Thursday, May 31, 2007

Talking Back to Adonis

Adonis is, of course, correct. When you talk about the Chron's problems, you must start with a drop in circulation of more than 100,000 that necessitates a drop in ad rates -- duh! as the older siblings of my students would say -- as well as the exodus of classified ads to the Internet, which has little to do with decreased circulation and probably caused a reduction of revenues from that particular source of far more than 20 percent.

What I don't know is the degree to which other newspapers with shrinking circulations have becoming losing propositions to the degree the Chron has.

I'm looking for that extra level of error or incompetence or just bad luck that currently puts the Chronicle at such a big disadvantage. I know the reporters and editors aren't so richly rewarded they should weigh the enterprise down. Perhaps, I should say I think that's true. I don't believe the Chron is that overstaffed. Given the reductions since Hearst took over the Chron, I assume that all the newsroom fat has been trimmed.

Something else to find out.

But perhaps fat salaries for execs or fancy accounting tricks are factors, too. Expenses from distant activities and corners of an organization can sometimes be loaded onto an enterprise for tax purposes or to aid in union negotiations When it comes to that, did unions other than the Guild exact ruinous salaries and benefits? I assuming something was wrong apparently before the Chronicle circulation started to drop.

What? Adonis suggests the drabness of the product is a factor, and I would like to think that is true because whatever else I was as a journalist, I wasn't drab. But even if the gradual massification of the Chron explains why the circulation was stagnant for so long, only in the last several years has that circulation taken the big hit that has driven down ad revenues.

I'm thinking out loud. I'll see if I can find out more.

More on the Venerable Chron

Adonis writes from the South of France, where he's recuperating from Cannes. He is a salty dog.

Even when newspapers still mattered, the Hearst newspaper division never seemed able to produce a good one. The morning Examiner was a major bore before they folded the tent and moved to the afternoons. The Sunday paper then became the bore to be suffered because Hearst was putting it out. They just could never spot editorial talent, and the same shortcoming must have at work on the business side. Picking Bronstein to run the show was a major mistake. He was competent and thorough as a reporter, but no more than that. But his swashbuckling persona evidently made the Hearst gang in New York think they were getting a modern-day Scott Newhall, an eccentric genius whose brilliant insight it was that readers sometimes wanted to be amused and surprised when they opened their paper in the morning instead of a diet of eat-your-vegetables. When he left, Bill German's fawning emulation of the New York Times -- known as the "gray lady" for good reason -- commenced in earnest. What the Times put on Page One became the holy writ scrupulously followed. You might as well have been living in Manhattan. Bronstein's later business with Sharon Stone business and the other news he made may have confirmed Hearst in its sad illusion a dashing editor was at the wheel. The technological revolution we are witnessing may have rendered all of this irrelevant, and nothing could have been done to pull the wheel back on the death dive. Older readers, the most loyal, saw little for them in a sheet that trended ever left, and they went elsewhere. The fascist old bastards! Who cared! Advertisers, it seemed, did. As readers leave, ad rates drop If you think things have unraveled fast, wait and see what happens with a product that will become duller, more formulaic, pander more to gays, etc. The latter are not as popular in the suburbs as in the academy and the 415 area code. So another round of "fuck 'em, who needs them!" seems in store at 5th and Mission. Tell your students to find another line of work. Blacksmithy shows more promise.

Free at Last

The whales are at sea, and so am I. What will I do for a sea-going mammal diversion now?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why Isn't the Chronicle Making Money?

I don't know.

I read that most dailies are making money but just not as much as they once did, which makes them bad investments -- comparatively. But the San Francisco Chronicle seems to be a basket case when other newspapers have merely slowed to a walk.

The Chron is apparently about to cut one out of four newsroom jobs. Here's a link to a blog comment on that decision from a former Chron city editor -- we overlapped; I did features; we never talked -- who came from back East in the 80s and put fire stories in the paper and before long he went away. He explains why deep staff cuts at the paper won't make it profitable. But he doesn't explain why the Chronicle is in such a deep *deep* hole in the first place, why it can't wring some small profit out of a circulation of nearly 400,000 in a market that seems to teem with high-end goods and services that advertise, advertise, advertise.

Struggling, yes. I understand how declining circulation and the encroachment of the Internet are battering newspapers. But how can the Chron be losing $2 million a week?

Of course, when I was at the Chronicle the newsroom scuttlebutt was that the Chronicle/Examiner JOA was losing money, but that those losses resulted from the fact the Chron had to split revenue with the Ex, even though the Ex had a circulation less than 25 percent of ours. (But they did do the Sunday paper, though that still didn't even things out.)

Blame was also placed on the mad Theriot descendants who owned the Chronicle and on the fact the Newspaper Agency -- which ran all the non-editorial newspaper operations for the two papers, a degree of cooperation the JOA allowed -- became a kind of independent rogue state because the Chron and Ex couldn't agree.

BUT what mistakes made back in those days continue to cause such deep problems? I'll ask around and get back to you.

Here's the *Bete Noir* Now

I Love the Smell of Grammar in the Morning. It Smells Like "I" before "E" except after "C"

Everyone who knows me knows I have a bete noir. And no it's not Pussycat Oliver, who is black as sin but sweet as pie. (Note to self: Next post should be on dead metaphor.)

My bete noir is the construction "honing in," not necessarily because it represents linguistic change but because it represents change from something that makes sense, i.e., the idea of coming home, of knowing where home is and seeking it out. That is to say, the new usage replaces sense with nonsense

Note the the elegant headline on the front of the beleaguered SF Chronicle today:

Wandering Whales
Homing in on Open Sea

The sea is the home of the whales. If they remain in the San Francisco Bay, they will die. To the whales, the sea is home in the deepest sense of the term. But what if some asshole -- and since this is a blog, we may stoop to conquer -- had used the lamentable "honing in," which suggests (if it suggests anything) that the whales are sharpening themselves toward the ocean.

I've written about this before. I will again.

And while we are at it, on the radio a couple a days ago I heard about some kind of baseball tribute to four "former black 20-game winners." I am certainly glad the masquerade is over, and they have removed their mask of blackness.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Don't Mean I Drink Ripple While I Grade. Don't Be Silly.

I was going to call this post The Ripple Effect, and apparently that noble wine no longer exists, but those who regularly come to this blog are long of tooth and longer of memory, and they might have chosen to misunderstand.

They are just that kind of people.

But what I mean by "ripple effect" is that today, as I averaged up the grades for one of my classes, I decided to give a kid a break. Never mind why. Simply the fact that I can give a kid a break is probably sufficient reason.

Whatever the impetus, I am at least consistent in the distribution of my favors. This kid got a break. Up the food chain the break rippled, tacking on extra credit to all and sundry until it reached the one kid that actually had the A average....

Our computer system won't let us give students the grade of A+. But she knows who she is.

As for the rest of you: Today you stand on the shoulders of a weaker brother. And sometimes that's just the way the world works. Rejoice in it.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Fat Chances

Brother Bob Wieder (friend of the blog) over at Calorie Lab saying unkind things about false advertising, deep-fried fat and the ever-popular chitlin' burger.

Just coffee for me, please.

A Small Step. A Small Victory.

It only took six years for me to figure out that our printer allows you to print only the odd pages of a manuscript or only the even pages of a manuscript. It also allows you to print a manuscript first page to last page or last page to first page. If you employ both these capabilities, running the pages through the printer twice, you can end up with print on both sides of each page, just like a book.

You do not immediately end up with such a product because evolution has yet to complete its noble work, at least in my case, and if one (that's how many I am: one) fails to coordinate the capabilities of the printer, one (still just me) gets page 294 printed on the back of page 1, which is quite avant garde and perhaps even postmodern, producing a kind of "found mystery," an accidental enrichment of the complexity of the narrative path, if you will allow me that.

And I don't see how you can prevent it.

kooL m'I gnipyt sdrawkcab

Coming soon: Typing with one's toes.

Editor's Note: I did finally figure out how to do it. Spatial thinking? Or Something.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Drawing a Lion in the Sand

I don't know if the Dems did the right thing tactically when they caved to Bush and sent him a war-funding bill that does not set a withdrawal timeline. Big Mike Koppy (not a friend of the blog; too busy for such nonsense) says the polls that show a strong majority of Americans want out of Iraq actually mean something and that the Democrats made a mistake and that a majority of Americans would "get it" no matter how Bush and the Republicans spin "defeat" in Iraq, asserting that the Democrats made us lose.

I'm not so sure. I'm not saying that the American people are dim and confused with a brainload of Mutual Exclusive ideas, which state of mindless might mean they are capable of hating the war and hating those who end the hateful war all at the same time.

I'm just saying that some Americans are just such noodles. I'm saying that such a "mad middle" exists between those who would thank the Dems for ending the war and those who followed God into Baghdad and don't think He wants us to leave. I'm saying there's five or ten percent of the American voting public who are confused enough to scamper back to the Republicans when Iraq implodes -- as I assume it must -- when we finally get out, if the Republicans tell them it was all the Democrats' fault.

That five to 10 percent could sway the next election. Meantime, of course, at some point X percent of those against the war will become fed up with what may be vacillation -- but what may be shrewd calculation -- on the part of the the Congressional Dems and dig up Nader's twitching corpse and take us down that road again, at the end of which is another Republican war maker.

Which would mean it certainly wasn't shrewd calculation on the part of the Democrats at all.

There are probably many like me, eager for the Dems to drag the President into the cage for a fight to the finish but afraid the time isn't right. We are trying to be so damn smart, to thread the bouncing needle at just the right split second.

And in the background whisper the words of Akira Kurasawa, the great Japanese film director:

If I wait till I am ready, I will never be ready.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

There Was a Newspaper Column Item Here, and Leah Found It

I couldn't figure out how to write it, but that didn't stop me from forwarding this suggestion.

Dear Leah:

How are you? I am fine. I read in the beautiful Chronicle that Jerry Brown defends his monster digital billboard newly erected in the Oakland barrens coming off the Bay Bridge by pointing out it’s a very ugly piece of land and the digital monstrosity only enhances the scene. (He's long gone as mayor, but the deal was struck on his watch.)

And of course *of course* that makes me think of The Great Gatsby and the Eyes of Eckleburg:

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

Can’t figure out how to distill this down into an *item* though. Keeping my eyes open for the first Lenscrafters ad.

Editor's Note:

Leah Garchik takes the challenge! There's an art in column writing, as Herb Caen showed over and over again. Here's Leah (from an idea by Michael Robertson):

"This is a valley of ashes -- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke .... Occasionally, a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track .... Above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endless over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.'' And, after another moment, you perceive Jerry Brown's roadside art installation, the mesmerizing multiple-ad Bay Bridge billboard.

The description of the bleak road -- apt for the Bridge -- comes from "The Great Gatsby,'' and is cited thanks to literature-lover Michael Robertson.

"This is commercial art -- and it's darn good commercial art,'' said Brown of the signs. "You're not talking about a scenic highway.'' F. Scott Fitzgerald said it better.

Why Pictures Instead of Words?

I'm experimenting with a Flip Video by Pure Digital to explore the possibility of asking students to use them as an adjunct to some of their print stories that will also be put on their blogs. It's an idiot's camcorder. You point, you push a button, you get 30 minutes of digital video. You swing out its little arm and plug it directly into your USB port.

The resulting video is ready for uploading to YouTube. No file conversion needed.

It is impossible, I think, to make things too simple. Minute amounts of bother or complexity discourage us. I'm thinking this kind of device might allow student reporters to add a little something extra to their stories. Whether or not that little something extra actually adds value I have yet to decide.

Oliver Eats and Oliver Looks

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Edith Speaks

"Thousands of Mourners Gather to Attend Falwell Funeral"

I know it's an old joke, but I like to think that more than a few were there to make sure he was dead.

And what the hell. Here's the joke, which Wikipedia says is officially the funniest joke in the world:

The winner, submitted by Gurpal Gosall, of Manchester, England was:

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?"

Monday, May 21, 2007

The San Francisco Chronicle is about to Cut 25 Percent of its Newsroom Jobs

Thanks to Romanesko, I now know that the current SF Chronicle union contract is online and where to find it.

Therein you will find the salary tables, the minimum salary a reporter gets after six years on the job. Minimum salary is not gaudy.

Back when I was with the Chron more than 15 years ago, I heard that half of the reporters and editors were making more than scale, though I also heard that most of those over scale were either $25 or $50 a week over.

Herb Caen? Who knew?

I was making $25 a week over scale. When I told management I was considering moving over to USF, I was offered another $25 a week, and that offer was somewhat half-hearted.

Most of my dear Chronicle friends have retired, moved on, been bought out or nudged out over the years, but several of the very dearest remain. These friends are among the very best the Chron has, rich in experience, imbued with talent, smart to the point of wisdom, part of the fabric of the community and thus superbly equipped to report on that community.

But there are others on staff -- there have to be; it is the way of the world -- who are cheaper; or who are more obedient; or (and I hate to say this) who are somehow able to sell themselves as more "cyber savvy" in a new world where that slippery and ill-defined characteristic becomes a selling point, all the more desirable because it is so slippery and ill-defined.

And the latest union contract removed seniority as absolute determinant of who gets cut first.

Here are the schedule A minimums from that contract. Whatever else my friends are -- even though I am sure they are all over union scale -- they are bargains.


The following shall be the minimum weekly salaries in effect during the term of this Agreement:


6yrs (top minimum)

$1,176.00 1/1/2007

$1,189.12 7/1/2007

$1,202.24 1/1/2008

At the end of the year, the top minimum will be $62,516.48. My wife says if we win the Mega Lottery, she will start her own architecture firm. Me, I'll start my own newspaper with some yet-to-be determined but exceedingly clever Net presence, hire my own kids cheap, bring in the old pros to lead the way.

If that's going down with the ship, then anchors aweigh.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Day in Balance

The Lady E. and I were at the Giants-A's game yesterday, in what I like to call "vista" seats in section 225 in the second deck; that is, we were out beyond third base but were at right angles to most of the action. It was -- as Nero Wolfe might have said -- "satisfactory," with the A's ahead the entire game but the lead tenuous and the tension thick because of the fragile state of their bullpen.

Plenty of Giants fans were around us, which can be irritating when the Giants are winning, but is amusing when they are not. We feel their pain, and we feel good about it. One Giants fan with a shriek for a voice -- an increasingly drunken shriek -- cried out "Let's go Giants" for most of the game. But since the Giants weren't going, though they seemed on the verge of going, it fed the tension, particularly since I was willing to get into a little point counterpoint with the guy.

"Let's GO staROIDS": That was me.

Also, the drunker he got the more ironic and self-mocking his cry became. He played with his own pose. He was a joke, but he was in on the joke. Oh he lurched into me once but apologized and patted my arm. It wasn't like a Raiders games. Evil was not abroad in the land.

But I was glad when the police came confiscated his half-empty bottle of what looked like Old Grandad to me but what someone else said was Hennessy. Can you believe I hadn't noticed? I guess I thought he was high on ballpark beer. I was pretty sure he wasn't high on life.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Breaking in My Glove

Last glove I had I was misinformed that you should soak it in linseed oil and heat in the oven. Cook some potatoes and steam a vegetable, we would have had a meal.

Here's a Rawlings commercial on how to.

Friday, May 18, 2007

He Did It for the Children

Yesterday, Steve Rubenstein recalled those days of yesteryear when Humphrey the humpback whale was lost in the Bay and didn't know where to turn.

(We now have two humpbacks lost in the Bay. A responsible newspaper provides historical context.)

Rubenstein -- in all things he is redundant: the reporter's reporter; the butt-scratcher's butt-scratcher -- naturally tracked down Birney Jarvis (Friend of the Blog) who covered the terror and the whimsy of Humphrey's wandering, and his final triumphal exit from the Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, lured by a tape of whale sounds.

Remembering, Birney dropped the dime on himself.

For a time, Humphrey didn't have a name -- until the Chronicle reporter assigned to the story christened him.

Birney Jarvis, who covered the whale for its entire 26-day visit, recalled that everyone he talked to wanted to know the whale's name, and that it was taking up interviewing time.

"So I decided to name him," Jarvis said. "I said to myself, 'Humpback ... Humphrey.' It just seemed to fit." Jarvis said he credited the name to a Rio Vista restaurateur he was interviewing, who didn't mind accepting the honor.

Just as well the semester here is over. I'd hate to have to stand up in front of my journalism ethics class and point out Jarvis' lie and tell a lie of my own by saying what he did was wrong.

John Stuart Mill talks about the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number and Immanuel Kant talks about the Categorical Imperative, the notion that everything you do is permission for others to do the same.

Letting the name of a little lost whale *seem* to bubble up from the masses as an indication of general concern and affection brought pleasure and did no harm.

(Except anthropomorphizing animals *might* do harm. In general. In the long term. But not for that particular whale. Meet me in the seminar room in 15 minutes.)

It's a cold world now, and the little lost whales (mama and baby) live -- and may die -- mute, inglorious, nameless.
Maybe there's some cynicism in what Birney did, but I can't find it.

We are Quoted in Leah Garchik

We are very pleased. We wish we were like Brother Bob Wieder and could be funny on demand and could be quoted in Leah more often. But Brother Bob Wieder is a trained professional humorist and whenever he makes a joke, he immediately turns to us and says, "Kid. Don't try this at home."

By the way, here's something sad. Brother Bob Wieder's own website, Humor Me, where he would lay out the occasional rant, has ceased production. As Blogger has added bells and whistles, it has finally outpaced the ability of BBW's computer to access his own blog.

Brother Bob's computer is made of mud and sticks. It is made of wattles.

But it ain't broke. He declines to fix it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

There's a Poetry in Place Names

Big Pat Daugherty knows. And he finds the poetry in numbers the way William Carlos Williams could find the poetry in an EKG.

He played rookie ball in the Arizona League that year. Did well, got a bump up in 1998 to A ball for the South Bend Silver Hawks, then took a bump down to rookie league (Lethbridge Black Diamonds) after 16 games. At Lethbridge, Cust played 73 games, hit .345 with 11 home runs.

That's America singing, baby.

Whales Guaranteed

That was the subject line in an email I just got from a small-ship cruise line that does the Alaskan coast.

I got a somewhat similar email last week from a Japanese/Norwegian consortium. Their slogan is:

Whales Guaranteed ... a Ten-Minute Head Start.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Kids Still Say the Darndest Things

Today I administered my final exam in reporting. It's a three-hour exam period, and I give them an extra half hour, which a few of them always take.

I think they suffer. I want to teach them to do something that is quite simple once you get your mind around it, that is, to write a 100-word summary lead that could serve as the entire story if some mad editor decides to cut. It won't be THE story, but it will be better than nothing. The creation of a summary lead makes clear that news is, in fact, made and that truth and fact are not the same thing.

Or so I hope they come to understand.

On the first day of class, some of the kids do a summary lead better than I can. Others never learn. They are indignant that I wish to bully them out of their ability to tell stories, which to them means more or less in chronological order throwing in every bit of information I give them. I'm sympathetic. I don't like summary leads. I like to tell stories, too.

But that is not the "darndest" of this post. One of the things I talk about in basic reporting is when and if you include racial and/or ethnic descriptions in a crime story. I'm old school. It has to be a pretty detailed description of an alleged malefactor before I will permit racial characterizations.

On the exam today I included this description of a woman accused of stabbing someone in a bar after arguing about Barry Bonds and steroids. (Got to keep it topical.)

The victim said he was stabbed by a woman he knows only as Johnny, whom he describes as Caucasian, more than six feet tall, in her 30s with a shaved head, wearing black jeans and a purple sports bra, with a "Meth Rules" tattoo on her right bicep and a "Frodo Lives" tattoo on her left bicep.

Subtle I am not.

Little girl comes up to me in the middle of the test. Says: "Dr. Robertson. Can I speculate that the suspect might be a man?"

The darndest things.

Monday, May 14, 2007

My Production of Hamlet

Richard Gere and Helen Mirren. Paris Hilton as Ophelia.

But I think Paul Reubens is too old for Hamlet.

Editor's Note: Ross Perot as Polonius. This is actually a brilliant idea.

Bad News is Good News

That is to say, I received my first rejection from an agent last week, and that's good news because an odd novel with an inflammatory theme may have to to sit in the dog pound awhile before someone looks into its bloodshot eyes and takes it home. It's a numbers game.

The letter was short but very positive, saying that the reader -- who I like to think was among the best and brightest of the summer interns -- was "insufficiently enthusiastic," which implies a considerable degree of enthusiasm....

Of course, it doesn't. I know a form letter when I see one. What I would love to know is whether or not the reader actually did read the sample chapters or only the first paragraph or two on page one. I recall that back in the day when I judged journalism contests, I would read the first three paragraphs of a story and if I did not like those first three, that was it.

There was irony in this, boys and girls, because as a feature writer I took the New Yorker approach, that arrogant presupposition that one's style is so mesmerizing that the reader, given absolutely no clue where the story is going, will read on past the jump as a daredevil goes over a waterfall in an inner tube.

But that's what I did, and I am guessing that's what the summer interns are doing at the offices of the high-powered literary agents to whom I insist on sending my "package" -- cover letter/chapters/summary.

I have no connections that would get me past these interns. So I imagine: How far do they read? What do they think?

Perhaps, I should give them some help.

Sentence One:

If I had felt better, I might have bent my thumb and given the car the finger as it went by.

You don't have to be George Tenet to know that sentence is a slam dunk. I read that sentence and I think: Hitcher Serial Crazy Killer Body Count. Now, that's not what the novel is about, but, as an Original Reader, I don't know that yet. I am certainly going to keep going to find out when the first head is separated from the first torso.

Which never happens. And if too many readers complain when they are done -- "Hey! Where's my severed head?" -- I can add an alternate ending. We will do it digitally, whatever that means.

Sentence Two:

I did not give it the finger. It hadn’t been that good a week for spontaneous gestures.

Oh, boy,my reader says. Maybe there won't be a severed head -- though we will never give up hope! -- but look at the inner tension and complexity. Apollonian or Dionysian? Dostoevsky or Kerouac or J.P. Donleavy? Will this novel bust loose or sink back into itself. I've got to know! This is serious head cheese. pretty ripe stuff.

And the roads in the middle of Indiana are flat and straight. It would be easy for a driver to catch that rudeness in his rear view mirror, do a neat U-turn in the gravel on the shoulder, come screeching back, bust your suitcase where it stands and run you into the nearest barbed wire fence.

At this point, tears begin to stain the page. Lead on, my young Virgil, through this hell of wonders, my reader begs. For surely this novel is clearly a magnificent travelogue, somewhere between sociology and anthropology. Only three sentences in, and look how it opens out into a vista, an expanse, a landscape of menace. Remember that scene in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" where the crop duster comes out of nowhere and tries to murder Cary Grant? You try not to think of that scene, but you can't stop. And Steven Spielberg's "Duel," with the vastly underrated Dennis Weaver. This book has layers, references, inferences, codes, clues and fun for the entire family, assuming those severed heads never show up.

Not to mention the pain the pain the pain the barbed wire the tension the looming barbed wire. Run, Fuzzy, run!!!

I begin to see the problem I am going to face. "Is this a novel or is it crack cocaine?" my reader thinks. "This Robertson fellow -- and I am so glad he sent an 8-by-10 glossy -- is an Eater of Souls!"

Not to get all literary, but reading the first three paragraphs of my manuscript is like Beowulf hearing about Grendel for the first time. Here's where we separate the heroes from the summer interns.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

We Call Him Whacko Jacko

When Jack Cust rounded third base today after hitting a three-run home run with two out in the bottom of the 9th to beat Cleveland, he threw off his batting helmet before plunging into the clump of teammates who had gathered at home place to greet him. I don't know if that is considered showboating in baseball, but if it it is, he certainly deserved the show, the boat, the sheets, the sails and a hornpipe on the fo'c'sle.

After nine years in the minors and several cups of coffee in the majors -- not much; more like weak tea in a paper cup -- the A's traded for him last week because their everyday lineup had tattered, and his price (negligible) was right.

Nine years sloshing around the scuppers of whatever major league organization you happen to be in that particular fortnight suggests just how much hope and confidence he inspired in those who make high-five to low-six figure salaries rendering reliable judgments about the probabilities that a young man can hit a baseball.

Yet today was Cust's seventh game in the Oakland lineup, and today's home run was his sixth home run.

The probabilities are it won't last. Indeed, I draw no life lesson from his unexpected success about how you and I should persevere at activities both more complicated and infinitely simpler than hitting a baseball.

But it is really hard to hit a baseball. We may admire it for its own sake as we admire Jackson Pollack, for the art of the thing, not because we would have liked to be that messy and get away with it. And -- if you insist on speaking in generalities -- I'm just glad to have been present at an unlikely event that is not horrendous and that does not make us lock our doors or distrust our fellow human beings.

Also, I'm a sentimental guy. It is Mother's Day, and I like to think his mother flew in for the game, probably on Southwest after an uncomfortable 45 minutes sweating out standby.

The visitor signed the visitor's book.

Year Age Tm Lg G AB HR BA

2001 22 ARI NL 3 2 0 .500

2002 23 COL NL 35 65 1 .169

2003 24 BAL AL 27 73 4 .260

2004 25 BAL AL 1 1 0 .000

2006 27 SDP NL 4 3 0 .333

Thursday, May 10, 2007

I Should Have Included "None of the Above"

Our little poll reaches a milestone.

Who will our next President be?

Richardson 0%0
McCain 10%1
Obama 20%2
Romney 10%1
H. Clinton 10%1
Giuliani 20%2
Edwards 20%2
F. Thompson 0%0
Gore 10%1
Gingrich 0%0
10 votes total
Poll powered by Pollhost. Poll results are subject to error. Pollhost does not pre-screen the content of polls created by Pollhost customers.

And Don't Carry a Credit Card Balance. If You Believe in Marriage, Marry Money. At Minimum, Date Money.

Last night we had a hail and farewell dinner for the Media Studies seniors. It was pleasant, as such things usually are. Massive hope and massive college debts. Who wouldn't be touched?

The Dean's office sprang for just enough to take the whole lot of them to an Ethiopian restaurant for a free feed clutched from big shared platters of veg, meat, gelatinous mysteries slathered over a huge round of spongy bread. No cutlery need apply. People were running their fingers through the food the way a crazy lady would run her fingers through her hair.

I am sure we are all now infected with one another's folly and misfortune. We have all become a colony organism.

One thing was missing because no one thought to think. And that would be each teacher standing and saying drunken sentimental things about the students. (Make that me. I'm sure every other teacher would have supplied sober dry taciturn wit, the affection glimmering beneath.)

Anyway, we didn't engage in that particular ritual, which I think the students missed and would have liked because they can cheer and jeer and hope not for the first time and won't be the last time that the faculty actually do know something, and it all wasn't nonsense.

What would I have said? Well, 50 years ago I would have advised the young women to become exemplary wives and mothers and the young men to die for Sparta. And then I would have said, "Tonight we dine in hell. But that's only if your wife never learned how to cook."

I remember that advice when it was given 50 years ago. Which I didn't take, nor my wife either.

That is still a viable approach. Count on their contempt and advise them to do the opposite of what you want them to do.

But these our students are not contemptuous. Some are skeptical and more are cynical, but they are not hard. They seem to understand that we were doing our poor best.

So, speaking sincerely, now in 2007 I would probably begin my homily by recommending that the students build a house for Habitat for Humanity, mentor a slum child, walk a precinct for a political candidate of their choice....

Hey, wait. That's advice for me. That's what I should be doing.

So we get to my real REAL advice.

Think, young student. What advice would you give these friends, these classmates, some of whom you like and some of whom you don't but all of whom are going to be out there in the big world for the next hundred years, building it up or breaking it up?

Practice your speech looking unto a mirror. Shut up. Take your own advice.

It's the Jujitsu Golden Rule. Tell unto yourself what you would tell unto others. Don't waste your time telling it unto others. Others never listen.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Not Such a Pretty World

A former student writes:

Hi Dr. Robertson,

This is such a bizarre request, but would you mind removing my name from your blog? I have a situation with a stalker-no kidding-and it’s not helpful if he can find out about me on the Internet, especially where I am working which he has done before. He’s recently resurfaced and the police are involved but they suggested I get my name off the Internet as soon as I can. So, I hope you don’t mind and I apologize for the unusual request.

Thank you,

The Purr of Hope

A book of photos of pets that survive disasters, thereby symbolizing the fact that life goes on:

It would be bogus. It would be touching. It would be sociological.

I might buy it, at least when it was remaindered.

I saved the photo above to send to various cat/pet-loving friends and now wish to link to it, but it seems to have gone away.

So I must steal it. I'm sorry.

But for all my cynicism I do find it touching when a child gets his dog or kitty back after having lost everything else. After the Oakland hills firestorm in 1991, some of the saddest stories involved the search afterwards for lost pets -- if we had only had the courage to stay another 30 seconds Rover would have bounded into the car -- and among the gladdest were those that described the return (all too rare) of some doughty animal that hid in the culvert until the flames passed.

I still remember one such story. A TV cameraman acccompanied a couple when at last they were allowed to return to the ruins of their home. And out from somewhere nearby came a singed kitty.

Tears all around, on the screen there and in the living room here on Paloma, far from the flames.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Die Old Man, Die

Today's reporting class turned into an unintentional experiment in the age-old art of cozying up to those who pay the bills.

I handed out the semester-end teaching evaluation forms to the class, having put that off to the last possible class period. And I also handed back a story the students wrote in class last week based on an actual police report.

The students did not do so well on the in-class story. With one or two exceptions, they wrote as if they had not read the police report very closely, even though I gave it to them 48 hours before.

They said the suspect had been charged with armed robbery even though he was actually charged with possession of stolen goods, as the report clearly stated.

They ignored the fact the victims had failed to identify the suspect. They committed a variation on that most common of all crime story mistakes: They said, "The victims said the suspect threatened them with a gun...."

Remember: The victims failed to identify the guy whom the police stopped on the street, that act taking place because the suspect matched the description the victims gave the police. But what ultimately linked the guy to the crime was the loot from the crime, which the victims did identify.

The suspect was 16, and some of the students gave his name as well as his age, though class rule is we don't do that. Seventeen or under -- no name.

The description the victims gave the police was what one might call "generic African-American with boombox in saggy jeans," of no use 24 hours after the crime even if no one had been arrested. Some students put the racial identifier in, even though....

Hey, wait a minute. In this case a smart public defender would argue that, yeah, the suspect had the stolen goods, but who's to say that someone who looked *just like the suspect and who was, in fact, the actual robber* happened to drop the goods on the street and the suspect just happened to pick them up? And if you entertain that possibility as you write the story, that would mean that a description of the robber belongs in the story because someone passing by at 2 a.m. might have seen two more or less identically dressed young African-Americans walking in opposite directions moments before the suspect was stopped....

Wow. A good exercise. But too hard, perhaps, for first-year reporting students. I threw out the grades. I did the right thing.

However, handing out the teaching evals immediately after pointing out at some length in a vigorous spirit the deficiencies of the entire class was perhaps not the best timing if I wanted to get the deep true love from the class.

I usually get high evals for this particular class. God knows I've taught it over and over and over again, and always in the spirit of the amnesia victim waking to a wonderful new world, as if I were teaching it for the first time.

When this particular set of evaluations comes back, I'll share the results. As the kids filled out the evals, I don't think those were looks of gratitude on their faces for the lecture I had just delivered.

Some teachers give a little party the day they give our their evaluations forms. We have a name for those teachers:


They Shot the Screenwriter. Ain't That the Way?

I thought he was talking too much and failing to make obeisance so I did see it coming -- saw it coming about 20 seconds before it happened. But not quite that suddenly, no, I didn't see that.

So I did a Google and got these odds from

Which one of these Characters will be the first to get "whacked?"
Character must be killed at the hands of a mobster and not a result of Natural causes. If two characters are killed in the same episode whomever dies first in the show regardless of Flashbacks and time continuity will be the winner.

Character Odds
Tony Soprano 15/1
Christopher Moltisanti 7/1
Janice Soprano 6/1
Silvio "Sil" Dante 3/1
Junior Soprano 5/1
Paulie Walnuts 6/1
AJ Soprano 12/1
Phil Leotardo 8/1
Bobby Bacala 6/1
Little Carmine 7/1
These aren't intuitively persuasive odds. Who would kill Sil? Most of the odds suggest the oddsmakers think it's a coin flip. But wouldn't it be nuts -- and I don't mean Paulie --if all of the above survive? It wouldn't be Shakespearean, though. Kill in the 2nd act, die in the 5th.

I don't think David Chase will defy our expectations just to show he can.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Why There's No Messiah (It's a Good Thing)

True to my word, I've started a new poll out there on the left side of this blog. Who *will* be elected our next president?

When I read the list of possible presidents, I'm tempted to go back and add None of the Above because, looking at the list, it's hard to imagine that any of the will be elected if you assume, as I do, that pockets of women-hating, black-hating and haircut-hating on the one side vie with good old fashion Bush-hating and FundamentalistFanatic-hating on the other side.

Also, that Mormon problem of Romney's is a problem. Someday I'll Google "weird Utah underwear" and get the real story.

Yet I'll bet ten of mine to one of yours that one of these relatively unelectable people on my list will be the next president. That none of them seems to have sufficient magic to win the office by acclamation may be a good thing, at least in this sense. I want no Messiah. I want no one with amazing charisma and unfocused charm that reflects back to various constituencies what each wants to hear -- and damn the contradictions.

I like a bit of resignation and compromise among the electorate. I'd like just a bit of "thinking through" and "settling for" when it comes to choosing a candidate.

All this hope is premised, of course, on the election of a Democrat next time. When I look at the Democrats I see no Messiah, but when I look at the Republicans I tend to see various shades of AntiChrist. Ah well, if I'm right, even if a Republican wins at least maybe we'll end up with the best of the worst, the slow spiral into hell rather than the fast track.

That's not very comforting. In spite of myself, I dream of John-John.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Purging the Polls

The art of poll making -- which allows you to do (blessings on its name) -- means you take 'em down once the initial mad rush of interest is over. In the case of this poll

If William Shakespeare had decided to have one of these "title" characters survive, which would you have recommended?

Romeo 0%0
Juliet 100%7
7 votes total

the rush was over early, and left this poll up far too long.

But the results are conclusive, to the degree that a flawed and inadequate sample can be. I'm not sure I agree with answer. I don't think it is inherently more tragic to have a female pining for lost love -- unless you are both cynical and realist and think she is grieving over the fact his earning power was greater than hers. I think I would be just as sad without my wife as my wife would be without me.

I think I might be sadder, actually.

Here's why. When I put up this poll, my wife said something really smart about it. She said that within the logic of the play, if only one person is to survive, it must be Juliet. You see (she said) if Romeo does not kill himself, then there he is when Juliet wakes up and all is well. Only Juliet has the option NOT to die under the conditions of the one she loves already being dead.

So you see why I'm lucky. That's elegant thinking.

Existence Gains a New Facet

Heartier nooks and healthier crannies.

That's what it says on the wrapper for the new improved line of Thomas' English Muffins made of "whole grains."

I actually wish it didn't say that on the wrapper. It creates images both vague and disturbing.

But they are tasty muffins. Let's concentrate on that.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Buddy Pat's Words of Wisdom

I emailed Pat about my concern that my cover letter to "She Who Must Be My Agent" didn't sell my novel well enough, didn't billboard all the reasons she should embrace my manuscript.

He replied that I was an "oddball"

in the sense you don’t fit the demographic these people expect to see at their door. The only way through, I think, is to WOW them. That is, the book sells on the strength of the writing itself. If they like it they won’t care who you are or how old you are. The idea is to get them to read it. Even a little bit. Even five pages. I would explain next to nothing about the book. One sentence.

I like that advice very much. My book is an odd book, and I'm not sure what point it makes. It may be more like a can of Pick Up Sticks, a crazy collection of many points pointing in many directions, and the pleasure is in untangling the pile.

God knows what it means, and I wrote it.

Even though I like to say that people who are afraid of Fundamentalists would like it, the book is anything but a warning. It suggests the Religious Right is silly, trivial and self-defeating.

That may not be so. It's just that so many of the Fundies I used to know were idiots. Osama bin Laden they were not.

A Real Bet

Two friends are off to Kentucky to see the Derby -- or "darby," as they would say in England. I asked Richard to put two dollars at 8-1 of Circular Quay, or Circular Key as they would say in England.

It's not a good bet, but it's a pretentious bet.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Two Bucks on My Own Nose to Win

Fifteen minutes ago I dropped my "submission package" in the mail: cover letter, several thousand words of novel, SASE and synopsis. Postage, counting the SASE, was just under two dollars. Ink and paper are a negligible expense, and I'm guessing the large envelope was less than a buck.

So probably an investment of three dollars, tops. (Oh plus 31 years working on the damn thing. But that was recreation. I should have paid the novel.)

I think this was a good investment. I may be over-confident, but I think the odds of getting my novel published are superior to one in six million, which are my odds of winning the big prize in California if I buy three tickets.

I don't think there are six million novels out there that are more publishable than mine. Not if you limit the count to the ones actually in circulation. I'm not counting the ones at the back of the nation's sock drawers.

I'm a realist. I'm not an egomaniac.

Just Another Celebrity Whore

I have just jumped a couple hundred thousand places in rank in Technorati. This not due to wit, wisdom or bedroom candids but entirely to the fact I stole a list of celebrity names from someone who had actually borrowed it from the original source and -- voila -- it would seem that some weird search engine has linked my thievery to blogs for Ben Stiller, Kelsey Grammer, Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Tom Hanks and Eddie Murphy.

None of the six new blogs that have linked to me have any blogs linking to them.

This is why I think every Media Studies should have a blog. It tells what sells. It teaches humility and a wry and ironic sense of self.