're writing is any good; you can only hope that you have not broken faith with the reader. A writer is just someone who has lived to tell the tale. It is the tale that must never be betrayed.

Of course, Jon never stole a damn thing from me, never borrowed anything he didn't return, never short-armed a check when the reaching time arrived.

But wasn't it -- in context -- an artful lie?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Things That Work

Below is an exercise I use in feature writing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it works well. Today it worked really well. It's self explanatory, I think, except for the fact that the students don't do the whole thing. I circle a single scenario for each student. I suggest beforehand that the details they select for their intros will arise from conscious choices about which elements in the scene would prepare for and perhaps reinforce what they imagine will come out of their interviews. But I also tell them that they will probably make some unconscious decisions about what to "see" and that those unconscious choices may be the best things in their work.

So today it worked particularly well. The student who was to interview the convict emphasized all that there was to see outside, through the windows. The student who was to interview the janitor emphasized the degree to which the room was clean. The student who was to interview the 10-year-0ld prodigy emphasized the degree to which the room was a blank slate on which the child genius would write. The student who was to interview the widow of the prof who died in the room emphasized the grime and the gloom of the classroom, which is pretty ramshackle. She summed up: "What an ugly place to die."

Good stuff, I thought.

Describing the room: An exercise for feature writing

You have arranged an interview in this room with the person named below. You arrive 30 minutes early. Since you will be writing on deadline, you decide to do a brief sketch of the room before your subject arrives, thinking you might be able to use it as part of your story.

You are interviewing a 60-year-old architect who has been hired to remodel all the classrooms on this campus.

A 35-year-old nun who is leaving holy orders to get married.

A 40-year-old USF employee whose job is cleaning this building.

A 70-year-old priest who is about to retire from USF.

The 40-year-old widow of a USF professor who died of a heart attack in this room last year.

A 20-year-old student who has just been expelled from USF for drinking.

A 10-year-old child prodigy who has just started college at USF.

A 50-year-old prison inmate who has a day pass to take classes at USF.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


I think I've reached that point in life that I will function tolerably well if I merely remember what I already know. A post at MyDD reminds me that a small Democratic majority in the House would be a very good thing because it would be accomplished without the Confederate Dinos of my youth.

That is, back then the Dems had solid House majorities, but a signficant chunk of those majorities consisted of Southern Democrats-in-name-only who voted with the Republicans on many issues. The country was less "Right" in the 70s and 80s -- and you also had the countervailing force of Reagan and Old Bush in the White House -- so perhaps it is not so clear from looking at the historical record of laws passed how great a drag those Southern House members were on progressive politics.

But they were. And even a small Democratic majority achieved in November without those "legacy" Democrats would give hope for a more progressive future. So MyDD argues, and there is merit in the argument.

Maybe that's whistling, jitterbugging and high-fiving past the graveyard, but it's certainly true the House had a conservative majority on many issues back when the Democrats were nominally in charge. That's a fact no matter what lessons we draw from it.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Link Doesn't Work: Share in My Triumph

Patrick Finley Memorial Standings for games through 10/1/2006
The Eleven Bunny Wunnies (JMichael Robertson) 9.0 2.0 10.0 6.0 10.0 8.0 3.0 10.0 4.0 6.0 68.0
The Money Shot (Bob Wieder) 2.0 10.0 6.0 8.0 1.5 7.0 8.0 3.0 10.0 10.0 65.5
T. S. Intellectual, OBE (michael tola) 4.0 8.0 4.0 9.0 6.0 5.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 5.0 63.0
Hell Hounds (Peter Moore) 8.0 3.0 9.0 4.5 7.0 9.0 5.0 9.0 3.0 4.0 61.5
Leaves of Grass (Jeffrey Pressman) 6.0 1.0 5.0 2.0 8.0 10.0 9.0 5.0 8.5 7.0 61.5
The Lonesome Strangers (Paul Fife) 7.0 5.5 7.0 4.5 9.0 4.0 10.0 4.0 6.0 3.0 60.0
Little Chi Chi () 10.0 9.0 8.0 10.0 5.0 3.0 1.0 6.0 1.0 2.0 55.0
The FunGhouls (Overcoat Jones) 3.0 7.0 2.0 7.0 3.0 1.0 2.0 1.0 8.5 9.0 43.5
Chi Chi () 5.0 5.5 3.0 3.0 4.0 2.0 4.0 2.0 5.0 8.0 41.5
Marfa Dogs (B S) 1.0 4.0 1.0 1.0 1.5 6.0 6.0 7.0 2.0 1.0 30.5

As You Like It: We Like It

A month or so ago I said rude things about the California Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Merchant of Venice," which was weak in about as many ways as a production can be, from weird conception to faulty execution of the conception. But last Sunday we attended their production of "As You Like It," which was as good as MoV was bad. No it was better than MoV was bad. It is more difficult to praise than blame, particularly if one is not a critic of the art form. So just let me praise one aspect of it and post a photograph that presents that aspect.

"As You Like It" is set for the most part in the Forest of Arden. California Shakespeare productions are held in an outdoor theater. The brisk fall weather and the trees behind the stage made a backdrop that was stunning.

See the picture. Click the picture. And note the gypsy band, which was onstage for a good chunk of the performance. It's a play about harmony come from disharmony. It was a production that was *all* harmony.

P.S. to my P.S.

Sometimes 3-5 minutes after I write something I realize that what I've written sounds snotty, self-satisfied and insincere. My young colleague whose example led me to sign up for Facebook is an excellent teacher and a productive scholar, and his presence on Facebook and his use of Facebook are part of his excellence in both areas.

I'm serious. Let's just print this out and put it in his tenure file and THERE I GO AGAIN.

I apologize. A little bit of silly goes a long way.

A Postscript to 'Betty and Veronica'

One of the reasons I suppose it is a good thing I'm neither a daily newspaper columnist nor a trial lawyer is that anywhere from 3-5 days after I've written something it occurs to me that I may have said more than -- and sometimes other than -- what I meant. So when I wrote about my timorousness in venturing onto Facebook, I meant no disrespect to my eminent young college whose example led me to join the Facebook crowd.

See, I'm old, and he's young. The shoe fits, so he wears it. If he were a wine, he would be a beaujolais. If he were a news story, he would be a scoop. If he were a piece of software, he would be Beta. If he were a school of art, he would be post-Postmodern. If he were a root vegetable, you would have to knock the dirt off him, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

It is as natural for him to be on Facebook as it is for me to listen to prairie Home Companion, and a darn sight more useful to our students, and maybe I will get the knack of it if I try.

But for now I'll go take my vitamin supplements and lie down for just a little while.

A Sign of the Times

A colleague sends a video file called "The Guitar Lesson" that actually shows my colleague ... taking an impromptu guitar lesson. Nothing scatological or obscene or even indecorous. Just him, fully clothed and cognitively unimpaired, being instructed in a guitar lick.

But there at the bottom of the email is: Don't send to YouTube.

I doubt this has legal weight, but it does suggest what good manners are in this, the new age of transparency locked in combat with privacy with vanity standing just outside the ring ready to pile on.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Does This Uniform Make Me Look Fat?

From the desk of Peter Magowan:

As many of you may have heard in the media earlier this week, the Giants are going to take a new tact in building our club.

Weren't They a Kind of 'Get out of Sin Free' Card?

I may not have this quite right, but it is my understanding that the practice on the part of the Catholic Church of granting indulgences -- sometimes freely given but sometimes purchased, the latter really pissing Martin Luther off -- was based on the notion not that the indulgence absolved you of guilt but that the indulgence removed the necessity of your being punished for something you, indeed, had done. And that, in fact, you were not entitled to an indulgence unless you felt guilty for your sin, which guilt is always the greatest punishment, is it not?

So this modern habit of going into drug and alcohol rehab after doing something bad is not the same as an indulgence in that those going into rehab use rehab not as a substitution for punishment -- at least, that's not the principle aim -- but as part of the larger argument that they were not responsible for their sin, in whole or in part. It is not just that they want to be absolved of punishment. They want to be absolved of responsibility.

Do I have this right?

Sophocles would have been filled with such contempt. Just think of it: Oedipus Rehab.

Ginger or Mary Ann? No. I Go *Way* Back. The Question is: Betty or Veronica?

Because a Media Studies colleague is on Facebook, using it as a powerful teaching and research tool, I decided to go on Facebook, too.

For a long time my colleague was my only Facebook friend, and he would drop by occasionally to look at the bare ruined choirs of my Faceback page. Apparently, I was an object of derision because no one had "written on my wall." So that I wouldn't be an object of derision, he wrote on my wall.

Michael, i am writing something here on your wall because word on the street suggests bare walls are a no-no.

This was very kind, indeed. So I wrote on his wall to show I was hep.

"Duh!" I wrote. "Or is it spelled 'Dhu'?"

My colleague has many many Facebook friends, his list growing all the time, some of whom have turned out to be current or former journalism students here at USF, so now, seeing my name on his wall, they have hunted me down to become my official Facebook friends, too.

"Hey, Dr. Robertson," they say.

And then I'm sure they laugh and laugh and laugh.

Still, it's nice to be said "Hey" to. I begin to understand how this thing works if you are a young person. I have a sudden desire to say Golly and to suggest we pile in the old jalopy and go for shakes at Arnold's or Pop Tate's Chocklit Shoppe.

So then I take my wife on a tour of Facebook, the two of us chillin' with me and my peeps, capisce?

(Oh, brave new world that has such people in't, a'ight?)

It's not a jalopy and it's not a shake, but it is me sharing my hard day's work with my helpmate. ("You call this work? You call this research??" she says. But that's a topic for another post.)

We look at various Facebook pictures, not a few of which feature young people holding beer bottles while in the company of members of the opposite sex in bathing suits.

My wife wonders if I am going to put up something age appropriate, a picture of me holding a martini glass while in the background there my wife stands wearing a nice Hillary Clinton pants suit.

I say sure. I do like a nice martini.

I show her some of the Facebook pictures of my students. Thank God they all look like nice smiling sweet kids and not zombies or crack whores.

Okay, I say, Do you think I should write on their walls, you know, just a nice old geezer tottering by to say "Hey"?

She thinks for a good long while. And she gets serious. She says what with all this Mark Foley business, do you really want to be on Facebook saying anything of any nature to children?

Which they are, she says. They are children.

And I say, Mark Foley is apparently a homosexual pedophile, and I am a heterosexual monogamist happily married to a woman in my own demographic. I don't prey on my students; I don't flirt with my students. I don't think I'm likely to say something that could be misconstrued.

Am I?

And she said do you really want to take a chance just so you will feel somewhat less of a fossil, an antique, though on your best days, I concede, a living treasure?

And I think: What if she's right?

Should I read the writing on the wall?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I Don't Know

I read in one of my liberal blogs that the blogger-in-charge of that blog -- a lone ringmaster who must run his circus without clowns, elephants, or Bulgarian high-wire acts -- had been sitting there blogging away for nine hours and needed a break. That made me feel better, as having a life often does. Still, sometimes I would like to be one of those guys who makes some useful political judgment given the fact the election is so close in both senses of the word.

I don't want to be a pundit; I just want to play one on the WorldWideWeb.

But I don't know anything, not on my own anyway. I read somewhere that maybe the polls are undercounting the Republican vote because of the proven ability of the cash-sodden GOP apparatus to get the vote out. Thus, the likely voter screens are missing Republican votes. And I also read that maybe conservative voters are embarrassed to tell phone pollers that they are going to vote for the more liberal candidate or the woman or the black candidate and thus phone polls are *undercounting* Democratic voters. So I am equipped to have had "inside knowledge" no matter what happens. And I can't link to the originals because I don't remember where I read either of these things. So my ignorance runs deep, of both source and validity.

I don't know anything about what the Democrats might do if they do manage to take one of the houses of Congress. I know it's popular in some quarters, both liberal and conservative, to fault the Dems for not having a clear agenda for this electoral season that all the leading Democrats support. But the whole point of taking all or part of Congress back is just to slow Bush down, isn't it? What could the Dems possibly pass in a closely divided House of Representatives, and, if passed, what would happen to it in a closely divided Senate and -- if it stumbled through both those minefields, miracle of miracles -- what, of course, would happen when it hit the President's desk. Certainly investigations could be held and questions asked and ground work laid for the future. But ground work has a way of coming unlaid. What I'd hope for from a slim Democratic majority would not be more of anything in particular, just less of G. Bush. Stagnation and obstruction: That's my agenda.

Now, here we are in California where Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to win reelection easily. I don't have any insight into that situation except the obvious. He's a movie star. By cooperating on some things with the Democratic majorities in the California legislature, he comes off as a raging moderate, at least compared to most of the Republicans in most of the country and certainly next to the typical California Republican. So the squishies will vote for him. Also, you can't caricature him. He is his own caricature, and some people are going to vote for him -- I believe this down to the bottom of my heart -- because looking at him makes them smile, a pleasure one finds in things like Coke bottles and glass eyes and tacos with shadows on them that look like Jesus. When you combine the familiar and the odd, it's irresistible. Yes, he supported two or three (or was it all four) big bad initiatives here in California a year ago, and they all lost, and I cared passionately about all of them losing a year ago, but I'll be darned if I can remember what any of them were about right now a year later.

I'll be voting against him and he'll win anyway, and he'll probably veer back right as he attempts to become Maximum Dictator, and who knows? Maybe he will become Maximum Dictator. But there are other, more imminent, dangers with plump white-meat Republican faces that worry me more.

So when it comes down to it: I know nothing. Well, not quite nothing.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Silly Once Meant Innocent. Hence, Silly Virgins

My reporting class and I had a nice discussion of the controversy -- a pretty slight controversy, one I blew upon like a good Boy Scout trying to encourage a spark -- that has arisen around my assigning the "virginity pledge" story to my young reporters.

One of my kids made the mistake of attempting an email interview of a faculty member, the interview beginning with a question I advised the students to ask of a faculty member only with the greatest care, if they asked at all. And it wasn't the bombshell: "Sister Felicity, are you a virgin?" (I'm joking. No Sisters were in any way discomfited in the writing of these stories.)

The question was simply, "Have you ever taken a virginity pledge?" which is not the same thing.

The students said -- those who talked up in class; silence does not mean assent one sometimes learns to one's grief -- that they were comfortable talking about sex with fellow students, but certainly not with faculty.

Power differential? I asked.

Not really, several of the kids said. It's just, they said, that among people your age -- you, Santa Claus, certain sedimentary rocks -- talking about sex is a taboo, while among kids our age having retained your virginity is a stigma.

Possibly not true but neatly said. Kid could make a feature writer.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Religions Have Been Started with Less

The Eleven Bunny-Wunnies wunny-wun.

I won't bore you with how but suffice it to say I know what I'm doing. I'm not one of those guys who says there are no accidents, you know, kind of fatalist and New Agey.

But this was no accident.

Our Bunny-Wunny, Which Art in Bunny-Wunny

I read that maybe one in ten Americans does not believe in God, however we choose to parse that sentence with a question mark hung on it. I don't believe in God, though what I mean by that is ... too boring to unpack on a fine grey Sunday morning. But I certainly should have sympathy for those who do believe because I feel the same tickle, the same need to find purpose and have control.

For example, today is the last day of the baseball season, and my fantasy baseball team is in first place by a slim 2.5 points. Two things:

1) My team started the season as Snakes on a Plane, but I was mired in sixth place so in August I changed the team name to the Six Bunny-Wunnies, which was an act of simple superstition. I wanted to be able to say I had done something to change my luck. I do not believe in luck, but when the lizard brain beckons, who am I to deny it? It felt good. I did it.

2) When my team faltered, I would tack on a few more Bunny-Wunnies. We are up to 11 now. We are the Eleven Bunny-Wunnies, which might be a better name for a football team, but who thinks ahead in affairs of the lizard brain? So I would like to make a little joke on this last day of the season and change the name of my team to The 101 Bunny-Wunnies.

But my superstitious self says don't rock the boat. And I will listen to my superstitious self. And I am abashed. But I am also ahead by 2.5 points.

Like Job, I wait.