Thursday, November 30, 2006

His Name is Tripod, and He Wears a Beret

A Wegman dog, front-loaded

I treat this blog in a manner very similar to those people who like to dress up their pets in little outfits. That is, it's my precious, of infinite fascination to myself even though to other people ....

not so much

Naturally, I like to give it pretty things, like a site-visit counter and a home on Technorati.

Thus, when I discovered a website that allows you to create your own free Internet polls -- and not only to create them but to rotate them through your blog, each return to the blog resulting in the appearance of yet another poll from your "playlist," I could not resist the opportunity any more than the average American could resist putting a Santa outfit on a kitty.

In the service of efficiency, I quickly knocked together a couple of polls to go with my first stoke, my prized "favorite bigot" poll, and out the blue -- a profound blue shading toward violet like Elizabeth Taylor's eyes -- came the poll question "If you had a three-legged dog, which leg would you prefer to be missing."

I have a strong admiration for three-legged dogs. I consider them brave, good, exemplary. I am not disrespecting three-legged dogs. But I somehow assumed that it would be better to be missing a rear leg than a front leg.

Early poll results suggest I was wrong, and maybe I was, the dog pictured above to the contrary. I suppose it is better to be able to rear up on your haunches than to be able to pull yourself forward like a car with front-wheel drive.

If anyone has some insight, personal or otherwise, on this question, I would certainly welcome it. I don't want to seem callous, not when it comes to three-legged dogs.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Coincidence is Weird. (Also, My Granny was so Dark They Called Her "The Little Gypsy").

Last night I put together the little "poll" now resting on the left side of this page, thinking that the answers might suggest something -- who knows what? -- about who actually engages with this blog.

And then, this morning, I read in the Chronicle that the ex-athlete Michael Irvin made some racially fraught statements on ESPN, talking about the surprising success of the "new" (lot of years on that bench, actually) starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

Here they are:

"He doesn't look like he's that type of an athlete," Irvin said of Romo. "But he is. He is, man. I don't know if some brother down in that line somewhere, I don't know who saw what or where, his great-great-great-great-grandma ran over in the 'hood or something went down."

(Dan) Patrick tried to suggest to Irvin that he shouldn't go there, but Irvin was having none of it, continuing:

"If great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandma pulled one of them studs up out of the barn, 'Come on in here for a second,' you know, and they go out and work in the yard. You know, back in the day."

This doesn't precisely offend me, and I don't know why. I don't think not being offended by the comment is misogynistic, rather the opposite, if we are inclined to honor the right of women to make an unencumbered sexual choice. Is there stereotyping at work? Well, yeah, but that fast twitch/slow twitch muscle business is more than a myth, right?

Or maybe my brain has been slowly boiled, like that apocryphal frog, by listening and watching too much ESPN, too much jock talk, over the years

I suppose there's a double standard in my lack of indignation, and I could think through it, given time. But that's a 45-minute intellectual workout, and I'm the 15-minute man.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Why I Spend Time in Every Class Telling the Students I Don't Know Who Will Pay Their Salaries in Their First Job, Much Less Their Last One

The feature writing class is going to visit's SF offices tomorrow. Once upon it was going to make its visionary founders rich. Perhaps it has only made them proud. stock currently sells for a little more than six cents a share. I think maybe I'll buy some.

Stealing From Either Crooks and Liars or Daily Kos

Where I read that Richard Perle said:

Key Quote: “And a year from now, I’ll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush.” [9/22/03]

Eh, if one were talking Imperial Pride, how about your neighborhood vomitorium?

But then I read in Wikipedia that:

A popular misconception is that the Romans made use of a room called a vomitorium for the express purpose of vomiting between meals to make room for more food. Only a very small minority of the highest classes indulged in the practice of deliberately vomiting. A vomitorium is actually an entirely unrelated architectural feature – a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre, through which the crowds could "spew out" at the end of a show.

But we'll need something like that for our exit strategy, right, which is likely to be more of a spew than a triumphal exit.

Monday, November 27, 2006

We Love Having Young People in Our Home. Their Laughter Boosts Our Spirits.

What jolly pictures. Brother David and Sister Sarah came for a visit.

A Thoughtful Post from Another Blog

So you ask how, as a hot new religion, we deal with the problem of evil? Well, you're knocking on the wrong door. Try physiology, psychology and philosophy, though perhaps not in that order.

As in so many things, let us look to Darwin:

(Man has) some instincts as revenge and anger, which experience shows he must, for his happiness ... check. That is, external circumstances are so conditioned as they are effecting a change in his instincts—like what is happening with other animals. (This) is far from odd, nor is it odd he should have had them. With lesser intellect they might be necessary & no doubt were preservative & are now, like all other structures, slowly vanishing. The mind of man is no more perfect than instincts of animals to all & changing contingencies, or bodies of either. Our descent, then, is the origin of our evil passions. The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather.

But mixing religion and the question of evil? That's a toxic brew.

As for our religion, we are deeply concerned with the origin of, and the problem of, naughty. We think there's not enough of it.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Lesson in AP Style

As the AP Stylebook makes clear, there is no such thing as a "first annual" anything since annual is an adjective that should be applied only to what has been accomplished, not what is promised. Thus, this weekend I may correctly say that our 2nd Annual San Francisco Anniversary Celebration took place.

Since our wedding anniversary falls on or about Thanksgiving, we've never been able to mount much of an commemoration, but last year -- our 40th -- deserved something, I thought. So we spent a couple days at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, where we stayed on our first visit to SF in 1979 on a freebie trip back in my Atlanta Magazine days. We parked in Oakland and took BART in, which is journey enough on Thanksgiving weekend.

I wrote a piece about that 1979 visit. Without that piece -- the wit; the joie de vivre, the merde heureuse de cheval -- I would never have gotten my job at the Chronicle the next year.

Yes, it was a hell of a piece. But so much is contingent, so much is circumstance.

Ah, the accompanying photograph. The Hyatt drapes its lobby with lights during the holiday season. May I recommend you drop by some evening and order a nine-dollar drink in the lobby bar.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Does a Bear Sh*t in the Woods? Only under Proper Supervision.

Click on me, please. Arf.

Well, this is new

As we walked through Briones Regional Park yesterday, we often stepped among the excrement of horses and cattle, both of whom have a presence in the park. But no dog flop, at least none that we recognized. Is this the reason? I doubt it. Is the next step the diapering of racoons! (Sorry about that exclamation point. It's not nice to shout.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving on the Trail

We hiked in Briones Regional Park. We ate egg-and-salami sandwiches with Martinelli's Sparkling Apple Cider.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Big Pat Daugherty, he of the sauce and the pith, comes upside the head of Thanksgiving pretty good in his most recent column, which you can see in its abundance by looking left and somewhat down and clicking on the Sporting Box link. He speaks of a local columnist and his:

adorable, heart-tugging Thanksgiving column...the one he wrote in 1988, the one he replays every year, the one that brings a smiley tear to the face of every mom and dad, and a wonderment, like first snowfall, to every tousle-haired nipper. This annual tribute to self gives the columnist another day off and paints one more layer of hack sentimentality on the national common wall.

And I thought: how true; how sad.

And I also thought: Hey, I've got a post just like that, just as smarmy and just as capable of filling space and killing time.

And here it is.

(By the way, what are we doing this Thanksgiving? We're making sandwiches and taking a hike.)

Sunday, November 21, 2004

I Have Never Watched the Macy's Parade. Does That Mean I'm Not a Man for All Seasons?

I like Thanksgiving. It is a holiday you can handle on your default setting, by which I mean you don't have to think about it, or more to the point, there is no aspect of it you have to avoid thinking about. At least, that's how it works for me. I have a collection of memories all of which are more or less pleasant. They are varied. Got some family memories from childhood, got some travel memories because we haven't always stayed home for Thanksgiving. Got some anniversary memories since every seven years or so -- leap year makes a difference though I've never bothered to figure it out -- our wedding anniversary falls on Thanksgiving, so we have some mildly comic memories of trying to find a place to celebrate. About 15 years ago we gave up, throttled back our sentimental attachment to a particular page on a particular calendar and "seized the date," as it were, celebrating our wedding day at a time of our own choosing. The anniversary police have utterly ignored us.

We have had Thanksgivings at the homes of friends, and we have entertained friends as well. There's never been a pattern, but Thanksgiving is not so urgent, so definitive a holiday, that we feel any particularly need to do it one way. Its origins are murky, even questionable. It's more an excuse to have a holiday than an actual holiday, if that makes sense. You don't need to spend more than 30 seconds thinking about it. Give thanks? Why not? In fact, sure. I've never had a late November so grim it seemed inappropriate or evasive to "give thanks."

I am a lucky man, so thank you blind chance.

This year we are having a "big table" -- six friends, which means not just turkey but ham, an elaboration for which I am happy to have an excuse. Eight ferocious Bush haters will be together, three of whom interestingly enough are from The South, that part of the country whose residents are supposedly so misunderstood by outsiders. We know your secrets, my dears, and some of them aren't very nice. We were you, but now we aren't.


Some years ago my wife and I went through a period when we spent Thanksgivings at the big table of a couple we knew and liked, but then the friendship started to ebb. It wasn't like a souffle that collapsed -- poof! It just sort of slowly deflated, and the evidence of the change could be seen at Thanksgiving. When first we were invited, we were high up the table, near the host and hostess. But then we started to slide lower and lower in the seating arrangement until we weren't even in the same room -- though we were at the same table. It was a phenomenal table, capable of remarkable, even unnatural elasticity, like the Bush vote count in Florida and Ohio.

Finally, we were demoted to the pie squad, those folk who came in late, just for dessert, like lepers invited in for the crusts and lesser crumbs. Continents have drifted apart faster than that friendship came to an end, and it's convenient to have this set of markers. Still it's as pleasant a Thanksgiving memory as any other. Good food, good talk, then the forgetting and the letting go.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday with that intense a level of expectation -- with one exception. I do expect that if you cook, either for yourself or for friends, there must be turkey and there must be turkey leftovers. This particular association was established for me when my family lived on Rugby Boulevard in Roanoke, Virginia, for the first ten years of my life. We lived next door to my mother's parents. A concrete sidewalk ran directly from my backdoor to my grandparents' backdoor. My grandfather had it poured when my parents built their little white house, more or less at my grandfather's direction. At night I would run up that sidewalk to my grandparents, run in my barefeet and pajamas not because I was afraid of that particular dark in that particular backyard but because I did not want to step on slugs. Running meant bigger steps and a mathematically diminished chance of landing on a slug, and I had also decided that the sudden flattening of a slug with a quick nasty splat was preferable to the relatively more prolonged crushing that went with walking. The sensation was different, I promise you it was. Bedroom slippers and a flashlight were not options, though I cannot imagine why I decided they were not. I apparently liked the risk of the thing. Strange but so, as with so much of childhood.

The point is that, naturally and inevitably, we had Thanksgiving, and many other meals, with my grandparents. Everything about the Thanksgiving meal was immense: the scale of the table, the number of guests, the amount of food. For days and days afterward we ate sandwiches of leftover turkey on white bread with mayonnaise. It was as if the passage of time, the ever-growing gap between preparation and consumption, concentrated the excellence of the turkey. Thanksgiving itself was a kind of sensory overload, too hectic to absorb. But those turkey sandwiches were the essence of the holiday, the distillation. An old lady in a long dress and an big apron put my sandwich on a plate as big as a manhole cover and set it in front of me together with a 6-ounce Coca-Cola in that squat beautiful bottle.

It was the best moment and is the best memory. Today the Thanksgiving meal itself with our friends will be the pleasure. But the sandwich the next day will the moment when I remember all those people around that table more than 50 years ago. All in all, they were sad people, my Southern family. Thanks I did not grow up to be them. Thanks that at the time I thought they, like me with my sandwich and my coke, were utterly simple and content.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Poll I Want to See? Let Me Tell You the Poll I Want to See....

That would be a poll of Democrats on the person they would like to see get the Republican nomination in 2008, who would presumably be the person they think a generic Democrat would beat like a drum.

The point is that in 1979 I thought Reagan would be the guy for Carter to wallop and that in 1999 I thought Bush the Younger would be the guy for Gore to send back to cuttin' some brush. But those losers turned out to be winners for a variety of sick surprising reasons.

I'm just saying we should be careful who we wish for. We might get it. Right in the neck. Let's work hard to get our best guy (or gal), one who's capable of beating their best guy, be it McCain, Giuliani or Mitt "The Marrying Kind" Romney.

Let's not wish for Brownback or Gingrich.


(All right. You do have my permission to root for Bill Frist. I think I could beat Bill Frist.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

I Am a Connoiseur of Tales from the Dead Cat

This one is pretty good. It's got a hippie, a resilient child and about half a bucket of tears. As a genre piece, I give it nines right across the board. Brother Moore sent the original link.

First time I wrote this post it was different, but Mr. Oliver walked across the keyboard and killed the initial version. He's almost 15 and has cat HIV.

Jon Carroll wrote today about how his boy cat is confused about how many people he lives with and the nature of their conspiracies. That's true of Oliver, too. Just paste in Oliver where Jon says Archie, and it's close enough.

Enough maudlin talk. Who wants to look at kittens!


We had Young Silver and his partner Sarah over to the house so my wife could check them out to determine if his recent hiring here at the U was yet another doomed academic appointment. She said no, and she is never wrong.

She can smell the crazy.

Now, I don't have her gift of divination, but there were clues that even I could pick up. I got out the old digital camera to capture a few images, just for the historical record, at which point Young Silver said, "Hey, let me just take a picture of you and your wife and anyone who chooses to stand with you."

Which he did.

Young Silver understands the song that sings in every photographer's heart:

me me me me me me me me too

So wise so young. Definitely tenureable, if that's a word.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Short Clever True Nonpartisan

We are one pretzel and one steep flight of stairs away from President Pelosi.


Back in the day I used to get my feelings hurt when I'd tell someone I worked for the Chronicle, and they would say that they had never read one of my stories, not one.

This was after I had written hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of stories, most of them features but some of them quite long and some of them pretty good. But I was always comforted by the truism that people don't read bylines. They read headlines and they read stories, but more often than you think they skip right over the credit, the founder of the feast.

Today in Sunday's Chronicle the headline of an obit lured me in: Thomas Merigan -- S.F. pharmacist, soda fountain jerk.

I'm not certain if this hed is purposely clumsy. The phrase is "soda jerk," isn't it? But this is beside the point. Copy editors write headlines, not reporters. It got me into the story, in which were several interesting paragraphs.

In 1965, Mr. Merigan became a neighborhood icon after a man put a pistol to his head and demanded drugs. As the suspect fled with a box of narcotics, Mr. Merigan grabbed his own pistol from beneath the counter and shot the robber three times.

"I decided a long time ago I wasn't going to let my place be held up by some punk," Mr. Merigan told a Chronicle reporter at the time. "So I shot him.''

The robber survived his wounds and continued to commit robberies after being released from custody, but he never returned to Mr. Merigan's store.

What is it with style? And I mean writing, not the handling of firearms. That last sentence has it. And then I read.

He was married for 70 years to his wife, Helen, with whom he eloped to Reno one night in 1930 after he put a ladder to the window of her bedroom in San Francisco and escorted her to the ground.

"Escorted her to the ground?" And also just the sweet sweet line of that whole sentence.

At this point and this point only do I read the byline.

Steve Rubenstein. another old Chronicle lion, a buyout survivor, approaching his winter but still with plenty of spring in his legs.

Attention must be paid.

(Forgive the Arthur Miller reference. Rube's life and times are a lot more redolent of S.J. Perlman than Arthur Miller.)

Postscript: Already I'm being misunderstood because of my love for indirection. What I mean here is that Steve Rubenstein is such a good writer that he made me think, "Who the heck is this wonderful stylist?" And I was less than heartbroken to discover it wasn't some young pup.

For for that other thing, I'm the guy who tends to identify with Willy Loman.

And with Valentino. And with Einstein, and Emmit Smith on Dancing with the Stars. It's a long list.

So: mad props to Rube. Capisce?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Blogging Thy Name is Synchronicity

Below I talk of Rock Paper Scissors as a competitive sport. It turns out The Great Patrick Daugherty, he of the San Diego Reader and a great and good friend, has also been writing about that particular phenomenon.

(And about Elephant Polo. And Putt Putt. But Extreme Ironing is the best of the best he explains. As you see, I have a ways to go to equal the Great Patrick Daugherty.)

But two of the leading lights of non-fiction prose as she is practiced at this day and time deciding to write about such an odd pasttime at exactly the same time and unbeknownst to one another?!?

Religions have been founded on smaller coincidences.

Postscript: And so I did.

Rock Paper Murtha

I can't find the link, but there was an article in the New York Times within the last couple months that provided a statistical analysis of what actually is the most important pitch during an at bat in baseball. Broadcast announcers like to say it's the first pitch-- get that first strike! -- but those quoted in the NY Times piece said that it is actually the 2-1 pitch.

That is, if the pitcher gets a strike and the counts goes to 2-2, the odds increase substantially that what happens after that point will be an out. And if the pitcher throws a ball and the counts goes to 3-1, the odds increase substantially that the batter will prevail in one way or another. This is less true for other counts. It's the 2-1 that matters.

So that's the question around Nancy Pelosi's failure -- if, indeed, it was a wholehearted effort that can be deemed a failure -- to get Jack Murtha as her Number Two Man. Was this a key moment in a larger strategy with much contingent on it? Or was in just a one-off moment, complete in itself and not the first carom in a nine-cushion shot?

I don't know, but it is lovely to see the pundits earn their bread by assuming it's square one in a long skein of feints, ducks and counterpunches that will determine Pelosi's success. The pundits rush to fill the vacuum even if they are the vacuum.

But maybe Murtha's shortfall was just rock, paper, scissors, complete in itself and just about as serious. It's over. Nothing else to see. Turn the page. Move along. No "domino theory" need apply.

Postscript: On the other hand, apparently there's strategy in RPS.

The Master's Guide to Rock, Paper & Scissors defines the term gambit as:

"A series of three successive moves made with strategic intention."

The use of Gambits in competitive RPS has been one of the greatest and most enduring breakthroughs in RPS strategy. Selecting throws in advance helps prevent unconscious patterns from forming and can sometimes reduce the subconscious signals that give away the next throw, often called “tells”. Gambits are the focal point of beginner strategy and form the basis of many advanced strategies.

Who knew?

I Am Apparently the Face of Evil

I can track how many people come to this blog. Though I do not know who they are or whence they come, if they arrive at this blog by Googling a particular search term, I can track back and see what that search term is.

Today a visitor came to this blog by searching for:

husband kills cat and 2 year old daughter because wife betrayed him in newspaper

Hoping that this was ... well, actually hoping that this wasn't, I looked at the search results, and there four down was a site featuring the Ten Top Tabloid headlines for (I think) the first half of this month.

10 ALIEN MUMMY GOES ON RAMPAGE! Trick-or-treaters terrorized by undead E.T. — WWN


8 Beer beats prostate cancer — SUN


6 Dust bunnies breed like rabbits — WWN

5 Giant Mexican monster skull proves... OGOPOGO IS ALIVE! — SUN

4 OMAHA BIN LADEN Osama's brother rides the range as a cowboy — WWN

3 Taco vendor turns tiny visitors' abandoned spacecraft into an . . . ALIEN SOMBRERO! — WWN



What effect does this discovery have on me, knowing who is stumbling into my blog, knowing with what other sites I am linked in tandem? For one thing, I am now typing in boldface italic and don't know how to change it.

I've fallen, and I can't get up.

(That original monstrous search premise? Let's hope it was, in fact, a throwaway in the Weekly World News. All we really need is hope hope is all we need.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Ladies Man

Round about election day I heard from one of the talking sitting heads on TV that if Harold Ford Jr. had been married he would have won his senate race in Tennessee.

The idea was that a married Ford would have better withstood the ad suggesting a rampaging appetite for blonde white women if he had had a wife by his side, sensibly dressed and suitably indignant.

Got "steak at home," why "go out for hamburger" -- you've heard it before.

In these times that's what a "political" wife is for, increasing the probability that a male politician is neither a bold seducer of young women -- nor of young men either, for that matter. It's no guarantee obviously, but it may move the odds.

Of course, there's a downside to having a staunch political wife. It means an unmarried woman can't fantasize about having the candidate for her own should she volunteer to faithfully work the phones during the campaign, meet the candidate, discover that the perfunctory handshake at the victory party has lasted one beat past perfunctory, etc. etc. and it's a Rose Garden wedding with no politically catastrophic divorce intervening.

And that's why Mitt Romney will make such a formidable candidate in 2008. He's got a wife, but, gals, you've still got a chance.

And thus I waltz around to Mitt's Mormon problem. I know I've been droning on about my Fundamentalist roots lately, but I remember the little pamphlet handed out in Sunday School listing all the most dangerous cults, and there was Mormonism at the top of the list.

All those souls waiting to be born. All those wives.

We young men were shocked, appalled, affronted, envious....

And that means resentful. And that means Mitt Romney has a problem.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When "The Good News" Really is Good News

Like a recovering drunk who loiters outside the bar listening wistfully to the clink of glasses and the sounds of hilarity -- and who realizes that up close and personal the scene is not so jolly -- I remain fascinated by the Fundamentalism in which I was raised.

I despise its excesses when others only cringe. And I cheer it with an enthusiasm all out of proportion at those moments when those who promote the idea of What Would Jesus Do? behave as if they have some passing knowledge of Jesus as he (and the lower case is not a lapse in manual dexterity) is presented for the most part/on average/all things considered in the four Gospels.

So I link to a blog called God's Politics. And today it directed me to a survey done by a group called Faith in Public Life that argues that in the midterm elections so-called "kitchen table" values - concern about the Iraq war, poverty, torture and minimum wage are their leading examples -- actually did move some "Evangelicals" away from loyalty to the Republicans and the Republican agenda of gay hating and sex hating. (I think that's what explains too much of the opposition to abortion: Suffer, whore).

If so, this survey is heartening. I may not think that Jesus is God, but I certainly was always under the impression that he was a hell of a guy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

*Our* First Lady

My wife was much impressed by the way Nancy Pelosi sat during the photo-op portion of her first meeting with Bush in her new role as Parliamentary Madonna. My wife said I should look at the straight back, the knees demurely tight together as if super-glued, the ankles gracefully tilted to one side, the hands even more demurely clasped.

Tea? Cookies? Phased withdrawal? A slice of impeachment, perhaps?

She sits like a lady, my wife said. But look at Bush. Most of the time his hands are sort of floating in front of his genitals as if it promised to be a long cold winter and here come the squirrels.

Running scared is one thing, she said. Sitting scared is quite another.

Now, in the picture above, he's.... Well, he's.... What is he is doing is....

I think the word is exaggerating.

An early morning postscript: The 15-Minute Man is not kidding. Many of his posts take 15 minutes -- or less -- to write. (He probably did not need to point this out.) And that may explain the obvious nature of the preceding visual joke. It's like Rumsfeld said:

You don't go to war with the joke you'd like to have. You go to war with the joke you have at the time.

(Though that's not quite the actual quote. Interesting how the pebble is smoothed as we pass it around.)

It's Not That I Now Wake Up with a Big Smile on My Face. It's Just That It's No Longer a Frown

Happy am I, happy as can be that the Democrats got a little bit of their own back. But I'll just quote this directly from old Charlie Cook, the political lighthouse keeper. I don't know if he has the numbers exactly right, but I have no doubt about the underlying truth.

Most Americans reside ideologically between the 30-yard lines. Indeed, 47 percent of voters in this election called themselves moderates, 32 percent conservative and just 21 percent liberal.

The Big Bang? Got There Early so He'd Have a Good Seat

As usual, I took my reporting class to the Chronicle yesterday to fire them up about a career in journalism to the degree there's still any heat in those ashes. There's some. We met the new "blog editor," who guides and encourages the Chron writers and editors in the art of the blog.

She's about 12 years old. And she went to USF. And she didn't take any journalism courses....

Anyway, on such forays, you are always afraid your students will say something -- or do something, such as falling asleep while standing up -- that will embarrass you among your former newsroom colleagues. But I have been gone from the Chron so long I have faded from ghost to invisible man, so the only possible embarrassment would come from my tugging at sleeves and saying, "I used to work here, you know?"

But no embarrassment yesterday. One of my few remaining newsroom friends, the inestimable and super Nanette Asimov, took us on a fine tour, including a visit with another friend from the old days, Science Writer Dave Perlman, who really is a living treasure, an authentic great man.

My students did me proud. "Ask him the two embarrassing questions you hate to ask," I said and finger-snap they did:

How much do you make?

How old are you?

And finger-snap he replied:

I won't tell you, but I think I have the union contract in my drawer, and that will tell you what the Guild minimum is. (Implication: Like I make the minimum. Hah.)

I'm 87.

The students were thrilled and amazed, first by the prospect of living that long and second by the spectacle of wit and competence from a point in time so remote from their own.

They glowed. I glowed. An incandescent Thomas Edison moment.

And then Dave gave them some last wisdom. What science writers must seek to serve is science knowledge and science truth. There's this thing now called Intelligent Design, which is a Halloween mask for this thing called Creation Science, he said, and it's all about ignorance of how nature works, and it is rotting American science education and thus American education generally. (I'm paraphrasing, perhaps adding some intensity.)

I don't know if this made my students glow, but it did me. So much for false "fair and balanced." So much for postmodern relativism. At the end of the day there are some things worth calling a fact, and the job of the journalist is facing *that* fact.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

I Be You Be to Be Not to Be

Along with some friends, we went to see "Hamlet: Blood in the Brain" at the Intersection in San Francisco last night. It is a "reimagining" of Hamlet: the text is all gone, replaced by gritty "real talk" -- jivey, fast and pungent -- from the streets of black Oakland, where the play is set. You might say the new play skims across the surface of the original Shakespeare, some plots points fitting one to one, some not at all, but enough correspondence so that you keep the original in mind.

Our friends didn't like it. This morning one wrote:

I think I'm the only one who hated it, actually.

Moscone's direction was brilliant as usual. The acting was pretty good. Great Gertrude. Hamlet and Ophelia were the weakest, though it was hard to tell what of Hamlet's awkwardness was Hamlet and what the actor. And the play's language had strong rhythms.

But...every 4th word was shit, every 10th word was motherfucker. If there was a good line, it was drowned out in hiphoppery. I hate this kind of dialogue and it was pure torture for me. I was ready to bolt after 5 minutes (once I figured out that, no, it was not going to get any better). Then I realized there would be no intermission.


And I wrote:

For what it was, we enjoyed it. It may be a "man thing" to find a kind of poetry in rants filled with obscenity/scatology. After a while, certain words become somewhat ... denuded ... of meaning. I suppose it creates a kind of baseline of disrespect for authority.

That actually is the most interesting part of the subtext of the deviation of this hiphop Hamlet from the old one: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

That is certainly one way to stage a Hamlet, to create a production in which Danish court society is presented as something out of Fellini's "Satyricon," the balance point of the play being nudged from the notion that the murder of Old Hamlet unbalances the state to the notion that the murder and young Hamlet's inability to set things right -- Law and Order: Elsinore -- is the inevitable manifestation of a state that is already unbalanced, diseased, flawed.

I would assume this is the standard Marxist staging of the play? That's how I read "Blood in the Brain." Oakland is a sewer of drugs and violence, and the destruction and self-destruction in the new play are the inevitability. The world is diseased, and Hamlet -- H., as he is called -- is doomed from the start.

So I thought it was quite clever, and as it so often the case, the execution brought more pleasure than the raw idea. Also, knowing the original play makes one feel more secure during those parts of the play where the problem was not the content but the pace and articulation of the dialogue. That is, I couldn'understandad it, though I could more or less follow it. But isn't that why Brando mumbled his way through "The Godfather"? It made people pay attention.

A final note: We live in Oakland.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Another Reason to Like My Wife

My wife got her hearing aid today, a nifty red model that sits on top of her external ear structure with a tiny speaker on a wire running down into the ear cavity. But it has already caused her some distress because of all the ambient noise it picks up, some of it quite distant.

As she walked back to work in downtown Oakland, her world suddenly grown bigger, she said she heard a crying child, and the sound was clear and full of pain, but where the child was she could not tell. Just one more thing she would have liked to do something about, if she could. There are several kinds of deafness, and hers has always been the least important.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

I'm Definitely Not with Stupid

Tonight on television they kept popping up the faces of losing Republican congressmen, and one after the other there came fat-faced white-haired white men in late middle age ... who looked just like me.

It was like learning you had an unknown twin who somehow got cloned back in the day and recruited en masse by Ronald Reagan.

I feel like a stunt double for evil.

In the face of unfavorable early returns,
he rallies his despondent supporters.

What Now?

How should the new Democratic majority treat the dethroned Republicans, given the arrogance of those Republicans?

* firmly, as one treats a drowsy child
* bravely, as one treats a common bully
* assertively, as one treats a snarling dog
* warily, as one treats a flaming brown bag of excrement placed on one's front porch on Halloween
* cautiously but in a spirit of curiosity, as one treats a rabid bat
* chastely but compassonately, as one treats a diseased prostitute
* vigorously but accurately, as one treats a middle-aged leather boy if one is a B&D mistress with a strong whip hand
* proudly as one approaches a prince, guardedly as one approaches a rogue, hesitantly as one approaches a fool, unwillingly but judiciously as one approaches a rogue who is also a fool and who fancies himself a prince but with whom one must share the labors of the day because that's the way democracy works.

And if all else fails, one heeds the advice of Flannery O'Connor:

"To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

Monday, November 06, 2006

Time to Vote. Time to Fill.

I'm trying to recall some of the cliches the electronic news media will employ tomorrow morning and early afternoon before the polls actually close.

I know that:

Somewhere it will be raining, which (they say) may hurt the Democrats but help the Republicans.

Somewhere the weather will be fine, which (they say) may help the Democrats but hurt the Republicans.

Somewhere there will be long lines at the polls.

Somewhere turnout will be below projections.

Somewhere turnout will be above projections.

Somewhere the candidate will talk with reporters after casting his/her vote in the company of his/her spouse.

Everywhere the candidate will be optimistic.

Somewhere a naturalized citizen and an 18-year-old high school student will be voting for the first time, though not necessarily in the same place.

Somewhere a candidate who will get maybe 28 percent of the vote will talk about how it will all be worthwhile no matter what the outcome because of all the wonderful people he/she met walking around the neighborhood, the precinct, the town, the county, the city, the state.

And somewhere, at the end of the day, a voting machine will record 187,000 votes in a precinct where there are only 617 registered voters.

I hope that's somewhere and not everywhere.

It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting. ~Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

Sunday, November 05, 2006

All Bets are On

I like a nice over/under bet. Put the Demo gain in the Senate at 4.5, and I take the under. Put the House gain at 20 and I take the over. Still, whatever happens, it will be a kind of aberration. Whatever the Democratic gain, I don't see it as secure but as contingent on the moment.

Personally, I agree with commentator who said that the Iraq war will not produce a political realignment in this country, merely a tweak, a burp, a bump that will quickly subside to the baseline, which in this country is conservative and anti-intellectual. Only a deep economic dip verging on collapse will bring the cultural conservatives back to those who will defend their economic interests.

Let's imagine an unemployment rate of 15 percent under President McCain. Ready to bet the over/under?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Saddam Tells All. He Has Come to Tell Us All.

On the eve of a probable death sentence for crimes against the Iraqi people, a tearful Saddam Hussein unburdened himself by revealing that during the late 90s he bought nuclear material from North Korea on several occasions, making clear, however, that "I was tempted but I never used it. I threw it away."

He also said Kim Jong-il gave him a back rub.

P.S. I think this is what they call unstable irony. That is, what is my point about Saddam Hussein other than that I am seizing upon him as a tool for making fun of Pastor Haggard? I mean, I don't intend to suggest Saddam actually had weapons of mass destruction. Ah, well. In the words of Lord Byron:

Some have accused me of a strange design
Against the creed and morals of the land,
And trace it in this poem every line:
I don't pretend that I quite understand
My own meaning when I would be very fine;
But the fact is that I have nothing plann'd,
Unless it were to be a moment merry,
A novel word in my vocabulary.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Bad Idea

This semester I am pulling the plug on a bad idea, that is, a reporting and writing assignment designed to accomplish several things that has, in fact, accomplished nothing. In my beginning reporting course, about halfway through the semester I assign a story that is essentially a single-source interview. For years the story was an anniversary piece of some sort that required the kids to ask their subjects about some traumatic past event -- the 1989 earthquake, the 1991 Oakland hills fire, 9/11 -- and recall what the sources were doing at the time and how it affected them then and how it affects them now.

We got a little re-creation of past events, and we got a little introspection. It was a good assignment, but then I decided if I had the kids interview a USF professor -- not the same prof; one to a customer -- that we would get a nice package of stories that we could put online and produce some good feeling on campus toward the journalism minor.

This has not turned out to be a very good idea. It's hard for the kids to challenge their mentors. About half the class finds it deeply intrusive to ask their teachers how old they are. And it's hard for college professors to be very interesting, what with the life of the mind and all. Or, to put it another way, it's hard for the kids to understand the ways in which college professors are interesting. And, of course, the profs very sensibly wonder if these young journalists are able to connect the dots if the profs were bold enough to offer any of their innermost dots for inspection.

I'm not saying that the profiles are bad. Some are pretty good, though rather thin. But so often lurking at the edge of the prose is the desire to please and to flatter on the part of the student.

Heck, maybe on some level that was what I hoped the profiles would accomplish. One is always looking to show off, isn't one?

But no more. Oh, I also hoped that the professors would appreciate the pedagogical aspect of the exericise and fill out the following questionnaire, which I sent to each of them along with a copy of their mini-profiles. (Note the copout: I refer to the stories as drafts. They weren't ... except in the sense that nothing is ever finished, is it?)


You were recently interviewed by a student in my reporting class. Thank you for your cooperation. A draft of the story for which you served as a source is attached. The student and I would appreciate it if you would answer the following questions, which are designed to guide the student journalist in future interviews. For each question, please elaborate to the degree you feel appropriate.

1) Was the reporter professional in the way he/she arranged the interview?

2) Was the reporter on time for the interview?

3) Was the reporter professional in dress and demeanor?

4) Was the reporter well prepared for the interview, having previously ascertained basic facts about you and the issues to be discussed?

5) Did the reporter paraphrase you accurately?

6) Did the reporter quote you accurately?

7) Does the story indicate competence on the part of the reporter in understanding the import of the interview?

8) Do you feel that the reporter missed opportunities, either in preparation or in follow-up questions, to get at more important issues than those actually developed in the interview?

Any additional comments would be welcome. With your permission, this story will be placed online at the class website after revision.

Inside Straight, 7-10 Split, the 2006 Elections.... You Can't Say You Weren't Warned

I guess Patrick Daugherty is a national treasure, though San Diego has custody, just like Ft. Knox in Kentucky has that big pile of gold. When he talks about next Tuesday, I listen. It's a conversation about how -- for the first time in a long time -- he won't be placing a bet or two on some of the more interesting races.

Here's the deal: electronic voting machine manufacturers have fought to keep from providing a paper trail that would allow third parties to verify their electronic results, refused to allow public regulators to go over their source code and check for back doors, bad code, a thousand things. To put this in gambling terms, would you play blackjack in a casino that won't allow regulators on their premises, won't allow public officials to check their slot machines and go over their books?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Huh. I Guess the Democrats Will Win the House

I've been looking for signs of possible Democratic success and just realized I am one.

Today I proposed that the members of my fantasy baseball league each throw in five bucks and predict the makeup of the next Congress. Having done so, I suddenly understood that I wouldn't propose such a bet unless I considered the "worst case" outcome a minimally acceptable outcome. That is, even if the Demos only win the House by two or three seats, that won't spoil my pleasure in the bet.

So I'm confident enough to organize the pool. I am my own harbinger. And maybe I'll learn if our league has any Republicans in it. It's kind of a Berkeley bunch, with me as the token Democrat and your Greens and your small-a anarchists and your dog-park Marxists and a 12-stepper or two

At worst, a Libertarian, I think, though around here people only claim they're Libertarian if they're too lazy to recycle.

A Joy to Behold the Joy

So to keep my membership alive in the Exalted Society of Pseudo-Intellectuals, I have to ask: What is up with my posting -- almost against my better judgment -- of those sentimental photos of the trick-or-treaters who came to our house on Halloween?

Are the photos sentimental? Is my pleasure in them some offshoot of the Victorian "cult of the child," pushing the nostalgic notion that kids are other than us and better than us and to look at them is to look at something forever lost?

(That idea is the lamest of excuses, by the way: I'm all growed up and haired over; no wonder I'm such a bastard.)

When it comes to this self-accusation of sentimentality, oh I think not. The only definition of sentimental that I recall from grad school days is that one should talk of sentiment and of sentimentality. Sentiment might be defined as appropriate feeling, and sentimentality as bestowing on the situation more feeling that it can legitimately be said to merit, of indulging in the softer emotions for their own sake, making the moment all about you. Sentimentality is superfluous and misdirected emotion, emotion cultivated at the expense of the thing that prompted it, self love but never love itself. A little more than a little is by much too much, you know?

So those kid shots? Too much? Too sweet? A misrepresentation of horrible tough life as she is lived today? An editing, a false and misleading selection.

No. I think not. Most of the kids looked so happy, and (I think) were so happy, and why not? It was safe to talk to strangers. It was safe to ask them for free candy candy candy. God knows today there is candy everywhere, but O'Peep's -- other people's -- remains the best of brands, for beer and for the full line of Nestle chocolate products.

I am a candy bandit. You could see it in their eyes. So there was something impish there, too, a naughtiness subdued, the spirit of rascality modest and even coy, but still peeking around the edges.

Also, I didn't know how cute the pictures were until I looked at them. Most photos sink below the memory. But these were better than the hectic pleasure of the moment with the kids crowding around and the candy being shoveled out.

Cute is good. Cute is modest. Sometimes cute is even an insult, the lowest rung on the ladder of charm.

But with these kids? A perfect fit.

And if that is sentimentality, call it a genre and write a monograph.