Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Michael Robertson is Unwell


By which I mean I have a heavy cold but not the flu I'm pretty sure.

My symptoms are mild, though after I walked down to the shops on Lakeshore to buy my Trader Joe's pizza for my supper, I had to lie down. Still, anyone with the nerve and verve to walk down to Trader Joe's for one of their pizzas has clearly not been clapped with a serious case of anything.

By the way, the hed for this post comes from the play "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell," which I claim for my own because E. and I saw it performed in London in 1989 during our first trip to England with my late cousin Joan. It was a one-man show, starring Peter O'Toole, who looked a bit unwell himself, and this was 20 years ago.

The premise was that the eponymous character had just awakened to discover that he was in his favorite bar and that he had been locked in for the night. It was a rather neat frame and an improvement on the "well, hey there" convention of most one-man shows. A person locked in a bar might ramble to himself to while away the hours.

My cousin decided we should sit in a box. The view was exceptional. O'Toole did not seem to be feigning the dilapidation one associates with too great an intimacy with alcohol.

The title of the play referred to the not infrequent explanation in the Spectator for Bernard's absence. Apparently, it meant he was too drunk to write. I, on the other hand, am too sick to drink. Thus, I am rehabilitating the euphemism.

I really am unwell here on New Year's Eve, sick and alone if you want to be vulgar about it. I am incapable of accepting any and all invitations to come celebrate the new year with you.

But you already had heard I was ill. That is why you did not add to my discomfort by actually tendering an invitation, was it not?


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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

God is Dead, and Santa Has a Suspicious Rash

From Al's Morning Meeting, a feature of PoynterOnline. Can't believe I missed it.

Story ideas that you can localize and enterprise. Posted by 7:30 a.m. Mon-Fri.
Why It's Difficult for Journalists to Report on Santa Claus
This week, the Chicago Tribune published an online column by health and fitness reporter Julie Deardorff, but decided not to publish it in the paper.

The reason: The column was titled "Mommy, is there a Santa Claus?," and the paper didn't want little kids to read it.

The column tells the struggle of Deardorff and her husband trying to come to terms with what they should tell their son about Santa. The online version of the story begins with a warning in red font.

Read on to find out more about reporting on Santa.
Read the Entire Post



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What I Meant Yesterday


That there are no aesthetic absolutes. When it comes to art, our standards are culturally determined. They are aspects of our evolved human nature.

That does not necessarily mean there are no aesthetic universals -- by which statement I do not concede standards that somehow exist beyond humanity, independent of humanity or previous to humanity.

There are aesthetic universals just as there are moral and/or ethical universals, the latter having nothing to do with the existence of god or some other overlord. Human ethics are a survival adaptation. (I think. Others don't, obviously.) So are aesthetic universals, though I am not sure exactly what such universals might be other than that they would certainly be broadly drawn and neither granular nor authoritative.

All universals are irreducibly human and broad to the point of caricature and thus, in application, individual, particular, idiosyncratic.

This assumption must change the tone of a good deal of criticism, would it not?

Possibly apropos, I think of the last lines of the Yeats poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion," written near the end of his life as his powers failed.


Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till.

Now that my ladder's gone,

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.


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Monday, December 29, 2008

Massive. Textured. Organic in Its Impudence.


Perhaps the most pleasant of my intellectual activities in this time between semesters is finishing my prep for the Arts Reviewing course I'll be teaching in the spring.

So many interesting questions: What, in fact, shall we review? When I taught a similar course nearly 20 years ago, my choices seemed simple, self-evident. We reviewed what the local newspapers reviewed: books, movies, plays, music, visual art. This time through I'll probably drop books, though I think we'll do a poetry slam. We'll definitely add food and television and, I think, video games though I haven't quite worked out the logistics on that one.

When I taught reviewing so long ago I don't think I wasted 15 minutes on the rationale for why reviews should appear in the popular, the mainstream, press. It was what newspapers did, part of the mosaic. Reviews provided a bit of consumer guidance and a bit of self improvement. I am quite a Babbitt, you know, ever eager (unless I watch myself) for that middle-brow cocktail-party sheen of Philistine sophistication.

Not to be too harsh on myself, but when you are raised working class and don't go in for politics, if you are raised believing the incoherence of religion will save you and then discard that particular salve, it's pretty easy to conclude that you will be saved by the gauzy incoherence of High Culture to which you are exposed piecemeal at a bad high school and a worse college. What is English Romantic poetry but religion run off the rails! So much messy thinking and so irresistible.

And that can make you think that reviews are a kind of sacred writing, in service of the arts, which we now worship as a substitute for what we did worship.

Young fool: fair enough. Middle-aged fool: oh come on.

Well, I am being too harsh on myself. But I certainly did tell my last class of review writers that one of their tasks was to educate their readers, which I still sort of believe if that education is historical and contextual right up to the edge of cultural relativism.

So I work on my checklist of what a nice piece of criticism can do. Personally, I favor a piece that entertains, which leads us down the siren path of hating everything because it's so much easier to entertain when your intent is too scathe.

But what I really want the kids to do is be honest about what the thing to which they expose themselves makes them think and makes them feel and to find words to explain it -- to try to explain it; to search for vocabulary -- no matter how subjective that effort is. And then I will insist they try to get out of their own heads to understand how others might think and feel about the thing in question and to understand the degree to which their thoughts are feelings are (or are not) idiosyncratic, unique and a puzzle to the rest of the world. I'm trying to teach them intellectual modesty!

All this wonderful talk in the Harold Pinter obits about how he didn't shape his characters so that they would "mean." As he said in his Nobel lecture (I tracked it down; I had heard it was worthwhile):

I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is 'What have you done with the scissors?' The first line of Old Times is 'Dark.'

In each case I had no further information.

In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn't give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.

snip

It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

This is quite liberating, isn't it? This is crazy wonderful shit. Loving it doesn't make me a deconstructionist guy who surrenders the text to the critic because for all the talk -- and good talk it is -- about the Intentional Fallacy, your clever ad fellows know how to write a sentence that sells the goods to the thousands and millions.

But what if you decide to set it to music and hang it on the wall because that's not all it says -- to you. Well, there you go. All criticism, like all politics, in the end is local. As soon as you figure out what I mean by that, please let me know.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

I Think I'm Scissors, Paper, Rock


I am not upset about *anything* Obama has done so far, including choosing Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation, because I think of him as a chess player, playing a deep game in which he thinks many moves ahead, making sacrifices and offering gambits, creating positional advantage in service of the final result. I don't work at his level. I reserve all criticism until something does, or does not, get done.

So Obama is a chess game. Bush was a drinking game. Every time he heard Al Qaeda, he took a drink of stupid. Cheney is Russian Roulette, except he points the gun at someone else's head.

John McCain is Pin the Tail on the Mammoth.

Hah hah hah.

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I am Helvetica


What Font Are You?

One of the most scientific quizzes I have ever encountered.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

An Electronic Christmas Card from Our Friend Caroline

It has a kitty in it like our Oliver. What a lovely gesture.

My Heart Overflowing with Love. That's What I Worry About

Bankrate.com is one of my favorites websites for information about the advantages and disadvantages of the different kinds of loans, a real consumer's treat. But that is not the limit of its information.

Today it described certain "freaky" dangers to one's home that one's homeowner's policy may not cover, such as meteors and space debris or stampeding animals.

This is the exclusion that caught my eye.

3. Volcanoes

Surprisingly, many homeowner policies actually do cover damage from volcanic eruptions. (Likewise, if you have comprehensive auto coverage and your car gets damaged from a volcanic eruption, you may be covered.) This coverage is usually limited, however, to damage caused by the material which comes out of the volcano, such as lava and ash. Damage caused by volcanic ground tremors usually isn't covered, unless you have an earthquake policy. In Hawaii, there's a state volcano insurance program that covers homeowners who live in the highest-risk areas.

There's a shaping-of-Obama's-philosophy-of- good-government joke here somewhere, but I'll make the sideways jump to John McCain's worldview:

Hey, did you know that John McCain not only believes that human beings walked the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs, he actually knew some of those people when he was growing up.

Rim shot. Someone please say rim shot.


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A Vision of Things to Come


This was my morning ritual: Start the coffee, three cups worth; pad out front and get the four newspapers; pour the coffee and sit down on the sofa; start with the San Francisco Chronicle, actually with the sports section since on any given day and on every given day, half the teams win and all the little profiles are tales of triumph or redemption; read whatever section of the Oakland Tribune my wife tosses me with the instruction 'read this'; skim the New York Times, saving some stories for later in the day; read whatever section of the Financial Times my wife tosses me with the instruction 'read this'.

But it's different now. Add to the list the placement of my laptop on the sofa next to me. Finish the list with: go to the laptop and check my news aggregator for breaking news and for interpretation, for nuance.

Now if the rest of the world did as I do, what a happy Christmas it would be for the newspaper industry -- I mean, subscribing to four newspapers for Christ's sake. But when all the world goes directly to the news aggregator, because every morning see all the lovely facts and shit lying on the ground like manna from heaven, suddenly all that aggregated news will become 'news'.

Actually, a good deal of what we get from newspapers is already 'news,' but that's better than "news" by an order of magnitude.

If you get my drift.

Addendum: I'm aggregating away, and I find this story, which illustrates my point about feel-good sports profiles. But do not remain in doubt, my friend: It made me feel good.

Friday, December 26, 2008

What I Ate Yesterday


Thursday December 25, 2008


Joe, Garrett, Madelyn, Michael, Mer, Dan, Trish, Annette, Suzy, Renée, Marie, Roger, Gail, Robert, Sura, Mimi

Fois Gras on Brioche Toasts w/ Yuzu Juice
Dates wrapped w/ Coppa & Lonza stuffed w/ Goat Cheese & Satsuma Mandarin Orange Slices
Padron Chilis
Bollito Misto w/ Macgruder Ranch Tongue, Brisket, Chicken, Fatted Calf Cottechino, Carrots, Onions, Garlic, Bay, Chicken Stock, Gattonetti Tomato Juice, Salt, Black Pepper, Celery
Mustardo
Salsa Verde w/ Stiinging Nettles, Anchovies, Garlic, Mint, Sherry Wine, Salt
Grated Carrots w/ Saffron, Cardomom, Butter & Milk
Roasted Red, Yellow, & Chiogga Beets pickeled in Balsmic, Rice Wine, & Cider Vinegars (respectively)
Cheese from Farmstead

Roger's Root Vegetable Gratin
Tricia's Green Beans
Renée's Foccaicia and Tiramisu
Spanikopita
Robert's Pork & Beans
Gail's Bouche de Noel
Madelyn's Cookies,
Garrett's Marshmallows
1 comments

I brought ice cream! (But it didn't make the cut. Which is understandable.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Worst Christmas Ever


Which this is. But that's not really a complaint because it shows how high the bar is set. It's the worst ever because it's the first time in 43 years E. and I have not been together on Christmas. It's also the first time in either 41 or 42 years that we have not had a cat in the house.

These two facts intersect in a most unpleasant way. If little Oliver had not been so ill or would have already died, would I have gone with E. to her mum's in Florida? I don't know. Staying with Oliver was reason enough. I did not catalog other reasons.

After kitty died and I got him buried, I could have jumped on a plane, but by that time the stories of thousands stuck in the nation's airports were breaking, and pain and loss are one thing and masochism is another. But now I wonder if I should have bought a last-minute ticket even if I had to spend Xmas day en route, trying to work my way back to you, babe.

All that said and as I said, this being the worst Xmas doesn't mean it will be miserable. I'm off in a minute to walk around Lake Merritt. Brother Peter Moore, responding to only the bare minimum of hint dropping and poignant silence, has invited me to his place. I will be the 19th guest, I am given to understand, so I won't be that intrusive. I anticipate a refugee camp vibe, the more the merrier or perhaps the more the less miserable.

So I can be manic or morose, but I need not be center stage. I suddenly think of J. Alfred Prufrock!

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use, 115
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Oh Google, you bitch. The quote is a bit harsher than I recall. But it came to mind, so I must accept it as found. That's the iron law of blogging. Play it as it lays. Revision and concision are luxury items.

But the point remains. Today will be a good Christmas, merely the worst I've ever had.

The best was in Atlanta in 1975. After finishing my degree at Duke in 1972, I got a three-year term appointment at NC State, where I had been teaching year to year while finishing grad school. Pretty quickly I was told that it was a terminal appointment, and I needed to look elsewhere.

I looked elsewhere. I looked and I did not find, partly because I had this weird inexplicable pride that *some jobs were beneath me.* Then, E. was accepted to architecture school at Georgia Tech, and I said this time I would follow her.

We arrive in Atlanta the summer of '75. Unemployment is 10 percent nationally. I job search. I fail in that search, as the months pass. We are supposed to spend the Christmas with my parents. I cancel. I am too depressed.

I am *very* depressed, actually, because we are running out of money, and E. is paying out-of-state tuition. I have been looking for work as an advertising copywriter for no particular reason other than it is yet one more of those jobs that sound cool, though given my blue-collar background I have no clear idea about the nature of the work, the preparation for the work, the necessary connections for getting the work.

A day or two before Christmas something snaps, and I try to snap back. I knock together a very clever job package -- very desperate sounding and very amateurish, I now realize -- get it photocopied and on Christmas Eve E. and I put the packages together and mail them to every ad agency in the Greater Atlanta Yellow Pages.

I feel better. We have done nothing to decorate our home other drape the tinsel of my despair on "the black dog." Sometime after sunset we go in search of a tree. We find a Christmas tree lot, but it has closed, and a few bedraggled trees have been thrown to the side. We liberate one, give it a home as one might a stray animal. We decorate it with the pine cones sprayed with gold paint that we collected during grad school.

We go into the kitchen -- it was in its way a wonderful kitchen, about the size of a packing crate and quite cozy -- and bake cookies while we watch "Holiday Inn" on our five-inch black-and-white tv stuck amid the mixing bowls on the counter. It is long after midnight. It is Christmas Day.

I forgot something important. Though I had prepared my job package several days before, I had spent all my hope and energy in its preparation. My claims were thin. My boasts were foolish. To hope was to deceive myself. But E., seeing me in my misery, announced that we would finish the job, stuff the envelopes, and we would send them. She did not ask me to alter how I felt, only to act in spite of how I felt.

We are going to do this, she said. She got up. And I got up. And we did what needed to be done.

I have almost never been at the brink in my long life. I do not wrestle with my demons. I have them in for tea and civilized conversation for they are my demons, after all, and not inclined to make much trouble. But that day of that year I was as close to the brink as I have ever been, and my wife ... did what she did, what she does, what she has always done.

Out of that mailing came a single offer of a part-time job as a advertising copywriter. Out of the circumstances of that job -- which I reserve for later but don't you worry; when you have a blog, everything gets said sooner or later -- came my first job in journalism.

And here I am, thinking of my best Christmas ever, counting the hours -- 500, give or take -- till my wife comes home. It is not such a bad Christmas.
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare 75 Cents If You Won't Go for a Sunday Subscription?

Shortly after their deaths, I cradled the limp dead bodies of our brother cats Boris and Oliver, and I grieved.

In the case of Boris, that grief was almost 15 years ago when he was run over crossing the street in front of our house, and a neighbor came to tell. That was painful. I won't go into particulars of my regret because I'm afraid all this recent pet-loving is all so bourgeois -- you may be interested to know, by the way, that if you prick a bourgeoisie, do we not bleed? -- but suffice it to say that it's hard to lose a young pet with so much fun still to come for us and for the cat.

You can fill in the blanks, I think. If you've read this far, we are probably in sync.

Did the same thing with little Oliver after he died in our sleep Friday morning, holding him for a while, before he started to get stiff. That death was less painful because he had lived long and well, and we had fought so hard the last six months to keep him alive. Seeing him dead, my mind reset to images of his relative health as short a time as only a year ago, and I saw that his death was a proper end, acceptable to us and a relief to him.

All this I have said is by way of introducing a few thoughts about the delicate state of newspapers today.

(So much introduction and so few thoughts. This is the kind of thing for which I'd grade my reporting students down. Lack of proper proportion between intro and body, I cry!)

Anyway, this morning I flop-stepped outside in my sandals and my pink bathrobe. (Send me a quarter, and I'll explain that bathrobe; I've got to monetize my fan dance.)

So out I flop out to pick up our four morning papers. And I look at them there in driveway and front yard. And I think of Kitty Oliver, as I see them lying there, so thin and limp, pitiful really if you remember their muscular days.

And I think this is just like being in bed Friday morning with Oliver. I'm watching newspapers die. I look. I turn away (metaphorically).

I will turn back and they will be gone.


Addendum: And, yes, this little conceit quickly breaks down, given the fact we'll go to the pound and get a box of kittens, and happiness will reign, and my ruling analogy will curl up in a ball and go to sleep.

Though, actually, when it comes to gathering information both useful and accurate, the internet is a little bit like a box of kittens. For once I don't mean that in a nice way.
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Monday, December 22, 2008

From What Point of View Is This Ad Shot?

My man Pabst over at fishlanguage posted this. The question is his, too.

I figured it out. I think.

Decorum

Romanesko, whom I trust, links to the Weekly Standard, which I don't trust, in which appears a story about the travails of Detroit, the hook being Charlie LeDuff, the former NY Times phenom who came home to work at the Detroit News.

It's a feature story with all the vividness and point-of-view that make that genre both irresistible and elusive. Never take a feature story as your only point of reference. Triangulate. But the essence of a good feature story is its subjectivity, its invested emotion, its ability to make us see and hear, which is another way of describing its tunnel vision and tunnel listening, and we all know how focus on the fine print can obscure the big picture.

And we all know how the big picture can be a lie, for the world is pointillist, and we -- you, me, Rick Warren and Rahm Emmanuel -- are those points. So back to my thesis sentence: Triangulate.

The Weekly Standard's view of Detroit is bleak but sympathetic to the city's decent citizens, whatever larger political agenda uses that bleakness as a trampoline. And I know Detroit's situation is bleak, though my firsthand knowledge is out of date.

My wife is from Detroit Metro, and I worked one summer in the Ford River Rouge plant and one summer in the Great Lakes Steel plant, and I liked Detroit then, warts and all. But today: I know it's bad. We hear things. We keep in touch. The Weekly Standard story suggests the situation is appalling, and the fact the Weekly Standard salivates over stories about Democratic hellholes doesn't mean Democratic hellholes don't exist.

(All those Republican hellholes -- let us say Wall Street -- which differ from Detroit just to this extent: The ---holes pour down the hell on us, and laugh.)

Quite a story, though. I'll send it to my man Boileau for his reaction. One great paragraph describing a Detroit firehouse, which I could use in reporting class but probably won't even though it touches on the issues of accurate quotation and protecting sources.

I ask how this could be, where is their funding? "I'll tell you what happened to our funding," Nevin says, stomping over to pick up a newspaper with a picture of Kwame's mistress copping a plea. "Kwame Kilpatrick, who is a f--ing retard. There's 20 years of Coleman Young, who is a f--ing retard." He doesn't limit it to black Detroit politicians. He suggests that Congressman Sandy Levin, who represents most of Detroit's northeastern suburbs, "can suck my nuts." Nevin is furious. His friend is dead. He's tired of do-nothing politicians who cuddle up to firemen like kewpie dolls during election time, then underfund them and fail to demolish the thousands and thousands of structures that burn again and again. The surprise isn't that Walt's dead, it's that more of them aren't. (When I ask Nevin later if he wants to exhibit such candor, he reconsiders, "You'd better have Levin kiss my balls," he says, much more gingerly.)

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Some Friends Came Over to Play Games and Take My Mind Off Oliver's Death, But I Forgot to Video Them. *Or Maybe I Made Them All Up.*

In which case grief has deranged my mind, right?

Among the guests were Paris Hilton, J.D. Salinger, Anita Bryant, Howard Hughes body double (not the last one, the next to last), Nate Silver, Dick Cheney's secret Santa and the Lichen brothers, Algae and Fungus.

You decide.

video

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Woodward and Bernstein Are Alive and Well and Living in Their Mother's Basement


Len Downie writes in the Washington Post:

Felt's death raised the inevitable question: Could the kind of reporting that Woodward and Carl Bernstein pulled off be done today, more than three decades later, in the age of the Internet?

For many reasons, I believe it could. But it would probably play out quite differently.

There are still whistle-blowers like Felt in government today -- probably many more than there were back then. They are encouraged by various public employees' organizations and protected by whistle-blowers' legislation enacted after Watergate. And they have many more investigative reporters to talk to -- not only at newspapers, despite deep and worrying cuts in newsroom staffs, but also many other media outlets, including investigative Web sites and blogs.


So Downie is optimistic and suggests that blogs -- and god help us cable tv -- would surface such a story more quickly. However, he adds:

In an age when the media have been turned upside-down by the biggest shifts in audiences and economic models since the advent of television, my two biggest questions about whether we could still pursue a story like Watergate center on resources and verification. Many Americans, including opinion leaders in Washington and elsewhere, simply didn't or wouldn't believe The Washington Post's reporting about Watergate during its early months -- not until we were joined by the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS News, Judge John J. Sirica, the Senate Watergate committee and the special Watergate prosecutor.

In today's cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified?

As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work.


So in spite of his top-of-the-essay optimism, he comes back to the question that consumes me. Where's the economic model for future investigative journalism?

Perhaps, crowdsourcing solves the problem. Perhaps, the whole investigative process can be compressed when many hands work at it. Perhaps, some news sites, some of them blogs, will gain renown for aggregating and interpreting all this new information, and will gain authority based not on their original reporting but on their judgment.


Friday, December 19, 2008

This is My Friend Michael Koppy's Video Christmas Card

I Need to Bury the Cat


I'm not going to put it off any longer. The earth is soft, and the sky is blue.

I read this poem a long time ago. I looked and I found it. Dickey does not write of domestic animals, but I am still glad I found it, not believing in heaven for anyone but glad to play at believing.

The Heaven of Animals
Here they are.  The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains it is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing, desperately
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.

For some of these, it could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

-- James Dickey

Sometime Between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. This Morning



Our cat Oliver died in bed with me, pressed against my side as I slept fitfully. After all the syringes full of food, medicine, laxative, minerals that I gave him late last night -- after the successful squeezing of his bladder -- I put him in his cat basket, which has a heating pad under the blanket on which he lay.

Around three I heard him cry out. He had crawled out of the basket and was stretched out on the cold slate floor of the bedroom. I put him on an absorbent pad -- think a big Depends sheet -- and then placed my sweatshirt over him.

I got back in bed. I lay there for a minute or two. I got out of bed and put two of the absorbent sheets across the sheet next to me and picked Oliver up and laid him there and lay down next to him and began to cuddle him.

He was making soft cries of protest, against pain I suppose, though perhaps only against the touch of death, the tightening of its grip. He was limp as a rag doll. When I had gone to bed around midnight, I had imagined that sometime during the night he would come struggling up his ramp, having improved enough from the treatment he had just undergone at the vet to manage that modest incline.

That he was worse rather than better suggested failed treatment, a hopeful diagnosis gone wrong. I can squeeze his bladder, I thought, and squeeze baby food and chicken broth into him, but for how long? At what point does one accept the inevitable? It was a hard question. I saw no easy answer.

About five, I got out of bed and put him next to his water bowl, but he would not drink. I took him to the bathroom and used a clean syringe -- we have a dozen or so; we stocked up; we encouraged ourselves by behaving as it we were in for the long haul -- and fed him water, which he seemed to relish.

Then, I took him back to bed. I couldn't sleep and thought I might get up in the dark and have coffee and wait for the first of the four newspapers we get every morning. But then I did sleep, and I dreamed. There were several different dreams, and at the periphery of each was Oliver, not well again but improved, limping about, interested in food, trying to jump up with that awkward gallant determination he showed as he slowly lost control of his back legs.

I awoke around seven and looked at him, still pressed against my side, and saw almost at once that he was dead. Which I did not expect.

I took him upstairs and sat on the sofa where he loved to sit and cradled him in my arms for a good long time. Then I called my wife in Florida. She was picking up barbecue for her mother's lunch. I asked her how long before she would be home and would have waited telling her the news until then, but then she asked how Oliver had passed the night. And I told her he was dead and how and when.

And then we wept -- wept as I told the tale, filling it with gasps and gaps -- and I felt all the better for it. In the barbecue restaurant in Florida, several people asked my wife why she was crying, and every time I heard her reply, "My cat died."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Saving Tinkerbelle


I mean please on my behalf believe or feign belief that little Oliver can get his fuzzy butt in gear again. For today he simply quit moving.

He crawls a little, the best he can, not good enough. It's been coming these six months. In June we pulled him back from the vet's last needle when no one thought we could, but he's an old cat, 16 years, eight months, 19 days we figure.

I am not sure that the strength is there in his little body. I don't know if it's there for him to find. He cries out, and the vet said it may not be pain -- the vet does not think he is in pain -- he cries out in frustration because his nerve-damaged rear legs cannot push him, though he tries, and his front legs at last lack the strength to pull him forward.

The vet is "shot-gunning" his condition -- $409 worth of shotgunning. A vitamin B Complex shot. A powerful steroid. An enema for god's sake because his little bowel is packed and potentially toxic.

I feed him chicken soup and baby food by syringe. And another syringe with a softener for his feces and another syringe with the paste they call CalLax and another syringe with half a teaspoon of potassium.

And a steroid pill and one-quarter of a blood pressure pill. Oh, I have to squeeze his bladder empty twice a day, laying him on his side, pressing him down with my left hand, squeezing with my right as if he were a baby's toy, handling him rough, too rough, because gentle will not work because I'm on my own, and I've never done this on my own before.

He's not strong enough to struggle. And I think: Give him the strength to make me stop, at least to exact a price. Then he will be well again.

If only.

Actually, I don't want much, no miracle, no drastic recalibration of the laws of causation. I just want to keep him going for a month until E. comes home from her mother's. She left him in my care. It matters because it matters because it matters. Take my word.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sitting Here Giving My Reporting Students Their Final

Half the final is always a police report -- a real police report rich in irrelevant detail and bureaucratic language -- that the kids must boil down to 100 words. They may, of course, keep going after that act of summary, but they must not "go chronological," as I put it, too soon.


Story telling is a natural human act. Some do it better than others, but we all appreciate the art of Scheherazade, for whom the maintenance of suspense was an act of survival. Yet the aim of certain kinds of journalism is the destruction of suspense: Here is what happened raw and simple. Perhaps that sort of tight focus is a form of misdirection, even dishonesty, in its arrogant assumption that the reporter's frame somehow corrals the truth.


That's the student of Media Studies talking, and it's the right kind of talk. News is made (I obviously don't mean fabricated, only that certain information is selected and pulled downstage) by whoever records it. But that does not mean the summary lead is not a useful thing or always a dishonest thing. If you go too Postmodern and say the critic rules the text and the text is indeterminate as is the material world which is a kind of text, you may become as foolish as one of Swift's floating philosophers, trapped in solipsism.

So I teach the summary lead without shame, though I also try to teach the modesty that should accompany its use.


But moderation in all things, including modesty. Read Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts"


About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Marvelous brilliant cruel poem. It's all about burying the lead, a reporter would say.


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The Long March


With E. out of town, I need to keep my spirits up through means other than spirits....

That's just clanking words together. It's easy to submit to apathy -- in dress, in personal hygiene, in rummaging around for le mot juste -- when it's just me and the cat on our own.

Poor cat can hardly wiggle, so old and arthritic is he. Just trying to keep him going until E. gets back. Mutual grief is still grief, but solitary grief is horror. (Clank. Clank.)

Back to my droopy spirits. Exercise is an antidote, so three out of the last four days I've walked around Lake Merritt, starting at our front door, which is a mile from the lake. I think I'm doing five total. It feels like five, which makes it exercise. That is, it feels like work, since my body is quite the load to tote.

So that's it. This post is like a promissory note. Now that I've said I'm walking, I'm committed to documenting it through photo and video. Today just past the boathouse where the lake tapers to a finger in front of the Kaiser building and the new Catholic cathedral (which looks like a cracker barrel) down through the trees I saw birds in the water. They were white egrets, perhaps two dozen, and they took wing, flying low across the lake, legs trailing.

My spirits improved, just for a minute there. But then you turn and there's no one to tell, no echo for the pleasure. Among other things love is a habit, one which I'd rather not break.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Guy Said, 'Your Taste is in Your Mouth'


Trembling with excitement yesterday anticipating an evening watching a much-praised movie with friends on friends' Great Wall o' TV as I like to call it, though not in its presence because if I piss it off it looks powerful enough to fry me with microwaves at a hundred yards.

The classic in question was The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, which Miz Gayle had procured because it was Michael Powell handiwork, and she was up to what cinephiles are always up to, that is, working through the oeuvre of the masters.

Now I had seen the damn thing back in grad school days but had a kind of amnesia about it, remembering only the principal actor and his gravelly voice. I just assumed I had been stunned with wonder at the time, which explained the fact my memory of the film was a circle around a vacancy.

So down we sat and within I'd say five minutes we were aware we were in for an evening of sociology. That is, the movie seemed kind of bad in terms of crisp, clear plotting and character motivation -- nice technicolor, though -- but it certainly did encourage us to engage in a bit of reverse engineering as we tried to figure out why the Brits made this movie right in the middle of War World II, when things were still in doubt.

(Released 1943, so probably made early that year or even in 1942, just when the Yanks started coming?)

The argument *seemed to be* that there were some good Germans, at least the ones who fled the country as the Nazis gained power -- though some who claimed that category were probably spies, so watch out -- and more to the point the British needed to fight dirty or at least fight sneaky to win the war because THE BRITISH YOU KNOW ARE JUST SO KIND AND FAIR.

So you wonderful old farts, get with the program.

It was kind of fun as a study of the limits propaganda places on art in a democracy in time of war against that great luxury in an opponent, to wit absolute evil -- though look at how brilliant wartime propaganda can be, as in Casablanca -- and Deborah Kerr played three separate parts spread over 40 years, women who looked exactly alike but weren't even related, but Miz Gayle said it probably meant she was a kind of placeholder, the ideal of British womanhood, which from one point of view suggested to a certain kind of British man women of a certain cast of face and mind were pretty much interchangeable.

Good job, Gayle. The active mind creates meaning, not un-Sibyl-like, and finds the fun.

We agreed it was maybe * or 1.5* out of five. And then I find this at wikipedia.
Maybe they sent us the outtakes???????


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembered

Steven Winn says goodbye to The Chronicle

Monday, December 8, 2008






Shortly after I came to work at The Chronicle, near the end of the Carter administration, I spent six months in what was called the People section. It was the place where "women's stories" used to go, the human-interest features and pieces about fashion, debutante balls and lifestyle, whatever that meant. Armistead Maupin, Joan Chatfield-Taylor, Jon Carroll, Ruthe Stein, Michael Robertson and Sylvia Rubin were among the first-rate writers for that now long-gone section.

As I wrote Steve, it's one thing to be a dinosaur but it's another thing -- kind of an honor, really -- to be a dinosaur in the Year of the Asteroid.

Steve made a good boot. So did I.

The Hat


Last night we had the Media Studies Christmas party at the lavish and talented downtown SF apartment of SK, complete with hot and cold running cats Tito and BooBoo, and it was all *very* cordial, and I had wine.

I also wore a Santa hat. There were two reasons for that, one general and one specific. The general reason is that every holiday office party -- which this was, though it lacked the bathroom snogging that enlivens such parties and destroys marriages or at least puts a dent in them or for all I know *revs* 'em up again-- needs an older gentleman in a Santa hat.

When you are young, you see an older gentleman in a Santa hat and you Pity the Fool.

But when you are an older gentleman, you are reconciled that you *are* the fool (it's a philosophical position; it's not personal), and life's a joke and what's a Santa hat but a socially acceptable variant on Cap and Bells?

But -- two in a row! is that a double negative? -- really I wore the Santa hat as homage to the past. Ah, those holiday parties at the home of Aunt Hester and Uncle Dell in Roanoke, Virginia, so long ago. What I remember with such pleasure is Uncle Robert and his Santa bow tie that lit up when he tugged at the string. (Of course, one was invited to tug at the string. But one did not.)

Such a child's pleasure at being the center of attention he took from it, and Aunt Iris was so innocently proud that this one day of the year her husband had something that compensated for his absolute lack of small talk and perhaps any talk at all when Aunt Iris was around.

The holidays are just a mush of memory, all the bland and all the spicy and all the grit simmering together in the brain pan. I put the silly hat on my head and remember those people -- all odd; all dead; all mine.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Foghorn Editor Had Been Accused of Using 'No Comment' to Defame a Minority Group


I testified on behalf of 'no comment.'

It was all very impassioned. I think the Foghorn staff was ordered to undergo sensitivity training. Better than being sent to Devil's Island, I guess.

Addendum:

Okay, more explanation.

As I remember it, a campus group had used money supplied by student government to pay for (or help pay for) some bit of published info that suggested Columbus Day should not be a time of celebration, at least for Native Americans. A student senator -- who was, I believe, Italian-American -- objected to this use of funds, rising (I suppose) in defense of Columbus (who was a brute, you know, quite the bastard when it came to native peoples).

The Foghorn did a story on the controversy and, trying and failing to contact the president of the student organization that had published the original criticism of Columbus Day, reported that she had 'no comment.' (Or was it 'unavailable for comment'? I don't remember.)

The president said that characterization made her look bad and that she was not given a fair chance to comment, and the whole thing was a breach of journalism ethics. She filed a complaint with the Media Council, which hadn't had such a thrilling controversy in years.

There was a public hearing. I appeared to give some ethical perspective on the use of 'no comment' and in general to defend the article. (I think I had just been tenured, so when it comes to profiles in courage: no big whoop.)

I believe my insights were ignored.

The guy upstanding is Kent German, the Foghorn editor. He's at Cnet now, a card-carrying journalist.

This is Not a Well-Written Headline


Supreme Court Rejects Obama Citizenship Claim


On the other hand, to undertake the job of writing headlines is to accept inevitable embarrassment. There's a slice of foolish pie on the buffet for all of us who write.

I recall two lines from my days of teen poetry that have outlived all the rest of it, at least in the mind of my wife, who loves love and love's howlers even more.

One was a rather melodramatic imagining of a man's life at sea containing this stanza:

And then the West Wind turned again and brought from inland farms
The smell of all I'd done and been far from the ocean's arms.

Talk about an excremental vision!

But this one is better:

I aim my shaft of love toward whom I choose
Though shaft fall short.

Yeah, we've all dated a guy like that, my wife says.

Context

-I would not appreciate Hugh Laurie's performance in 'House' so much had I not thought him a brilliant comic actor who would be wasted in any part which did not require just a little clowning. And I would not appreciate Sean Penn's performance as Harvey Milk so much if I had not seen him in all those grim roles of recent years.

I've always thought him a rather charmless actor and even when he does vulnerable -- something called 'The Translator' with Nicole Kidman? -- he seems to be working very hard. But in 'Milk' he seems to be doing such an open performance, an *easy* performance in that (as with so many less-accomplished actors) you get the sense he just peeled a layer back or tweaked an old shtick.

But my memory of past performance says that's not true. And don't bring up 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' -- if that was the title. I'm in full blog/fugue, looking up nothing as I look back. That was lout work, I recall. an over-the-top goof. I am supposing that Penn spent some years *not* being Spiccoli (if that was indeed his name and shame on me for knowing or thinking I know).

Penn as Milk? Affected without ever approaching parody.

Do I smell Oscar? You know, that's rather an insult, a way of stepping back from the performance, categorizing, commodifying and reducing it.

But just as you can't unring a bell, some scents do stick in the nostrils.


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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Obama Goes to the Haight

What's the metric for determining how hard I have worked as chair this semester? Look no further than my bar bill. During the school year every month or so the colleagues and I walk out for an afternoon drink or two, hitting one bar or another but favoring the Aub Zam Zam, which specializes in martinis, and there are certain things you should attempt only in the presence of a specialist.

Last week one of my wife's bosses told her that she was making everyone else look bad -- because she had done a job so fast that now people would ask why every job wasn't done that rapidly. This is man talk, the positive framed as a negative, so that you have to step back, assess and work your way around before you arrive at the truth on the other side.

This is how many many (did I say many?) male animals do their business, and having a few drinks with male colleagues you sometimes get a fine flow of friendly insult, the equivalent of the 'pound hug,' where men embrace stiff-armed and then flail at one another's backs.

So that's pretty much it when we visit the Haight: increasingly loud and awkward code-talk, as we all try to get in touch with our inner Barney and cannot find him. And what happens when female colleagues come along, which they sometimes but not always do? Well, mostly they sip almost imperceptibly, like bees at tiny flowers. They watch, as if the male animal was more assignment than companion, and file it all away as they get in touch with their inner anthropologist.

You could write a book, they think. As so many women have.

But I have wandered off track. My point is that my clan and I went walkabout before classes started back in August and haven't since. I personally blame the emails, which breed like tribbles.

And, by the way, I am of course aware of Chaucer's Sergeant of the Law:


Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was
.


I do concede I don't always resist boasting about my devotion to duty and perhaps exaggerate it a bit. But the fact remains: We were dead to the Haight for more than three months. Now, as it happened an election intervened, and in its aftermath I acquired an Obama hat mostly because it felt so good to buy it on the street in Oakland from a young black woman to whom the handing over of the hat seemed like the giving of a gift, even though I paid her $15. I've worn it here and sometimes there, to the occasional approving nod.

But yesterday I thought: It's time to take my game into the belly of the beast, to show all those Naderites, Trotskyites, libertarians, vegetarians, Greens, connoisseurs of all things Kucinich, your protofascists, nanofascists, hypofascists and fascists manque, not to mention all those bedraggled and dispirited Republicans on the down low who so clutter up the thoroughfare you can hardly find a dry piece of sidewalk, I'm saying I'm going to show all of them just how proud a moderate Democrat can be in these days of half-a-loaf, which will certainly be better than none in the aftermath of Bush backing up the truck and dumping everything in the cesspool and then backing the damn truck into the cesspool and throwing in the keys and then *walking away*, the bastard.

It's a small hope we have about the future when looked at from one angle, about a hat's worth of hope. It's all been going to ruin for so long and so fast, so please just stop the slide, Mr. President.

And then we all take a deep breath. And then we link hands and start the long slow climb back, keeping our mouths *shut* just for the first little while.

And what actually *happened*? Our little tatooed waitress was not amused, though I don't think it was the hat, and a bum asked me for money by reciting political poetry. And you know I think I felt a slight wind at my back, though it may have only been the breathing of my companions, laboring up a slight incline.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

It's Sad When a Friend Turns Against You


Peter Moore, cruel fellow that he is, sent this link to help me measure how the occasional friendly beverage will pump me up like a balloon.

Apparently when I drink enough to see double, I really am double.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I Am a Clever Fellow


I'm exchanging emails with my Arts Reporting/Reviewing class (Spring 2009) about which genres they'd like to tackle. I make the final call, of course, but I want to give them what they want.

In moderation.

Anyway, one student asked for both recorded and live music, and I said we'll go with live performance because there's "more stuff for those of us with two left ears."

Two left ears. Never heard that before. Googled it. Only 243 hits.

Not bad.