Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tonight the Dude Will Abide

The Big <span class=Lebowski" style="border: medium none ; display: block;" height="440" width="298">Image via Wikipedia

By which I mean we are going to the home of H. and of N., a surviving Chronicle reporter, for a little New Year's Eve fictionary.

She is not the Dude. The Dude is the hero of the Big Lebowski and will be a topic of conversation if I am called upon.

Or if I choose to thrust myself forward, which I may: My wit bears fruit if watered, though isn't it a grand language in which one may be watered with things other than water? I mean after the second glass of wine I may feel like being heard. But with what thoughts shall I bruise the air?

Thoughts about the Big Lebowski. I just got done reading today's Arts section of the New York Times for the express purpose of finding stuff to talk about with the bright middle-aged things that we will be thrust among tonight.

And in an article therein I learn that The Big Lebowksi is:

the decade’s most venerated cult film. It’s got that elusive and addictive quality that a great midnight movie has to have: it blissfully widens and expands in your mind upon repeat viewings.

Its fans have yearly conferences at which they, well, vaguely drink, I guess, and play trivia with names and dialogue. (Nice marmot??)

And just now a volume of Lebowski Studies has been published by Indiana University Press, filled with so-called scholarly articles by so-called scholars, some of which sound like satire on themselves, but journalists are such little bitches, aren't they?

More than a few of this book’s essay titles will make you groan and laugh out loud at the same time (“ ‘The Big Lebowski’ and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism”).

Is it all Pomo nonsense, applying academic electrolysis to the shaggier elements of popular culture?

I'll get back to you after the conversation tonight. I haven't decided which end of this stick I will grab and start flailing about.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I Am Going to Do Over Vacation

Oh many things, including growing my goatee back, and this is why.

Since most of the kids in my Journalism Ethics class are seniors, it being a "capstone" course, I always take a field trip on the last day to the legendary Pig and Whistle on Masonic near the U. It serves food, so the under-21 are welcome.

This year the guys in class showed up late -- all two of them -- so at first I was seated at a long table with ten young woman. The happy acccident of my sitting at a table with ten such females -- damned handsome, as the Brits would say; just lovely -- was much admired by the guys at the bar. There were approving looks, and banter.

You know I was vaguely embarrassed, though I'm not sure why.

Matter and antimatter. Tiger and anti-Tiger?

The young ladies were very proper. Two or three had a single beer, several had soft drinks and two or three had nothing at all, having been warned more than once against roofies, I guess. I had a couple Guinness (a very nourishing and wholesome beverage, a fine lunch substitute), and the total bill was still only 33 bucks and change.

"You didn't put on much of a show," Chris the bartender said.

Anyway, the guys from class finally showed up and had a beverage, and one of them said how disappointed he and a couple other guys who had me for journalism classes were that I had shaved off my goatee.

"It makes you look like your evil twin," he said. "We really liked it."

What an irresistible idea, looking like Bad Spock in the episode set in the antimatter -- or, at least bizarro, universe -- where good Kirk suddenly discovers what fun it is to be a bad boy for a while. (If you have a taste for chewing scenery, evil is always the more savory .)

So I'm growing back my chin rag, my face fungus, my stud stubble.

Does he or doesn't he? Is he or isn't he?

My Wife Says It Will Be a Tsunami, But My Money is On a Giant Mutant Squid

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 12:  A group of sea l...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The famous Pier 39 sea lions are now famous by their absence. The Chron tells me the docks are bare. A couple months ago the count was 1,700, and now it's zero.

In a science fiction movie, such an exodus would be a harbinger, and pretty quickly the first undersea upwelling would kill a diver, or the diver could wander too close too an area near the Farallons (let us say) where chemical waste or nuclear debris or Barry Bonds urine had been dumped and suddenly: mangled diver and a trail of bubbles heading toward SF.

Of course, it could be an earthquake, though why would sea lions care? I'd think the curtain raiser for that would be a stream of urban wildlife heading across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Muir Woods -- where they can lie in wait for the throngs of weakened refugees.


Meanwhile, here in Oakland we pray that it will be a tsunami and a splendid future, here in the low hills, as beachfront property.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Did Our Guests Put Down the Garbage Disposal?

Laney College next to Lake Merritt BART stationImage via Wikipedia

Whatever it was, it is now on its way to the sea, nudged along by the nice young man from Abante Plumbing, who took the plumbing course at Laney College and certainly must make Laney proud.

E. thinks it was a gradual buildup, and we shouldn't blame the Boxing Day revelers, but I think Bob yelled, "Cheese it! It's the fuzz!" once too often, and thus the disposal was abused.

Also, the water backed up into the dishwasher, and now it won't work. "Proust's Dishwasher" -- that's the scholarly monograph I want to read.

Went to work with E. As of the 30th she is officially retired, but she wants to get the jobs she's passing off to others in flawless order. In my opinion, that's like polishing eyeglasses for the blind and giving a tuning fork to the deaf, but that's just my opinion of some of the people she works with, who make the people I work with seem like bunnies in Eden.

Which is quite a compliment, since Post-Lapsarian bunnies are quite fetching, so pink and twitchy.

Graded a stack of "big stories." Grades aren't due till next Monday, and we weren't going anywhere, so what's the hurry? Some of the big stories were good, with some good reporting and clever news writing.

This was not a semester during which I thought I did a particularly effective job. But apparently I didn't *ruin* anybody.
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Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Greatness That is the Robertsons on Boxing Day

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, New York Ci...Image via Wikipedia

Our Christmas tree this year is the hugest of the huge because E. has spent the last four Christmas holidays in Florida with Moms Landrith, and thus we went treeless since it's a job of work to hang the many lights and ornaments we own. You need time to do it, and you want time to enjoy it.

But Moms died in September so not only were we home together for the first time in several years, we also needed a bit of a morale boost. It's a strange messy unease when a parent dies who is very old -- Moms was 98.5 -- and a drain both financially and emotionally but still sporadically alert, even vital. One is sad, but one is also just a little glad, and one's accountant breathes a sigh of relief.

So I thought this year's tree must be a landmark or at least a hallmark. We hit the lot at East Bay Nursery, and in the first 30 seconds I said, "That one."

That one was a big one, a full 12 feet we later figured out, and thus about a foot too tall for our downstairs study, which is a pretty tall room as you may have noticed in the video from earlier today.

I am quite in awe of our tree, possibly the greatest tree ever but certainly the biggest tree ever because I will measure more accurately in future years. So impressed was I with our tree that I talked E. into scheduling a Boxing Day party -- which would be your December 26th -- so people could see as soon as possible The Greatness That is the Robertsons' Tree.

But after the invitations were sent, I began to wonder if anyone would show the day after Christmas. The day after can be a time of physical and emotional exhaustion since with some frequency Christmas is not what it could be, should be or -- perhaps most vexing --what it was. Even if actually it never was what it was.

However, Yoda I must be, for the party last night very good was it. I felt a special gratitude to those who showed up -- and not all that ungrateful to those who didn't, since we had 30 guests, about as many as our house comfortably holds. And Yoda Squared I unknowingly was because the quantity of food and drink the guests brought you wouldn't believe. That's the prism through which to look at the day after Christmas, a day when the crumbs of abundance overflow, all the stuff you couldn't eat or drink and welcome the opportunity to get out of the house.

A special gracias to Peter and Anita, who brought trays and boxes of leftovers from their traditional holiday feast to which the foodies throng, festooned with booze and tasties. Peter brought the remnants of this Alsatian thing with six (or maybe nine) kinds of pork, including blood sausage.

Also, a bottle of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 that somebody gave Peter, which Peter said was a "cult favorite" and worth tens and dozens and possibly even hundreds of dollars. I sipped. Sigh. My tongue is as ignorant as ever.

It was fun. It was also apolitical. For years I did not explicitly recognize that all our parties had a political undertone, the politics of the workplace. That is, our party guest list was always larded with coworkers, by definition those from whom you want something or those to whom you pay obeisance or those who for one reason or another should be paying obeisance to you. I knew this without quite knowing it, though I certainly was aware I paid court to various people and resented it when certain people did not pay court to me, particularly years ago when I was an editor at Atlanta magazine, and I did not so much invite as summon Atlanta freelancers to our apartment on Lindbergh Avenue, convenient to several of the many Peachtree roads, boulevards, courts and terraces.

But now I have quit inviting those from whom I want something, and God knows I no longer have anything anybody wants, not the good folks I work with for sure, and we are pleasant but distant, and what's wrong with that?

So at party time we are content with friends, neighbors and acquaintances. It certainly is less urgent, and now I can drink as much as I like.

Now you can? Now?? my wife says.

Hmmm. There are things I still want from her, so let's leave it there.
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The Greatness That is Our Christmas Tree

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Knowing the Music, We Did Not Agonize over the Words

Stylized drawing of a maid on a <span class=WPA poster." Image via Wikipedia

Saturday we spent four hours at our cleaning lady's funeral. Since she was from El Salvador, we had assumed she was Catholic, which would have meant a nice hour-fifteen funeral and then on to a solstice party in the hills. But as it turned out, she was a store-front Evangelical, as more and more Central and South Americans are these days.

As my wife caught on almost at once, we were not so much at a funeral but at a church service wrapped around a funeral, some of the attendees loud, joyful and exuberant, others perhaps a little contemptuous, arms folded on chests.

We were somewhere in between. Candida's brother-in-law Ernesto sat next to us to translate -- for, indeed, not a single word of English was part of the service. But we did not really need translation. We come from Fundy backgrounds (and that does NOT mean we are Canadian), so we knew what was being said, as if we had spent our lives lisping in the pure Castilian.

The preacher was a lady, and darn fiery. That's a positive thing, don't you think? Maybe the Evangelical urge among Hispanics has something to do with the Catholic church's disempowerment of women. I'll have to Google on that topic, which you can do as well as I -- and why should I enforce your curiosity on the topic?

There was only one musical interlude, early on, but it was quite beautiful. A woman with a very strong very pretty voice -- pop quality, even -- sang with the audience joining in when they were inclined. Her song (or songs; it could have been a gospel medley) went on for 15 or 20 minutes, with key phrases repeated again and again. Ernesto translated those key phrases when he wasn't singing along. I don't recall what they were, though I thought I would.

Something about heaven, I think. Many references to "our Savior." Not being able to understand, I was reminded of how the beauty of religion can be divorced from the substance of religion. Paganism is growing ever more popular in the U.K. I heard on NPR yesterday. How nice to have vague, and vaguely comforting, ritual that is unmoored from the exigencies of a personal god.

Anyway, the hours at the funeral went by surprisingly quickly. We were the Star Gringos, I guess. Candida had cleaned for us on and off for seven or eight years, starting when E. had her hand troubles and had trouble gripping things. Candida worked very hard, excessively so -- and thus was a true soul sister of E.

Last spring she quit working quite so hard. Areas of the house were suddenly dusty for the first time in .... well, seven or eight years. We thought about maybe saying something. Then her niece called to tell us Candida was in the hospital, recovering from surgery for stomach cancer.

We visited her in the hospital. She said -- we were pretty sure; conversation between us was always well intentioned but not always crystal clear to either party -- that she would be back cleaning for us in six weeks. We did not think that was likely, E. whispering to me that stomach cancer is not a "sexy" cancer, not one that has been much studied with a less than impressive cure rate.

So we kept paying Candida. It was pretty clear she did the heavy lifting (metaphorically) when it came to supporting her family. We kept paying her until she died.

As a white Southerner, little makes me as uncomfortable as hiring what they euphemistically call "domestic help." Back in Durham, when I was in grad school and E. was teaching, we hired a black woman for a while to do some light cleaning and some ironing. But we couldn't take it. The inherited guilt was too much. We started overpaying her, and as a result we couldn't afford her.

I wrote the preceding sentence intending it to be funny, but it's certainly not making me laugh. But back to Candida. We kept paying her not out of guilt or noblesse oblige. It was just that we liked her, and paying her was a way of saying we thought she would get well, and telling her that and also that we were waiting for her.

If I were a religious man, at this point I would say: "But now she is waiting for us." I'm not, so I won't. Feel free to imagine it on your own. Enjoy my music even if you don't agree with my words.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Nate Silver Says The Health Care 'Reform' Bill Will Pass

Mr. knows a balk from a beanball,so I guess it will. If I understand the politics of the thing, I hope it will.

Overall, the safe and sensible assumption is that the bill is in the 80-90 percent likelihood range for moving to the President's desk and becoming law.

Trying to Get Technorati to Readmit My Blog to Its Golden Circle


You heard me


A Christmas Parody of Browning's 'My Last Duchess'

A Year Ago Today Kitty Oliver Died: Three Ghosts of a Christmas Past (In Reverse Order)

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

Posted by ....J.Michael Robertson at 4:21 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Labels: death, James Dickey, Oliver, poetry
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."
Posted by ....J.Michael Robertson at 9:36 AM 3 comments Links to this post
Labels: cats, death, Oliver
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.
Posted by ....J.Michael Robertson at 10:55 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Labels: cat, E., Oliver

Friday, December 18, 2009

Back Story

<span class=Image via Wikipedia

After having made a big deal in the presence of various students about how important it is for faculty to show up at December commencement to honor the kids and parents -- we have paid our money; where's our ritual? -- I will not be at December commencement today.

Yesterday I tweaked my back, though perhaps wrenched it would be better or taunted it and made it cry ... any verbal embroidery to capture the fact that pain has locked its teeth down low and to the left like a pit bull.

Pat and I biked like champions yesterday morning, but that didn't do it, I'm sure. I'm thinking it was when I rolled around on the floor in various contortions trying to screw the mail slot back into the wall, from when I had removed it to repair the flap. And then last night we visited The Andersons and watched the movie Monterey Pop on their Andorra-sized TV with its new surround-sound component.

I've done this before. I find myself in a cramped and uncomfortable seat, and rather than saying so for fear of appearing self-important and not able to take "six of the best" with a stiff upper lip when it comes to the musical chairs of a social situation, there I sit somewhat confined, misaligned and out of whack.

So last night in bed I could not find that sweet spot, usually in fetal position, when sharp pain becomes dull ache. I got out of bed and alternated hot pack and ice cubes until the discomfort was manageable and slept a little.

But no matter how lovely a church St. Ignatius is, every day is a bad chair day when you're seated on the speakers platform in seeming astonishment at exhortations you've heard quite a few times before, starting at your own grade school graduation.

And now I hear some ice cubes calling my name.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Have Seen the Future and It is Young

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...Image via Wikipedia

Taking a break now as I watch my intro reporting class finish its final exam. I was a feature writer back in the day, and I hated writing bloodless summary lead stories -- straight-ahead old-fashioned news writing, you might call it. Having never had a journalism course and having instead a PhD in English lit, I had neither the aptitude nor the inclination to do that kind of work. I avoided it with a passion, a devious one. It was said of me more than once that in a typical Robertson story you don't get the nut graf till after the jump, and sometimes not even then.

Sometimes never a nut graf -- but such writing, such intonation, such elaboration, such insemination, such .... That's who I was. I did it well, to my own taste anyway.

But over the years in my introductory reporting class I have increasingly emphasized the 250-word news story with a summary lead. Dare I say it? I teach what some might call the inverted pyramid. And why is that? It's not a style I liked doing, nor one I much enjoy teaching.

Well, first it emphasizes the necessity of recognizing what's news -- an arbitrary judgment sure, but necessary because inevitable, and there's nothing gained by assuming we all have the same criteria for what we need to know. Judge not that you be not judged? No. *Judge*. There is gambling in the back room. Always.

I'm saying that in a basic reporting class I want to focus on reporting, on going out and getting it, on not trying to write around your ignorance with flash and charm.

Second, the internet has not produced a wealth of 10,000 word masterpieces of literary journalism -- deep pools into which we sink, we die, we live again -- but a sheen of oily droplets covering the ground and drawing our eye by which I mean the typical web news site is cluttered with one- or two-sentence summaries designed to get us to click through to the longer story. I'm saying the art of the summary lead has become more important in this internet age. It is a useful skill. Who knew?

So know I preach the sermon which was not my own salvation. If I had been required to write quick dry news hits after I fell into magazine writing, I do not think I would have done that good a job, and I would not have had the chance to showcase my own flashy talents and would not have gotten the Chronicle job and would not have been talked about by a local writing friend to that friend's teaching friend and that teaching friend would not have known my name (and the fact I was a working journalist with a PhD) when the job at USF which I now possess came open, and that friend of my friend might not have dredged my name out of his memory as part of his deep desire to stick it to one of the deans here back in the day because that dean was much hated and had his own candidate.

And he would not have recruited me to a job I did not know existed.

What a chain of events. And the prime mover was the fact I didn't know how to write a summary lead, an incompetence that led to the most lovely compensation. Maybe? As I said, deciding what "the truth" is can be pretty arbitrary sometimes.

Anyway, I emphasize the summary lead and the 250-500 word news story, and I threaten the littles with the "100 word line of demarcation" above which I want most of the key facts (though they may reserve one for the kicker). Come to me in feature writing or arts reviewing, I tell them.

There we will feed on honeydew and drink the milk of paradise and wallow in words like a great fat pig.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nate Silver Makes Me Feel Better about a 'Compromised' Health Care Bill

If Joe Lieberman...Image by msgeek93 via Flickr

Why Progressives Are Batshit Crazy to Oppose the Senate Bill

Could he be right? He invites critique in his "comments," so I'll keep an eye on that. If gravity can bend light, certainly my hatred for Joe Lieberman can distort my understanding of so complicated an endeavor as health care reform. We are a self-declared right-of-center country.

The kids may change it, but today we have to live with it.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

We Buy See's Candy, Which Makes Us People Worth Knowing

oh god, it's all for meImage by roboppy via Flickr

We bought $800 worth of candy yesterday, which is stunning except that my wife is retiring and wants to say Thank You to all those who helped her during her selfless and soul-wearing years at Oakland, and a nice present like a box of See's is a nice gesture and also noticeable enough to be a Not Thank You to those who do not receive them.

The five-pound boxes are good for certain distant family members who would just give away the remaindered coffee table books, which I am too much of a gentleman to look about for when we visit.

I send one such nuclear box to the friend without whom I would never had been tenured: advice, an article idea, the chance to share the authorship of an article. You stood up, my man, and I will thank you until I have rotted every tooth in your family's head.

There are several people at the U who are boxworthy, a noble two pounds worth. Truth is that a one-pound box is just a gesture, and you have to upgrade for it to truly qualify as a gift. It really is good candy, and bad for my math since we always seem to get a box or two too much, and have to humanely dispose of it, a very green thing to do even if it's chocolate.
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Prescription for Health Care Reform

Illustration of the pain pathway in <span class=Image via Wikipedia

Prescription? I can't even mount a description of the process or of the possibility of useful change.

What I do of a morning -- now that the semester is winding down and my shirttail is no longer caught in the buzz saw of academic politics, dragging my butt toward pain and suffering -- is tour the liberal blogs. Some of them say that whatever health care reform gets through Congress will be a betrayal of principle and a practical disaster.

And some say just the opposite, that even if it's not "all good," that you'd be surprised how incremental change is good enough, at least in a fallen world. And, of course, some play with the notion that a failed bill would be better than a bad bill, and that "failure" won't be, not in the long term, midterm elections be damned. (Cue the ironic quotation marks.)


I understand it doesn't matter exactly what I think because even though my $500 contribution or my hand-written letter to Nancy Pelosi has some weight, I know just how much weight that is. But I would like to have an informed opinion, if only so I can say, "I understand" and don't have to sit quiet at the table during holiday reunions.

I understand that as in so many things my thoughts on the topic are probably just a manifestation of my disposition. I probably believe in incremental improvement in health care finance and delivery because I tend to believe in incremental improvement as the answer to any big problem. I probably do not despair at the prospect of a flawed bill rather than no bill at all because I expect to find flaws in every useful thing and really don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

In short, my views on the topic seem to be a kind of pre-existing condition. I seem to have arrived at a conclusion before actually working my way through the arguments (though I have *toured* the arguments, if you get what I mean). That's one of my goals over holiday break: to fill in the blanks and maybe just maybe decide what I think, not what I feel.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

E. Gets Witty

I have posted less the last two weeks than in time period since I launched this noble blog with a sprightly tune and cracking a magnum of champagne across my head.


I've missed it. It really is a public journal, a useful reminder: 1) that no one gives a damn; 2) that still it's nice to be reminded what I was thinking about at the time as the time recedes; 3) that one reason no one gives a damn is that I'm pretty careful to keep it in my pants, "it" meaning anything really personal and "pants" meaning the world of discourse outside this blog.

So I've missed this exercise in compound-complex sentences. It almost seemed as if I was having an argument with myself, and that we had quit talking.

Talk to me, I was saying to myself.

Not till you apologize, I said back.

So I said: Did I say you look fat in that? That's not what I meant. I don't know what I meant.

And I fell into my own arms, and all was forgiven.

You see? Where other than one's own blog can one goof like that!?

I could, of course, write some interesting shit. This is my second and last year as chair. In a work of fiction, that statement would be a bit of nuance -- if followed by, "Chairs usually serve a term of three years."

Nuance (like ripeness) is all.

Oh I'll write more about this in a code that years from now only I can break.

But wait. The post title is "E. Gets Witty." We were talking about Tiger Woods and his bimbo eruption (a phrase students of the Clinton presidency will recall). E. said two funny things. One was that she was waiting patiently for the announcement that Tiger was going into treatment for sex addiction. Which made me laugh, and which prophecy I do not discount, not yet.

The second was more convoluted. I was saying that I was disappointed in Tiger in a very special and personal way. Let us concede that his desire to wander was overwhelming, irresistible right up to the point of inevitable and predetermined. One is still disappointed in what seems to be an inclination for kind of trashy women.

Look, I told E. He could have had quality women, brainy, accomplished women with exciting careers and hectic schedules, mature women of substance where post-coital pillow talk would have approached the level of a graduate-school seminar.

Look E., I said. He could have had women like you (though not specifically you, I said, you being loyal unto death, like a Roman matron).

Oh, E. said. You mean we would now be talking about Tiger and the Cougars.

At which point I laughed and laughed.

Okay, the code talker says one more thing about "things." Imagine coming into a close game as a relief pitcher. And you get bombed. You take some licks. Really, now the game is lost. But your "manager" wants to save arms, to write this one off, to get ready for the next one. So he asks you to stay out there in the service of a hopeless cause, to take the blows, get slapped around, eat up some innings.

And you do.

A Classic Post from the Past: the Death of Bill Walsh

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bill Walsh: The Anecdote

One good thing about Bill Walsh's death -- possibly the only good thing when you get down to it -- is that it will reinvigorate certain aspects of my basic reporting class this fall. As Walsh's legend receded in recent years, at least among non-sports fans, the pungency of some of my recollections from my Chronicle days also receded.

Walsh, you see, provided several of my better stories about the pitfalls and the attractions of being a reporter. It was a quarter century ago, sometime in the run up to Walsh's second Super Bowl that I was chosen from among the Chronicle's feature writers to do a "personal" profile of the Great Coach, his life outside of football or before football or above and beyond football.

All this while Walsh prepared for the Super Bowl. I had a deadline. I had no expectation of doing anything in-depth and remarkable given my brief, so I did what you do: I called the Niners PR department and asked them to help me set it up and to point me toward some sources.

They said I could have 15 minutes -- 15 minutes! -- with Walsh, but that as far as pointing me towards friends and family, well no. Walsh was a very private man, the PR person said, and did not like friends and family bothered. Okay, I said, not caring much one way or the other that I did not have his permission to bother family and friends. I was no Woodward, much less a Bernstein, but I knew how to do reporting without some PR person holding my hand. I made some phone calls, talked to some people, got some refusals, got some referrals....

The PR guy called me. You're calling up Walsh's friends, he said. Walsh's friends are calling him because they don't have permission to talk to you, and they know he doesn't like to be talked about. Now back then we did not say Duh! Had we, I could have. Yeah, I did say. I'm doing you know my job. I'm, you know, reporting. At this point, the PR guy started to cooperate, gave me a list of Official Friends, who had been prepped for my call.

The unprepped friends were better interviews. Lesson One, young people.

Second lesson: Not everybody is scared of their daddy. Without the help of the Niners PR department, I tracked down one of Walsh's kids. He shared several stories of a distant father whose interests lay outside the family. I must admit that I was surprised. Lacking a journalism education, I learned the reporter's job in the school of soft knocks at a city magazine, and I had never come across someone so willing to diss a famous daddy who was apparently a nice guy or at least a much nicer guy than most successful coaches, so many of whom give the impression they are on loan from Hitler Youth.

I put some of the son's angst in the final story, but I could have got more of it, I'm guessing.

Had I wanted to write that kind of story.

Lesson Two: I wish I had pressed the kid harder. But having gotten more from him, I don't know how much more of it I would have used. Bill Walsh was no Daddy Dearest (a reference that implies the mold that covers most of my references and war stories), just a father who sometimes put career before family, at least in the eyes of his son. The older I get, the more I realize how much friction we create as we move through life and the more I realize that such details aren't exactly a revelation. So maybe I put just enough about father and son in the piece.

Lesson Three: But the more you know the better. As I tell my students, fill up your notebook and then decide. (And be careful what you tell your editor because then you lose control. Some editors are real bastards.) Having it doesn't mean you have to use it. But go get it. The PR guy still declined to put me in touch with Walsh family members -- that lust for "privacy," remember. I not only tracked down the son, I tracked down Walsh's dad somewhere in Southern California. This took some work. I got the old man on the line, made my pitch -- I think I said something like "... doing a story and would like to talk to you..." -- and the old man said, voice quavery, "He's a wonderful boy" and hung up. I did that thing the textbooks say to do. I called back and said that we had been cut off.

Well, he hung up again.

Lesson Four: Obsession is fun. Everybody was telling me that Walsh was a very private man, but no one could tell me why. He just was. I began to wonder if .... I will tell you all, friends of the blog. I have come to tell you all. I decided Walsh was either adopted or illegitimate or born a little "too soon," if you know what I mean. I obtained his birth certificate. I forget what I had to do to get it. I've long since forgotten my methods, but quite legally I got a copy, and it showed nothing unusual. He was born when he said he was and to the people his official bio said he had been born to. If they had been married for less than the requisite period before his birth, that I could not find out. I wouldn't have used that fact if I had been able to determine it. I'm almost absolutely certain I wouldn't. I don't think I would have used anything I found out of an embarrassing nature concerning Walsh's origins.

Anyway, the editors would have killed it.

But I wanted to know.

Lesson Five: A majority of American males are failed jocks. Male newspaper reporters reflect the general population in that particular. That means when you drop a general assignment reporter into a sports story the danger exists the reporter will want to seem more knowledgeable than he actually is, to buddy up, to show some cred. So it was with me during my 15 minutes with the great coach himself. I wasted valuable time asking football-related questions that the regular sportswriters had asked earlier and better.

What I should have done is say: I played high school football and am a fan of football at all levels. That means from your point of view I know *Fuck All* about football so we are not going there. I should have pressed him and pressed him more about what really did seem a privacy fetish -- and what about your son? -- and if he threw me out, all to the better.

Lesson Five and a Half, Young People: You'll become friends with a famous subject about once in a million years. And when it happens you should ashamed. Once every two million years is about right. Story short: I wasted his time. I got nothing.

Lesson Six: Oh there was perhaps one more little reason why my 15 minutes of infamy proved so useless and my good questions somehow didn't get asked. I almost never taped. Never have. Too much trouble. Made me lazy. Note taking makes clear the degree to which you are asking good questions because you are either doodling or racing to keep up. But with the Great Walsh I decided to tape, figuring everything was going to be gold. (I've said before that nothing was. A waste of his time and -- much worse -- a waste of mine.)

Maybe half way through the interview I notice the tape recorder has stopped. My face goes full spectrum, a real rainbow coalition. I open the record, pull on the cassette and out comes a veritable skein of tape. It looked like a taffy pull. Yeah, maybe so here's another reason for a failed interview.

You should have seen the look on Walsh's face. I should have said: You have a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. I see that is true. And so on and so on.... What a recovery I should have made, could have made, didn't actually make.

Thus, a nightmare interview lives on in dreams. It wasn't exactly a dropped pass in the end zone, but so it felt at the time. Today? An anecdote, a story to be told over drinks, a reminder that 90 percent of life is showing up. But only 90 percent.


Greg Pabst said...

My trail crossed Walsh's in 1992 when he returned to Stanford and I was Marketing Director at KFRC radio - and we had Stanford football and basketball on the air.
The coach had just come through a bad patch, working "color" on NFL games for NBC (I believe). He got poor reviews - justifiably - and wanted little else to do with the "media," which, it turns out, kind-of included us.
Naturally, we wanted to use his voice on promo spots for the games.
We asked. He dodged.
KFRC had a mobile studio, a complete recording and broadcast facilty built into a recreational vehicle. I suggested to the boss we take the mountain to Mohammed.
I called my contact in the Stanford Athletic Director's office and scheduled a live promotional broadcast for Morning Drive and, oh by the way, we'll be there when morning practice finishes and could we get Bill for a few minutes and, sure, I'll Fax you the "drops" (lines) we'd like him to read.
So Tim Jordan, our dazzlingly talented production manager and I get the keys and the morning team and head south on 101 early on a beautiful fall day in Palo Alto.
A pretty good show. Interviewed some kids from the band (on suspension at the time for some kind of hi-jinx which I don't remember) some other Stanford people that I don't recall either and the cheer leaders.
My intern, a good looking kid - son of a friend of mine - and a student at Davis allows cheer-leader-wise that "they really aren't that cute." I have to explain that they get to Stanford by being the smartest cheer leaders in America. I don't think he got it.
Show finishes, the morning team disappears like the morning fog and we drive the Sturgeon (as the white RV was known in the engineering department) across campus to the practise field and Bill Walsh.
I snag him as the post-practisce team heads for the locker room. "Hey, Coach, we gotta record a few comments from you for the radio. Take about ten minutes."
Deer in the headlights eyes. Lips mumbling "I got a lot of things to do."
Me, too.
I steer him into the mobile, tape's already loaded, he and Jordan sit down, I'm punching the buttons.
I've been in uncomfortable positions myself and witnessed the same for others many times. But this is one of the worst ones I've ever seen. Poor guy was blowing the read, sweating (it was pretty warm in there and we'd closed the windows against ambient noise) and visibly in somw kind of pain.
We got what we needed, but this was clearly a man who was out of his zone.
Let me suggest that Bill Walsh was only comfortable when he was the "The Genius." And the few minutes I spent with him - while he was reading copy I wrote - was not a Genius moment.
Possibly, he wasn't a genius father. Certainly, he wasn't a genius behind a microphone.
Some of his former players talked on the news last night about being Bill's "men." Joe Montana said Walsh was the most significant person in his life.
I wonder how Joe's Dad felt about that?
Joe also moved his family from Woodside to Napa so that his son could conveniently go the famous-for-having-a-great-football "program" DeLaSalle High School. Sounds as if the virus is passing down the generations.
Bill Walsh was a great coach, everybody agrees. And the choices he made were apparently to be the best at his chosen vocation, above anything and everything else in his life.
Some of us do that. Some of us don't. Some of us can't.
Read the life of Alexander the Great (and anyone else called The Great), Napolean Bonaparte, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Joe DiMaggio - and I suspect, William Shakespeare.
Add Bill Walsh to the list.
Every one of them made a difference in the world at large by becoming the best of their own narrowed world. And we seem to have needed them all.
I'm sure not one of them would have tolerated a tape jam in the middle of an interview.
And I'm also sure none of them would have been good company at dinner.
So it goes...
Greg Pabst

david silver said...

wow - excellent post and excellent list of lessons.

i like this one: "Having it doesn't mean you have to use it. But go get it."

and nice comment pabst.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Pabst knows everyone. Pabst had tea and scones with Stalin where they swapped "bad date" stories about Madame Curie.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Kitten Countdown is Underway

Less than a year after we were married, E. brought home our first cat conveniently packaged in kitten form . I had told her I wanted a cat, and one of her junior high students was redistributing the family wealth, their cat having gone all supply side: Birth 'em and hope someone will come.

And for 40 years after we had cats or you could say cats had us because we are fiercely loyal cat owners, willing to spend money to keep them alive. But after Oliver died almost a year ago -- died in bed with me, pressed agains my side -- we have been catless.

We concluded E.'s mom might not be with us much longer, and her final illness would mean weeks in Florida and 60-hour weeks at work to enable E. to go to Florida as needed. That wouldn't leave much time for kitten nuturing and kitten bonding, and I wanted E. to be at the center of what will probably be our last great Gathering of the Cats.

And so it was, and so E.'s mom died in September. And now E. is about to retire. It's kitten time, two of them, I think, and their momcat, too, because I have a sentimental bourgeois aversion to kittens saved while mom is euthanized.

January, probably, after the holidays. We preview the moment.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why I Keep It in the Fairway (And Never Out of Bounds)

Klubbladets delar. Bild skapad av Stefan Berg ...Image via Wikipedia

E. thinks that Tiger Woods probably has been slipping around, and after a couple of belts (alcoholic) his wife gave him a couple of belts (clubwise), and the drama spilled out into the yard, which is a phenomenon shared by mansion and trailer park.

E. figures Woods' wife used a nine iron. E. is no golfer, but she understands a driver might have killed him. The point was to punish, maybe a little light maiming, not homicide.

If I go bad, I assume E. will pelt me with doughnuts, an act more contemptuous than injurious unless the missiles are really stale. But I'm not complacent. E. still has a strong arm and a keen eye, and all these years with no reason to exercise them.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Classic Post from Yesteryear: Hitching Home for Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thumb Riders

This is the day before Thanksgiving, and I remember certain days before Thanksgiving more vividly than most iterations of the actual holiday. All of those recollections come from college days when I was a student at Whooping Jesus Bible College in the Indiana barrens, location as metaphor but also literally far away from my home in Old Virginny.

God, I was a homeboy. The notion of not going home for Thanksgiving was painful. Thus, I cut afternoon classes those long-ago Wednesdays and started hitchhiking.

The goal was Cincinnati, Ohio. At Cincinnati I picked up the midnight train that would take me across West Virginia and on into western Virginia -- between which wonderful place and the feuds and intermarriages of West Virginia we felt a great gulf existed -- where nestled my hometown, Roanoke, "the Star City of the South."

So they called it, and so I believed it.

The midnight train, you see, was free. My dad was a yard engineer for the Norfolk and Western Railway, and I had a pass. But the train rides are not the story, not today. It was the hitchhiking.

Do kids hitchhike today, what with murderers and perverts everywhere? I was much impressed and a little dismayed that my parents were so little concerned about my falling victim to murderers and perverts -- but if they weren't, who was I to worry?

Thinking back, I don't recall making a destination sign, you know, the ones on cardboard held chest high, garnished with a smile. I'm not saying I didn't, but I can't remember doing so.

What I do remember is that I always wore my three-piece corduroy suit. It seemed to me that suit made me look wholesome, benign, even conversational, that is, with something interesting to say. (I did not. But I was a good listener.)

I also carried a huge old brown striped suitcase that was either a gift from my Aunt Odell (who was a Depression pack rat) or something inherited from my Uncle Dumps (who whacked his head when he ran his car off the road and spent the next 20 years shuffling around the VA in Salem, Virginia).

I filled the suitcase with dirty laundry to take home to mama, convinced she would be glad to see it. I still remember that when someone stopped to give me a ride I felt it incumbent to run toward the car, thus showing gratitude and forestalling second thoughts on the part of the driver. How that clunky suitcase dragged through and bounced across the gravel.

All this was before the Interstate system was as widespread as it is now. One grabbed one's rides on the two-lanes that bridged the gaps in the interstates. Lots and lots of gravel.

I always got to Cincinnati in plenty of time, sometimes before dark even, and had one or two mild adventures, but none involved gorgeous widows twice my age -- the gold standard of hitchhiking fantasy for a good Christian boy back in the day -- and I will not talk of those mild adventures because the writerly energy has started to wane, and I have not yet expressed the point of undertaking this long and wandering furrow in the thin soil of this blog.

I am writing this because I canceled my Advanced Reporting class today and am still at home in my bathrobe with our crippled cat on my lap. I canceled my class because at WJBC afternoon classes on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving were never canceled and, indeed, I think my chemistry teacher may well have carried out his threat to dock the grade of anyone cutting his class.

Such penalties were school policy.

Which reminds me of the semester the school said that all the top honor roll students did not have to go to class if they didn't want to, since the school figured that all the top honor roll students would go to class anyway. But we didn't. And the school reversed itself.

Well there you go.

Anyway, that's why I cancel afternoon classes on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There it is, kids. Sometimes I really am looking at you. But a lot of the time I'm looking in the rear view mirror at my own past, holding onto it, refusing to give it up, refusing to let it go dim, reliving it, savoring it, all the pleasures and all the pains that -- it turned out -- were just the tip of the iceberg.

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House with Curly Columns (One Step Closer to a New Paint Job)

If you click it, it gets big.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

E. Says Something Smart about the Portrayal of Conrad Hilton on Mad Men

I was saying I really liked the way the actor who portrayed the hotel magnate during the show's most recent season portrayed him, and E. said that his work was both exaggerated and nuanced, which quality is not a contradiction in terms.

She said he was plausible -- dangerous, crude but seductive, willful, spoiled by his own success, certainly manipulative and finally unreliable if by reliable you mean enduring emotional commitment. In some ways, Hilton is like Betty Draper, E. said.

Foxy lady. (E., not Betty Draper.)

Footnote: The actor who plays Hilton is named Chelcie Ross. I've seen him a lot -- forgive me Father for I have wasted time on trifles -- but I remember him as the "hard" Notre Dame coach in "Rudy." I never cared for him before, but he is charismatic/repulsive in Mad Men, and that's an ice cream flavor I like.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Suspect? Suspect, My A**!


What I emailed my reporting students:

I'm sorry. The 'suspect' didn't do it. If the suspect did it, then the suspect isn't a suspect. They don't even *have* a suspect!!!! See, the problem is one of sourcing. The cops don't want to keep saying, "The person who said he was robbed said...." They also don't want to say "the robber," which would suggest they believe the person who reported the robbery. So "suspect" becomes shorthand for "the person who did the robbery if in fact what the person who reported the alleged crime told us is actually true." It's shorthand. But *it's still a stupid use of language*

-----Original Message-----
From: USFconnect Message []
Sent: Thursday, November 19, 2009 8:40 AM

To: undisclosed-recipients:
Subject: Public Safety Bulletin

On Monday, 11/16/09, at approximately 1 pm, a USF student was walking westbound on the north side of Turk St., near the School of Education, when she was approached from behind by an unknown suspect. The suspect pressed an object into her back and demanded the student's money. The student gave him a $20 bill and the suspect fled. The suspect told the victim not to turn around so there is no description of the suspect.

The incident has been reported to the SFPD. USF Public Safety will increase patrol in the area of this incident.

Individuals are reminded to always be aware of their surroundings. Wearing headphones to listen to music and texting or talking on cell phones in public places can be a major distraction. These activities limit a person's ability to remain alert.

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What the Cat Promises, the Cat Delivers. Now, in its Network Premiere....

drummer boyImage by *CQ* via Flickr

Bob Wieder's 'The Little Kenyan Boy'

Said the pros to me, "Barak Obama,
It's sheer insanity, Barak Obama,
To seek the presidency, Barak Obama,
So young, so ebony Barak Obama,
Barak Obama, Barak Obama...

When I won, some said, "Barak Obama,
Glenn Beck swears you're a Red, Barak Obama.
Your health care hopes seem dead Barak Obama.
You should have stayed in bed Barak Obama,
Barak Obama, Barak Obama..."

Salonistas say, "Barak Obama,
Long live your White House stay, Barak Obama.
We’re with you come what may, Barak Obama,
Let’s kill Glenn Beck, okay? Barak Obama,
Barak Obama, Barak Obama...

Peace on Earth to those who smile when they say,
Barak Obama

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