Saturday, March 31, 2007

I Do Love a Picture of a Kitty Cat

A Satirical View of TV News

It's so easy to ridicule TV news, especially the cable variety, but it raises the fundamental question of what one might call "the ethics of balance." Who wants a meal that's all dessert? Maybe that should be: Who needs a meal that's all dessert, no matter how much they want it?

Gresham's law: Bad money drives out good.

Shakespeare's law: A little more than a little is by much too much.

Robertson's law: A fool and his liberty are soon parted.

Editor's Note: Posted elsewhere under a less provocative head. But it really is a cute kitty cat.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Thrown Out at Third

Blame it on the champagne.

A colleague having just gotten her official tenure letter, the department chair brought bubbly for a collegial toast, an honorific from which I do not shrink. Therefore, it is understandable that, as the meeting drew toward close, I took the opportunity -- we were speaking of long-term planning, I believe -- to point out that, "As John Kenneth Galbraith said, 'In the long run we are all dead. ' "

A Canadian colleague was pleased, given Galbraith's provenance. A British colleague very kindly waited until after the meeting to point out that the epigrammaticist was, in fact, John Maynard Keynes.

Tripped by the triple. But I think it is a parlor game, to see how long you can go point counterpoint with triple names:

Edna St. Vincent Millay
John Foster Dulles
Lord Howie Lovit
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

But the latter may not be a true triple. There's a fine line between knowing some one's full name and that person invariably being known by a triple.

Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown is always thus known? Should he, in fact, be called a quadruple? Should Millay?

And what about titles? I remember playing the card game "Authors" as a kid:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sir Walter Scott

but also

Robert Louis Stevenson
Edgar Allen Poe
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Click and Clack

Hey, wait a minute....

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is How I Feel a Southern and/or a Black Thing?

The student senate at my university postponed voting on a resolution that would have declared us an "abolitionist university," committed to fighting the vestiges of human slavery that remain on this earth.

My initial reaction was that removing the idea of abolition from its original context, that of ending chattel slavery in the Western world 200 years ago, was somehow historically tone deaf, reducing a contextually potent word to an expression of empathy. For Americans, the idea of abolition is specific: the effort to end the enslavement of blacks, an effort that succeeded only when a civil war erupted.

The words "underground railroad" were used in the resolution, though the resolution does not seem to call on anyone to create a comtemporary underground railroad, thereby breaking laws and taking risks.

Somehow using the word "abolitionist" in the resolution seems to commit our school to very little more than advocacy and sensitivity -- and holding the equivalent of Bake Sales for Justice. I fear that trivializes the word and the historical context in which it was originally used.

Also, such a resolution seems just a little self-congratulatory, potentially a salve to our awareness of our own inaction. Like Hamlet we are sometimes tempted to unpack our hearts with words. Maybe we should resist the temptation?

On the other hand, the USF professor whose work seems to be behind this is a man I respect enormously for his thoughtful commitment to social justice, that murky term that can only be defined by specific acts. His work is specific. He's on a worldwide book tour now, it seems. I await his return to campus to hear his thoughts.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Bit of Old San Francisco

Brother Silver and I had a martini or two at the Persian Aub Zam Zam on Haight St. yesterday.

Nostalgia and I no longer walk side by side. Nostalgia walks ahead, dragging me behind on a leash.

Bruno the bartender was a legend and a Herb Caen favorite -- and to talk of HC is like having geezer tatooed on your balding pate -- because he was cranky and because he behaved as if it were a privilege to sit in his bar and drink his booze.

I was never thrown out because I was warned ahead about how one behaved. Of course, it would have been kind of an honor to be thrown out, but one does not go into a bar to be thrown out. I'm not much of a drinker but occcasionally I do love the thirsty darkness of a well-run bar.

The guy who runs it now is cordial almost to a fault. There are no stories to take away, only the best buzz bestowed by Boord's gin .

Drink three and trying saying that three times really fast.

I'm serious. Bring it on, as long as it's shaken, not stirred.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Search and Destroy

I'm working on taxes, I'm grading stories, I've got to get out there and cut down those dead daffodils in the garden. But I'm also stealing the odd moment to read through the novel, now done with three count 'em three copies printed out.

And, of course, you find many tiny errors. And you also find, let us say, an image or bit of rare vocabulary on page 200 that, you suddenly realize, you used on page 20. Take the word "python," for instance. There are no extra points for multiple python images.

Thus, search and replace is a wonderful tool for a writer of long manuscripts. A few keystrokes and a python becomes....

Not an anaconda. That would be missing the point.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

This is the Day that the Lord Hath Made. Rejoice in it.

Even though today is the day I do my taxes. I am actually glad to pay taxes because I like the things taxes buy for me and for others.

Certainly some tax money is wasted because people are lazy and inefficient. This is true in both public and private sector and is not in itself a reason not to reject the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Certainly some money is wasted, at least to my mind, because it is intended for purposes with which I have no sympathy. The absence of this state of affairs would signal the absence of representative government and the compromises that are inherent in the proccess.

So Ipay taxes gladly. But I certainly dislike calculating how much money I owe. Half the time you think you are cheating by claiming certain deductions and the other half the time you thing you are so mammoth a wuss by refusing to claim what the law so clearly says you deserve.

It's a very unpleasant day.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

No News is Good News

Moms Landrith was cranky back there in Florida today because her girls were *forcing* her to eat chocolate candy and cashew nuts, not to mention nutritious citrus drinks.

Cranky is good. Cranky is *alert.*

So no midnight phone calls.

Yes, That Was a Disturbance in the Force

I am now printing out a copy of my novel, which will be placed in the hands of a dear friend --it could be you! -- tomorrow.

Or perhaps a day or two later, depending on how many of my dear friends have caller ID or choose to peek out from behind closed curtains or call out, "Get away. We got some Spartans in here," if I pound on the door.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Hating the Night Call

The phone rings. It's 10 here, but 1 a.m. in Florida. There are limits to how good this call can be. The upside of its downside, however, is terrific.

But the call could be worse. My wife's mom is throwing up her medicines, of which there are several, some to be given at specific intervals, some to be given at intervals depending on when my mother-in-law has last eaten. Her medications are a three-ring circus without a ringmaster.

If she throws up, which she is doing today, it is impossible to know which medicines should be administered again.

But at the moment the eye of the storm has arrived. It is 1 a.m. in Florida, and my mother-in-law is sleeping, not having eaten properly and possibly not having been medicated properly.

When she wakes up tomorrow, decisions must be made. Pack her up and take her back to the hospital against her will? My mother-in-law has a very strong will.

I am not there to help with the decision. I am here to tell my wife that whatever decision she makes it will be the correct decision.

And it will.

Feeling Strong Now

Because that which does not destroy us makes us strong.

I had been told that it is *hard* to get students interested in old black and white movies, but, no, I knew better, so I showed about a half hour of Citizen Kane in class to illustrate several points about journalism conventions but principally to spark some enthusiasm for the movie.

How many "ph" sounds in fiasco?

Just one. But that's enough.

Next up?

D. W. Griffiths' Intolerance.

Wikipedia and Other Mysteries of the Human Heart

People ask, "Robertson! What do you do for a living."

I do this.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Missing the Main Point?

Posting about car rental! you say.

But what about your mother-in-law's new pacemaker?

Working fine, and she was sent home from the hospital -- where she'd been for a week -- same day as the procedure.

But her cardiologist told her daughters that episodes like this will occur every three or four months from now on because she has congestive heart failure, and that's what happens with her degree of congestive heart failure.

Looks like we better set up a car rental account back there in Tampa.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Woman of Principle

My mother-in-law just had a new pacemaker implanted, which is supposed to be a minor operation, but I'm not sure there are any minor operations when you're 96. Like the good girl she is, my wife grabbed a plane to Florida today. It was a pretty smooth trip until she got to the rental car counter in Tampa.

I had reserved a Toyota Corolla for her. She wouldn't take it, invoking her status as a "Detroit girl." Instead, for a nominal 15 extra bucks a day, she got a PT Cruiser; that is, a car with an American nameplate manufactured in Mexico for a company controlled by a German company that used slave labor to produce weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction during World War II.

A better husband would not have pointed this out.


This morning at 9:15, having gotten up at 4:45, I finished the final edit of my novel.

Three billion people slept and another three billion went about their business, unaware that their world had forever changed.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Support the Arts

The performance artist Peter Moore is work shopping some of his "code poetry" over at his latest blog, The Secret Restaurant.

For those of you who didn't see him at the Marsh last year or on Josh Kornbluth's TV show in January, Moore works by "accretion and indirection," as he said in a visit to Bob Haas' poetry class at Berkeley last year. Gradually, his entries increase in length and specificity, and a clearer narrative emerges.

"I create gaps," he said, "which the reader must fill. The art is always in the gaps. I am the artist, but my readers are my art, not my words."

It's early yet, but this poem would seem to have something to do with the fading Bush presidency, which is a departure since Moore is usually apolitical. But it's witty stuff, so you don't have to agree with the politics to enjoy it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mama's Boy

My older sister just got back from visiting my younger sister, with whom my mother has been staying the last three or four years.

There's a divorce going on now, with more than the necessary amount of chaos because my brother-in-law leaves a trail of chaos, like a snail leaves a trail of slime. That comparison is neither original nor apt -- chaos is more dynamic and variable than a trail of slime -- but there is nothing original about my brother-in-law. He's the psychotic version of nut-by-the-numbers.

But that's where my mother longed to be, under that particular roof, though we urged her to stay in her home -- or even to move my sis and nutty brother-in-law in with her, under the scrutiny of her many friends.

Instead, she chose the country cuckoo nest. The good news is that she's suffering from ever increasing dementia, so in one sense all the horror is wasted on her.

Now that the marriage is breaking up, my younger sister's life is taking a turn for the better. Still, it looks as if my older sister will be moving my mother into a nursing home near her sometime this summer. My older sister says she could not and would not move my mother into my older sister's home. Me either. Under no circumstances. My older sister says my mother has taken to standing in the center of the room and saying, "I'm garbage. I'm garbage. No one could love me."

This has nothing to do with how my younger sister and her children -- or even my crazy brother-in-law -- have treated my mother. My older sister says it seems to be an old wound spitting up splinters of glass. My mother also reminisces how every day my dad told her that he loved her. Some good news for her there. But then she asks where my father is....

It's as if my father dies for her 20 or 30 times a day, my older sister says, though by the 30th time she has to explain it, it's a quick and painless death.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Just Say No

For the first time in 30 years I will not be filling out my NCAA brackets, either in the office pool or online or with chums or by my lonesome just for the hell of if.

This is spring break. I have gardening, grading, student blog monitoring and novel rewriting to do, plus doing some cooking since my wife doesn't have spring break. She has 60-hour weeks.

Don't worry. It's the old familiar She Makes the Living but I Make the Living Worthwhile.

That's what a Sweet Man does. Read the job description.

Anyway, if I pick the games then I will follow the games, thrill to the games, care about the games, spend time watching the games on TV during this week of televised plenty.

Got work to do. Tell me when it's over.

Or remind me next week in time for the Sweet Sixteen. Those are games you don't have to bet on to enjoy.

No Survivors

My good friend Richard Anderson coached me through some tried-and-true techniques to find lost documents, but sometimes a ship goes down with all hands and all you can do is throw a wreath on the water and sing Nearer My God to Thee.

That is, the first 80 pages of my novel disappeared, and all the corrections and edits from the last month with it. So I began to re-edit tonight. I'm not going to say the loss was a good thing, but I did finally come up with a solution to a narrative problem in the first chapter. Maybe it really wasn't a problem, but we need to feel that something positive can come from ill.

And if Leslie Fiedler is right, the loss doesn't matter at all. In one of his books on American literature, he says that the lesson of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Gone with the Wind" is that there is fine writing and that there is good storytelling, and that it's the good storytelling that gets the readers. I haven't changed my basic story in the last 25 years. My hero trips and goes bouncing down the stairs ass over elbows. That story line is still intact, even if my hero isn't.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

More of a Nuisance Than a Disaster but It Feels Like a Disaster

I finished my novel six weeks ago. I printed a copy out. My wife read it for a final edit. I read along behind her, doing a final edit of my own on the same manuscript. I started incorporating the changes into the Word version. The edits were not extensive, and as I worked along, I naturally did some additional cutting, polishing and amending.

Yesterday, about 80 pages in to the edit, for the first time I tried to back up the Word document to a RW CD and somehow failed to manage that and somehow ended up with the working edit and with something called working editA on the computer desktop, both of which the computer had said moments before that it had tried to save but could not save. I tried to open the A document. It said click here to revert to original A.

I did. Both Word documents disappeared from the desktop simultaneously and have not been seen since. I've looked in the Norton recycle bin, in the temp file, in every file in the computer using the "search" function. Tomorrow, I'll ask a wise friend for advice, but it looks as if I've have to redo the first 80 pages.

Some of the little grace notes I added I'll not remember, though perhaps I'll think of other better ones. Nothing of real substance was loss. But....


I Am What's Wrong with Democracy

Or maybe I'm what's right with the workplace.

Two things:

1) With the 2006 elections over and the Democrats' effort to push and pull us out of Iraq turned into a long and twisted trip through a maze that the Republicans write and the Democrats try to erase -- and vice versa....

2) And with my requiring mandatory weekly blogging from my reporting students and even more mandatory blogging and report writing from my journalism ethics students....

... I am certainly neglecting my RSS feeds. I am failing to scrutinize my Bloglines subscriptions in a timely manner, as you can see, post after post piling up unread:

Am I missing anything I need to know to act decisively?

When was the last time I acted decisively?

Still, it's like that pile of unread New Times piling up in the corner. It's a visual rebuke.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Anyone Feel Like Voting in a Headline Contest?

The winner gets a check+ in the old gradebook. That's a prize worth having.

Here's the link.

The new heds are substitutes for a headline I wrote that was judged by the assembled youth as inaccurate, and quite rightly. Good job, youth. It was also judged as somewhat callous, at least in the sense of reaching for the sensational.

I've had a long and useful exchange of emails with a valued colleague about what degree of "coldness" -- the appearance of indifference -- is inappropriate for a journalism teacher as he/she (in this case he, as in me) uses the sudden and horrible death of someone in one's own community as a learning moment. It's a good question, and it caught me by surprise to even be considered cold-hearted, since I think of myself as warm and crumbly with just barely enough cynicism to spice the Jello.

That said, I think one of the heds suggested by the students is the most utter bullshit. Can you guess which one?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

There is a God, and Apparently He's Buying

Estimable former student Tommy Morahan and I raised a glass at the Pig and Whistle earlier today, and I drank deep of the Guinness, which tastes like a meal in a drum. When I have a Guinness or several, I always feel as if I have struck a blow against world famine, so filling is a draught of the G.

Indeed, so convinced was I that I had consumed my allotted calories for the rest of Lent, I looked up how many calories there actually are in a pint.

The official website says 210. My God, there's that many calories in a deep breath of fresh air -- in LA, anyway.

Now, I'm thinking: Why did I stop so soon?

Oh, and Tommy is going to be a first-time dad in three weeks. More praise to the Guinness!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Shame on You, Professor Robertson?

Monday alert: The Journalism Ethics class will be discussing the degree to which this headline about the fatal traffic accident on Turk St. was inaccurate and/or insensitive. It is the nature of journalism to treat the external events that are its substance as a kind of raw material that one regards dispassionately. Some would equate that dispassion with the vaunted "objectivity" that *some say* is the journalist's necessary stance. Or perhaps the headline was mere sensationalism. That's what ethics class will be discussing.

Don't you wish you could be a fly on the wall.

Or a mosquito? If you were a mosquito, it would be like ethical dinner theater.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

I Am Sent to the Woodshed

Over at the USF Journalism Blog, I used the headline "A Dean's Wife is Run Down and Killed...."

A friend of the victim takes me to the woodshed. She has a point.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dom Deluise, Dom Dimaggio, Dom Perignon: The Fat, the Dead and the Bubbly

I tell my reporting students always -- pretty much always; don't do this during murder confessions -- to stop right in the middle of interviewing when they don't understand something. Faking it leads to confusion and embarrassment.

But personal conversations have never been subject to quite so high a standard of scrutiny. Indeed, if a person is complaining about his/her personal life and the failures of those who feature prominently in it -- with whom you may be on more than a nodding acquaintance -- you really don't way to know the specifics of their little peccadilloes, size and/or frequency.

Indeed, I have always felt the size of one's peccadilloes is privileged information,

(And so at last I make use of a joke that everyone is allowed to use once in a lifetime. But only once.)

Back to the thread. Sometimes it's impolite to break into a personal conversation asking for more detail. Sometimes it's merely frightening to do so. And sometimes -- this is so true in our thoroughly Googly age -- you assume you don't need to. That is, later on (if you care) you can look it up if it's just some odd fact a specific understanding of which is unnecessary to keep the ball of conversational intimacy rolling.

So last Saturday we went to the home of friends ... or perhaps acquaintances; they're so rich and we are so NOT rich; we tug our forelocks and stare about us; God knows that's a quality I like in my friends when they come visiting as long as they keep their hands in their pockets and speak only when spoken to.

Anyway, there we were because these ... chums; that's the ticket ... these people said they had some good wine they wanted to drink up. On arrival, they explained, or so I thought, that the Wall St. Journal wine writer had been promoting this concept of occasional Drink Your Best days on which you looked among your prize bottles and goshdarnit drank some of your Fine, the idea being that if you put it off too long your rarest becomes too precious to drink and then it turns to vinegar ....

You get the point.

The host showed us a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1936 filled with powder, a fine wine that had died undrunk. It had belonged to his uncle, he said.

So then we drank two bottles of Dom Perignon, the '95 and the '96, and several bottles of French red -- I hang my head in shame to say I have no memory of their names other than that those names should be said only in tones of worship -- and finished up with a sherry that was almost gooey with lovely rich sweetness.

We drank -- I say to you, dear Friends of the Blog, a title for which the bar is set so low it is virtually subterranean -- as we have never drunk before and almost certainly never will again.

Doubt we will be asked back. Personally, I though it was funny when I backed out of the presence of our hosts in a deep bow saying I was not worthy to live, but they will play at being small D democrats -- and cap D ones too! --and were not amused.

Some wine, FOB. Some wine.

I would have written about it five days ago but I wanted to have something to link to. I searched for Wall St. Journal and "drink best" and on and on through many variations. And found nothing.

So who knows why they shared their good wine with us?

Noblesse oblige? Finally, something to link to.