Tuesday, December 30, 2008

That sound you're hearing is my knuckles on your cranium

Since it is almost the New Year, it's appropos to point out new laws that will take effect on January 1, 2009. There are always a lot of handy new laws each year. The one that is getting the most attention now is the new rule against texting while driving. What's next? I suppose they will ban me from other things I currently enjoy while driving, like making waffles and quilting.Fascists. 

But there's one new law that's getting overlooked so far - as of 1/1/09 it will be legal to inflict physical mayhem on people who walk slow in front of you - people known as "slow walkers."

"It's about time!" you say, and indeed, you are correct. It's time to put an end to this scourge of humanity - these pokey butts who are wasting our precious time with their dawdling, wandering, and general cluelessness. 

Let's make it clear this new law does not allow the corporal punishment on the clearly infirm. However, it is acceptable to say to a person with one leg, "Hey, can you hop a little faster?" 

I made a recent visit to Ikea, confirming the need for the "go ahead and dope slap that slow walker" ruling. If muttering obscenities burned a lot of calories, I would have left that store a thin man. 

The profound need for broad societal change in this vital area is made clear by the existence of a Facebook group called "I Secretly Want To Punch Slow Walking People In The Back Of The Head" - a group that as of today boasts 1,112,143 members. What we have here, ladies and gentleman, is a problem of global scope and it's time for change you can believe in. 

For more on this outrage and the need for solutions, here's some recommended reading. 

In summary, if you suspect you may be one of these slow walkers, just keep in mind that any one of the 1,112,13 members of "I Secretly Want To Punch Slow Walking People In The Back Of The Head" may be right behind you at any time. And keep a move on. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A favorite Christmas memory

I have been recently accused - fairly - of writing something "dark" during the holidays. So today, I hope to redeem myself with a true story that always comes to me this time of year. It's a "true meaning of Christmas" story.

Like so many of my Christmas memories, it features my dad. Avid readers of this blog with fastidious memory banks will recall last year's item that detailed Daddy's lack of enthusiasm for the whole Christmas issue. I think the biggest part of his disdain for Christmas was the excess of it - and this was in a household that did not have anything like a fancy Christmas. We were a working-class family with a working-class Christmas. Although I never wanted for anything necessary, I was just like other kids in lusting after the unnecessary, expensive toys in the Sears "Wishbook" catalog - elaborate slot car tracks and electric hockey games and full-blown cowboy outfits. Things that were out of reach for people of our means.

No doubt Daddy wanted to teach me something on this particular Christmas. I was 9 or 10 I think. It was a day or two before the holiday. After he got home from work and the firewood had been replenished in the house, he told me he wanted me to go somewhere with him. This was out of the ordinary. I knew it had to be something of significance to compel him to make a point of asking me to go with him. Sometime just before dark we got into his Rambler and drove just a short way, maybe a mile or less from our house, up a dirt road. Back there in the woods (44th Street when it was still in the woods and unpaved, for those who have Joplin knowledge) there was a tumble-down house that I had passed a few times. It looked like it hadn't seen paint in fifty years, and there was junk strewn in the front and a broken down car or two. Not all the windows had glass in them. No electric light. Daddy turned the car into the dirt driveway and stopped. A child peeked out from the door. I don't think any words were said as Daddy got out and reached for a grocery bag in the back seat. I could see that inside the bag were oranges, maybe nuts, eggs perhaps. Some sustenance.

I watched from the car, and from this unlivable-looking house a man came out. He was in his 30s, needed a shave, and his face had that beaten look - beaten by hard work in the sun, beaten by wind, beaten by life. There were two or three children, a wife inside. He took the grocery bag. Not much was said. Daddy came back to the car, sat in the driver's seat, and looked over at me. He didn't say a word. We drove back to our home, a warm, comfortable home, that now seemed so opulent by comparison.

Later I came to understand that this was a family of migrant farm workers of the "Okie" variety. Dirt poor people who moved from place to place and subsisted. Today they would probably be housed in some kind of shelter. In that day the just lived on, the hard-scrabble life.

Daddy's life was shaped by being poor - Depression poor. Will-there-be-enough-to-eat poor. There was something about the way Christmas was shaping up - as the festival of conspicuous consumption that we have today - that urged him to give me a little perspective. I guess it worked. Not a Christmas goes by that I don't think about that day.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Come be alone with me

Having recently become a person who spends a lot of time alone, and this being something that is new to me, I thought I would pass on some tips on the topic. 

1. Some so-called experts will say you should not drink alone. Hogwash. A much more realistic and useful bit of advice is this: always have one glass of water to match each drink. This guarantees two things: lots of trips to the bathroom, which may result in some type of human interaction (Not IN the bathroom, ok? I don't swing that way) and you will remain semi-sober so you can drive yourself home - important when you are alone. No good to be slobbering all over some cab driver. You may want him to be your friend now, but you won't tomorrow.

2. Consider investing in a cushion. Carry it with your laptop. The chairs at Starbuck's are hard and if you really want to be the creepy guy who's always sitting there, you may find your butt goes numb.

3. Go ahead and wear the sweat pants. After all, you are alone. Who cares? And going around in sweat pants guarantees you will continue to be alone. That's the way you like it, right Bunky?

4. Ditto shaving, bathing, deodorant, doing laundry, and annoying social restrictions on loudly passing gas in public. These are rules for people who want to be with other people. Who needs all this structure? Fight the power! Alone is as alone does. Consider dispensing with clothing altogether. Not only liberating but a cost-saver, too.

5. If you see a beautiful woman sitting alone in a bar, and she's wearing boots, by all means go up to her and ask "Are those boots made for walking?" This will demonstrate that you are witty and spunky and you have knowledge of 60s pop music. It will also get you talked about in the bar, as the beautiful woman will tell her friends what a stunning dork you are. Better to be known for something than to be anonymous. 

6. There's a lot said about being alone on holidays. The truth is, there's no difference between being alone on a regular day and being alone on a holiday, except for the outbursts of uncontrollable sobbing. 

7. Have a blog. Gives you something to do when you're sitting on those hard chairs at Starbuck's. 


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The melancholy holiday

There comes a time every Christmas season when I just want to hit fast forward to January 2 and put it all behind me. 

Some years that moment comes early - say, November 1 or so when that first stale Christmas song comes leaking out of the speakers at the mall. Other years, like this year for example, I've made it all the way to the 10-day line before getting the "let's just get it over with" feeling. 

Is it the relentless pressure of fulfilling gift lists, writing cards, baking cookies, and trimming trees that wears me down? No, I decline to partake in most of those behaviors, and I play fast and loose with the rest. I am too selfish a creature to inconvenience myself too much. 

I think my impatience with Christmas grows out of myriad disappointments, let downs, and downright tragedies that have become part of my personal Christmas history - number one among these being losing my dad to a Christmas Day heart attack. Hey! Have a holly jolly Christmas with that in your memory stocking! It's been 26 years and yet if I write one more sentence about it I will be crying in my grande Christmas blend. (Note to Starbuck's: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is not really a Christmas song at all, ok?) 

So how can a guy like me who has so much to be grateful for, so much to rejoice in, deck the halls with so much sadness this time of year? Is it too simple to say I'm jaded by unfulfilled expectations? My own expectations, mostly expectations about my own sad self, pulled out of the closet with the ornaments once a year, inspected, found to be unfulfilled once again, and packed away for another year? I am better at remembering philosophies than remembering the philosophers to whom they should be attributed, but I know someone wise said that our miseries are created by our desires. It's the wanting that causes pain - get rid of the wanting, needing, longing, hoping, and just live today, and you might find joy. And yet while I want to believe that, it seems almost non-human to live without desire. What's the point in getting out of bed if not to strive for something? If all I do is live in the moment, how am I any more enlightened than a dog, or a goldfish or a plankton? 

Somewhere there's inner peace and holiness and certitude. And in the stillness of the cold winter night there's a promise of redemption. I'll keep seeking it, and rooting for January 2. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Tale of Two Fortunes

I come to you today with a saddening report on the decline of a once robust industry. American automobile manufacturing? The steel industry? Textiles? No, all this is old news. The failure I have discovered this week is in an industry that is not American, as far as I know. This crisis is in what I assume must be an industry of the great and powerful Chinese - the fortune cookie fortune business.

The problem came to light for me after lunch (Combination Plate, $6.99) at Wah Sing Restaurant in Napa. Ritual demands that I drink a least half of the green tea, save the won ton for last, and open the fortune cookie but not eat it. So I pull the little white slip of paper out and read:

"You could prosper in the field of medicine."

WTF? What kind of fortune is that?? "Could?" Does this mean if I went to medical school I might become a doctor?? Again I ask, WTF? Whatever happened to "You will soon come into money" or "He who laughs last laughs best" or something with either some certitude or some wisdom.

A friend told me that you can conjure more out of any fortune by adding the words "in the bedroom" to whatever you're given. This lame fortune cannot be improved even by that time-honored treatment. It only becomes:

"You could prosper in the field of medicine - in the bedroom."

Double secret WTF on that!

Perhaps to test just how useless the fortune cookie fortune makers have become, I lunched at a different place a couple of days later. At Peking Palace (Chicken with black bean sauce, $6.99) I am pleased to report that I received a much higher quality fortune reading:

"Your present plans are going to succeed."

Now that's more like it! No qualifying verbaige, just a nice, straightforward "are going to." And omens of success! I like success. (Now if I just knew what my present plans are, I would have something to look forward to...)

Oh, and let's not forget to test this fortune by making the add-on:

"Your present plans are going to succeed - in the bedroom."

Well, ok then.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks. No, really, thanks, thanks a lot.

So here we are again. It's Thanksgiving Day, which means the Christmas decorations have been up for about a month now and I am already tired of hearing Christmas songs at the Starbuck's. And it means within about 6 hours I will once again have that feeling that my ribs are about to crack as my stomach expands like a competitive speed-eater - that feeling I have vowed so many times to never experience again. But thank God, we humans have a short memory! In just 364 short days we can completely suppress the memory of the anguish and do it all over again. 

So right away on this thankful day, there's something to be thankful for - short memory. 

A list seems to be in order. It's a good day for taking stock. Here, in no particular order, are ten things for which I am thankful.
  1. Gas under $2 a gallon. I don't care if this is the result of a worldwide financial catastrophe, it's helping my bottom line.
  2. Indulging in rampant personal self interest. See #1 above. 
  3. Pinot Noir. Say noir more. 
  4. Progeny you are proud of. Not every parent is a proud parent. I am thankful to be one. 
  5. Italian sausage. I sprinkle it on my cereal. 
  6. A functional body. I know that there are plenty of people with broken, painful bodies who are full of a beautiful spirit, and I admire that. But today I will not dwell on my minor complaints because most everything works fairly well. 
  7. People who can put words together. Words to be read, words to be spoken, words to be sung. Words that touch me. 
  8. Flow. That feeling you get when your focus is so complete all the self-talk is shut down, and you are pure and clear on one purpose. Too rare. 
  9. Accepting what I can't change, changing what I can. 'Nuff said. 
  10. Deviled eggs. Ok, I get a pass on that one, it is Thanksgiving after all. 

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Becoming color blind

There's something sad about the fact that I can't actually believe we have elected a black man President. And it's even more sad to realize that I am surprised that no one has taken a shot at him yet.

(We interrupt this message to clarify that sentence one above does not indicate that I think there is anything wrong with a black man being President, or that I don't like black people, or that people ought to shoot at them, or anything like that, ok? Let me also clarify that I prefer the word "black" to "African American" because it's a lot easier to type. Let's move on.)

It's all sad because my disbelief says that in my heart of hearts I must be believing we are a more racist and hateful people than we really are - and since I am a generally positive person, and out loud I say I believe that people are innately good, it disturbs me that this other cynical, snide part of me thinks so poorly of American society. It's dark in the corners sometimes.

You've got to admit that it is astonishing that a country that has been so messed up on race issues could have gone so quickly from segregation and systematic, government-sponsored oppression, to electing a chief executive of mixed race. Two generations ago we were still classifying people as mulattos and quadroons and octaroons and such. There are people living today who witnessed - even took part in - mob lynchings of "uppity" black men. Just nine Presidents ago black people were still being sent to the back of the bus, to the "colored" water fountain, away from the restaurants and hotels that were for "whites only." One generation ago the leading man of black politics was Jesse Jackson - a guy with about as much chance of getting elected President as - well, John McCain, two weeks ago. Only 16 years ago (1992) white America was quaking in its collective boots as LA was torn apart by the race riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. How did we come so far so fast? Or have we really changed at all?

You might make the case that there has been real evolution in the hive mind - that to some significant degree we don't see color first anymore but just see people. Consider if you will the great many high profile people of mixed race who dominate our pop culture - Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Vin Diesel, Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba to mention just a few - and the resulting perception that it is not out of the ordinary to be mixed, and it does not mean your life comes with limitations. In fact, maybe it's an advantage now. Could be that King's dream has been realized, with a bonus. It seems particularly clear that the younger you are, the less you care about race. Is it possible that racism will simply die off, one racist at a time?

Or on the other hand, you might make the case that this election of Obama has been an aberation - that so many people were alienated by the eight years of Bush the Younger they would have voted for the proverbial "yellow dog." In that scenario the race question is not germane, and you can theorize that nothing has changed, and the next provocation will bring out all the same reactions. 

Almost certainly, there will be some event that tests the question of whether we have moved beyond race-based politics and society. I will lock the snide and cynical part of myself in the basement, and choose to hope that we pass that test.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The World According to Americans

With the big Presidential election looming, and the positions of the candidates all laid out in black and white (oops, that didn't come out right) or perhaps soon to be laid out in red and blue, this useful visual aid is appropos. Most of us may struggle a little with international affairs, so thanks to one of my tens of faithful readers who provided this for our edification. Said provider will remain nameless and blameless. Click on the map for a larger, easier-to-read version. Review this with care, there will be a quiz.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Burgers with daddy

Sometimes on Sundays I am transported to a place that was called Gene and Darlene's.

(OK, that sounded kind of Shirley MacLaine. I am not talking about out of body experiences here. It's a memory, ok?)

Gene and Darlene's was a bar down on Shoal Creek south of Joplin. The building still stands (photo proof here, taken August 2008.) No telling how many other names the place has had since it was Gene and Darlene's, but that's the name it has in my mind.

On Sundays sometimes, when I was a kid, daddy would come up with the notion that burgers from Gene and Darlene's would really hit the spot. Being always in favor of food in general, and carry-out food being really exotic to me, the idea was always a winner in my opinion. I would be eager to climb into the car with daddy and ride along. It was a short trip down to Redings Mill, around the infamous curve that topped a bluff over the creek, where all kinds of carloads of people had suffered hideous deaths in spectacular car crashes - at least, those were the stories we heard and repeated. Don't know if anyone had ever really crashed down the hillside like in a movie, but it made the trip a lot more exciting. Over the old bridge, then, and there was Gene and Darlene's.

Stucco on the outside, I guess, and inside just like thousands of other old bars of that time - the Hamm's sign with the polar bear, Slim Jims and pickled eggs and cheap cigars for sale. But Gene and Darlene's had more to it than most places like that. That second floor - what went on up there? And that cupola on top - absolutely fascinating and unknown. Downstairs there was a wide, low-ceilinged room with a dance floor that must have hosted a hundred thousand fox-trotting, two-stepping, and just plain shuffling and swaying feet over a half century or so. Back in an earlier time, Redings Mill had been some kind of resort, perhaps something swanky. That room with it's worn but always polished wooden floor was a few degrees cooler, even on the hot days. I would wander in there on those quiet Sunday hamburger runs, and wonder what kind of things went on in such a place. It was only much later that I could picture the couples on that floor, moving to the western swing, romancing on the slow songs.

Daddy had an ulterior motive, as I also figured out a lot later. His regular haunts for draft beer were closed on Sundays, but because Gene and Darlene's served food he could get a cold one or two while the burgers were on the grill. That's why Sundays were the only day of the week when Gene and Darlene's was a dining option.

The burgers came wrapped in paper, stuffed in a brown bag. They were simple and plain and dosed with a lot of black pepper. We would make our way back home as that peppery aroma filled the car. He got the beer he needed, I got burgers. A win-win.

Sometimes on Sundays I wish there could be another chance to make that ride with daddy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Your role in civilized society

Most of us have never seen a week in the world like this one. Here we are three weeks out from the most notable election of the post-war era - financial markets in free fall and there's no bottom in sight - and then the Norwegian Nobel Committee gives the 2008 peace prize to Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president. I mean, just one whipsaw after another. I can already hear the water cooler chatter across American - "Ahtissari? Who would have guessed?"

So with all these monumental stories in the news, it makes sense that I am concerned today about bad drivers.

You may have read that surveys unfailingly show that some 80% of people consider themselves to be a better than average driver. That's a classic delusion, unless our streets are like Lake Woebegone, where Garrison Keillor tells us "all the children are above average." Math is not my strong suit, but I don't think that's possible.

In fact, we all think we are better than average drivers because we look around us on the road and everyone else acts like a moron, so we give ourselves a little mental boost. "At least I am not a tool like that guy," we think, as we blithely cut off the next guy while changing lanes. I think it was George Carlin who said there were only two types on people on the road - anyone going slower than you, who is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you, who is a maniac.

Other people's driving is nearly unbearable for some folks. I see letters to the editor where you can almost hear the writer's eyes bugging out as they describe someone else's recklessness, or inconsiderateness. "And when you roared by and gave me the finger you really showed how classy you are," and such like that. I know it's unfair, but I can't help but wonder if some of these people are frequent targets of anger on the mean streets, suggesting that perhaps, just perhaps, there are some people out there who really aren't beter than average drivers at all. Dare I say it?

Case in point: the four way stop. The four-way stop is really a marvel of western civilization, and the way it works proves that we are in fact civilized to some degree, if perhaps a little anal about it. After all, other countries use the roundabout or traffic circle, or use the free-for-all system, and somehow they get where they're going and the sun comes up every day and all the toothpaste gets delivered and everything works out. But our device is the four way stop, and it's surely the most likely place you will see through my windshield my face contorted and my lips moving with just a little spittle flying as I creatively interpret and describe the lackluster heritage of some poor fool who happened to get there when did and hasn't managed to figure out how the darn thing works.

So here's a simple lesson on the function of the four way stop.
Rule 1: This is a merit-based system, so whoever gets to the corner first wins and gets to go.
Rule 2: If two cars get to the corner at the same time, the person who is to the right of the other person has what is called the "right of way" (sorrry for the fancy terms, knuckleheads) and gets to go.
Rule 3: There is no rule 3.
Rule 4: If all this seems too complicated, ride the bus. And maybe you should be on the short bus.

Friday, October 3, 2008

And the winner is...

I watched that debate last night and I have made up my mind - I'm voting for Tina Fey for sure.

Reason number one: she is just amazing! Imagine trying to be a TV star on two shows at once AND run for President. That takes a lot of gumption, get-up-and-go, and good old American values. Apparently she lives in Alaska, too, which means a lot of really long flights to New York for the TV shows, so that means she has energy. A good thing, because her running mate, the old guy, looks pretty tired.

Reason number two: Drill, baby, drill! Tina understands the simple fact that we need more oil. We have not used it all up yet, and until we do, we need to go get it and burn it. She talked about (paraphrasing here) "America's rapacious, unquenchable, unassuageable lust for the black gold, the Texas Tea" and I cannot agree more. Sometimes when I am filling up my tank I take just a small hit off the hose and it is mother's milk to me because I am the average American.

Reason number three: The other one is some kind of smart guy. He kept using big words to try and impress us and confuse my Tina, but she would not be knocked off balance and just kept giving him that blank stare, like she didn't understand. Dumb like a fox, that's what she is. She showed she's the smarter one because she knows how to pronounce "nuc-u-lar" correctly, the way Bush says it, not pronounce it the wrong way like the smart guy.

Reason number seven: It's time for change! I am sick and tired of the way things are and I am sick and tired of everybody who made things the way things are, and I know Tina Fey will turn back the clock and it will be like the 1950s again when the world was just about perfect.

Reason number ten: Those sexy glasses, can't get enough.

I'm just glad they had that debate so I could go ahead and make up my mind to vote for Tina Fey and the old guy. I had already spent something like an hour thinking about the whole thing already, and that's more than enough.

God Bless America!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cool Hand Luke is gone

Cool Hand Luke is the quintessential Paul Newman movie for me. It brought together all those qualities that he portrayed in his best characters - strong but damaged, sly but true, the blazing smile that floats up out of a deep well of sadness. And always cool, always cool. Newman had one of those attributes you cannot teach in acting class - charisma - and he had a trainload of it.

A list of his best reads like somebody's top 20 films. My faves after Cool Hand Luke would be The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sometimes a Great Notion, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Hustler, Hombre, and Slap Shot, which was a gross comedy but Newman brought dignity to it. And you can't hardly find a real stinker in his filmography. He had a real sense of what he did and didn't want to do with his acting, and with his life. In his era you made your bones on the stage, New York was the only destination for the legit actor, and he was the first to play some characters that are now staples on the American stage.

And on top of being somebody you'd think must be a really nice guy, he apparently was a really nice guy. His Newman's Own line has generated $220 million for charity so far. That's in the "above and beyond the call of duty" category.

I never met a person who said they did not like Paul Newman. They don't make many men like him and I am sad to see the end of his era.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Seriously, I am confused. I mean it.

I know a person could be writing today about Obama and the Tom Bradley effect, Palin's "pay for your own abortion, rape victims" policy, the ramifications of a nuclear Iran, parallels between the crash of '29 and the crash of '08, and other urgent stories du jour. But I have a nagging question that trumps them all:

What the hell am I supposed to do with Facebook?

I understand that it's a social networking site. I understand it used to be called "MySpace for college kids." I get all that, but now what? I mean, what am I supposed to DO with it? (BTW, since I am communicating on a young person's topic here, it is necessary that I use terms like "I mean" regularly, and also use abbreviations like BTW, by the way.) No one ever sends me an instruction book for these new things. I am supposed to figure our for myself about "writing on the wall," and "poking" people. What do I look like, Stanley Einstein or something? I suppose one option would be to ignore it, but since I have been getting friend requests from people equally fuddy-duddy to myself (and you can't prove yourself to be more fuddy-duddy than by using the phrase "fuddy-duddy") it would make me feel left out. I mean, OMG!

I went right to the source for an answer to this question. Click on "About" at Facebook and you get:

Facebook gives people the power to share and makes the world more open and connected.

Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.
OK. Ironically, almost all the people who are my friends on Facebook are people I already know pretty well, and I see them in person pretty regularly, and all the other people that I encounter on there that I don't know are - well...strangers. Why do I want to talk to strangers?

And besides, I already "make the world more open and connected" with email and with this blog. I've got my photos place, and my videos place, and subscriptions to three of four list servs. Now and then, I even speak to someone face-to-face. Now what?

If you have any advice for me on this question, I'd sure be glad to hear it. I mean, seriously.

Right now I need to go chase some kids off my lawn. Damn kids.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Awake in the vast wasteland

An observation: people who have car alarms that go off at 4:30 in the morning two days in a row and cause certain people to be awake way earlier than they should be, especially when certain people can never get back to sleep once they're awake, should be rounded up and exiled to Las Vegas.

What's the deal with car alarms anyway? (The previous sentence brought to you by Jerry Seinfeld.) There was a time when the car alarm was a novel thing and if you heard one going off you reacted to it. Now you just walk on by, close the window (which doesn't help certain people sleep), turn up the TV. Rather pointless. The Presidential candidate who promises to do away with car alarms gets my vote. Ban leaf blowers, too, and I will vote for you twice.

AT&T is promoting their new U-Verse service in my town these days. One of the things they offer is TV (not really cable, but that's the idea) and their pitch includes the promise that you can "record up to 4 programs at once." The world has discovered DVRs, even to the point where people are as likely to use the term DVR now as they are to say "Tivo," which is sort of a breakthrough. And God knows I love my DVR. But who has time to watch half of the shows they record, let alone watching them all when you are recording them four at a time? And besides, I defy you to show me a single moment in the history of television when there were four things running simultaneously that were worth watching in the first place. Talk about technology getting ahead of human needs. Seems to me that there are so many TV channels that need to be fed programming like hungry little birds, there's not enough quality food to go around, and some of those birds are starving. It's not like there is an endless supply of talented people out there, to dream up and produce worthwhile television shows, or radio shows, or movies. If you ever doubt that, and flipping through channels doesn't prove it for you, just spend a little time on YouTube and you will see how shallow the talent pool really is.

In fact, I repeatedly have this thought that goes like "what ever happened to the good TV shows?" Seems like when the fall would roll around there would always be some new series that gave me the "That looks good" reaction - but lately, for the last - oh, 20 years? - it's been kind of drab. Feeling a little left behind here people. Everything that people think is funny, or good drama, doesn't do it for me. True, I've become an HBO snob, and I guess I expect that quality level (and that lack of commercials) all the time now. And those top HBO shows don't just grow on trees - they are a little too scarce for comfort. My old friend TV is letting me down.

Other than the sleep deprivation and knowing I will yawn my way through the afternoon, I like being up before the sun. It's like bonus time - there is nothing that my silly mind could have planned for me to do at 5am, so I can do whatever the heck I want for a little while. Maybe I should go watch some of those recorded shows. I'm sure there was a really good reason I recorded them in the first place.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven years ago this morning

Seven years ago this morning everything changed.

Seven years ago this morning my son was just a goofy high school junior, and my daughter was only 12. Seven years ago this morning I could still run three miles in 27 minutes. Motivated by what happened seven years ago this morning, my son became a Marine, learned to run three miles in 20 minutes, and prepared for his time in Iraq. I can recall, if not still feel, the anger I felt seven years ago this morning. I might have joined up myself but I was already too old. Now I am too old plus seven years, and have had my anger refreshed.

The anger infusion came courtesy of a documentary on the 9-11 conspiracy theories. Discovery Channel? History Channel? Conspiracy Channel? Can't remember which. I think it first aired in 2007. Two hours of a well-balanced look at the claims the "truthers" make, juxtaposed with actual truth.

It's amazing that these conspiracy buffs can make some of their claims with a straight face. For example, to claim that it was not an airliner that hit the Pentagon seven years ago this morning, when hundreds of people personally witnessed it. I know people myself who were in DC that day and saw the plane flying low right over them, seconds before the impact. But the wingnuts can't accept that reality.

Several years ago, Popular Mechanics took on the task of evaluating at all the claims. The lead to their story says:
Go to Google.com, type in the search phrase "World Trade Center conspiracy" and you'll get links to an estimated 628,000 Web sites.
The analysis by Popular Mechanics makes a lot more sense than the gibberish from nimrods like the Loose Change people. The documentary I watched earlier this week even mentioned that the Loose Change boys have re-edited their movie (they call it the "final cut" - clever) to remove their blatant errors. Kind of facile, don't you think, to claim you have the real truth, but when someone refutes it, you modify your story and say, "Wait, that wasn't the real truth, THIS is the real truth." Standard operating procedure for the conspiracy crowd - when new evidence shows your theory is wrong, make a new theory. Of course, the Loose Change boys got their comeuppance from Screw Loose Change (now that actually is clever) and you can read a ton of refutation there if you so choose. But it doesn't matter much what you say or so with the conspiracy crowd. If you tell them they're full of shit, they accuse you of being part of the conspiracy, so credit is due to the magazine for wading into it.

I have always been drawn to the great conspiracy theories and the people who spin them. I think we all have some level of curiosity when anyone claims to be lifting up the curtain to show us what's happening behind the scenes. It's a genre all its own - a fiction genre. In my talk radio days, I did hours of interviews with JFK assassination theorists, read a bunch of their books. It used to be a lot easier to believe in conspiracies until I grew up enough to realize how truly random life is, how the most improbable things happen sometimes.

Conspiracy theories serve the same purpose as belief in life after death. It is more comforting to think that all things happen for a reason, that there is a guiding hand, than to accept the chaos of reality. Chaos is lonely. Conspiracy nuts think they are brave for their beliefs. To be truly brave is to stand on the edge of the abyss and not to reason why things don't make sense.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The unbearable whiteness of being

Let me make it crystal clear at the outset, I've got nothing against white people. Many of my friends are white, in fact, and I am married to a white woman and we have white children together. As a reader here, you may be surprised to learn that I, myself, am white as well.

But when it comes to whiteness, there's nothing that can compare with a Republican National Convention.

If you have been a campaign follower for the last few months, you will have seen many staged candidate appearances, the type that result in eight seconds on the evening news. In these events you can typically see a carefully selected group of people in the background, behind the stumping candidate. If the polls show weakness with women voters, behold, there will be women in the background. If the Hispanic vote is weak for Joe Candidate, the bleachers will be chock-a-block with brown faces. But when it comes convention time, you can't dictate who gets seen, and the last few nights have revealed just how relentlessly white is the GOP. As Time mentions in this article:

"(The Republican conventioners were) an overwhelmingly Caucasian group of people — 93% of the delegates were white..."

But who cares? We should live color blind and not evaluate people by their skin tone, right? I don't think being white means you necessarily have a pre-determined set of values or beliefs, or that you love the taste of mayonnaise on Wonder Bread. I don't believe in white stereotypes anymore than I believe in black or Hispanic or Asian stereotypes, by which I mean I believe them all equally.

The point is this: if politics is about representation, how does a 93% white convention represent us as a whole? Living in California you are accustomed to an array of epidermis and a mixing of cultures - but it's not just a left coast phenomenon. As reported here for example:

"By the year 2055 at current fertility and immigration rates, white European Americans will be a minority for the first time since they came to outnumber the Native Americans in the 18th century," said Joe Feagin, a UF sociologist and expert on race relations. "And none of our white leaders are paying any attention to desegregating our society in meaningful ways."

In just 35 years -- 2030 -- the majority of young people in the United States, those ages 18 and younger, will not be white, said Feagin, co-editor of a new book of essays about race, ethnicity and the urban crisis titled "The Bubbling Cauldron."

Here are two photos, one from this week's GOP shingdig, and the other from 1940. The real world has changed a lot in that time - in terms of whiteness, the look of the Republican Convention has not.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Big Pander and who's got a bun in what oven?

And so the grand three-day weekend winds down and I return to work today refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated. This feeling will last until about 10:30am, but I will enjoy it while I have it.

I will have the pleasure of looking back on an eventful Labor Day, when we wondered whether it was VP nominee Sarah Palin or her teen daughter who had recently been in it. Labor, that is. (Hahahaha, funny joke on two meanings of word "labor"! I kill me!) For those who aren't keeping score, blog postings on Daily Kos on Saturday (which seem to have been taken down now?) claimed it was Palin's 17 year-old daughter who gave birth to the 5 month-0ld in the family, not Sarah herself, claiming a coverup. Within a news cycle or two, we got the official word from Palin that the teen is in fact preggers in the present tense if not in the past tense. I imagine they worked overtime at the celebrity gossip magazines this holiday weekend, with a newly famous teen mom who might overshadow the antics of the Spears family.

Going into day three of the "pregnancy controversy," we find ourselves in a version of "Where's Waldo" - who's pregnant? Who's been pregnant lately? Who might get pregnant next? These Alaskans are certainly fecund, that much we can say with confidence. If the GOPs goal was to bring attention to their ticket, they have succeeded, but I am not sure this is the type of attention they were looking for.

In any case, the larger story of choosing a woman for the VP slot has been rapidly eclipsed by these fertility announcements. We barely had time to kick around the question of whether this pick helps or hurts the McCain campaign. On the face of it, there's no denying the blatant attempt to attract women who felt cut out by Obama's choice of Biden. But are women (or any bloc of likely voters) really that shallow? So shallow they will vote for any human being who has the same genitalia? I think not. There may be a Republican woman who could draw the Hillary fans to the other party, but I don't think Sarah Palin is the one. Susan Reimer from the Baltimore Sun gets it right:

So. This is what being pandered to feels like. John McCain picked Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska and mother of five, to be his running mate to woo women like me. He seems to think that my girlfriends and I are so disappointed that an utterly qualified woman is not going to be president that we will jump at the chance to vote for an utterly unqualified woman for vice president. ...Does McCain think we will be so grateful for a skirt on the ticket that we won't notice that she's anti-abortion, a member of the NRA and thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution? His selection of Sarah Palin is insulting on so many levels that I am starting to feel like the Geico caveman...

If you are going to pick a woman for the sake of picking a woman, can you at least make it a credible choice?
Can you at least make a choice that doesn't give the gag writers for Jay Leno and Jon Stewart the month off?
(The jokes started immediately: She won't be able to hold her own against Joe Biden in a vice presidential debate. But wait until the swimsuit portion of the competition.)

Hahahahaha! Good one! Swimsuit competition!

Fair enough to say that this history-making but mostly boring Presidential campaign just got more interesting, and just at the right time when people are starting to pay attention. It would be good for democracy if everyone sees the election as an engaging, multi-faceted reality show, and as such, deserving of some time.

As far as how we decide to vote, I think we all know that Americans are not that simple. We don't vote based on gender. We use much more sophisticated evaluations, such as who's taller, and who has the better hair.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dude, am I tripping or is that a burning bush?

Kind of embarrassing that I missed this one, a story that popped up some 5 months ago in March 2008, but it's still blog worthy.

Moses Was High on Drugs, Israeli Researcher Says.
Psychedelic Cocktail May Explain Vision of the Burning Bush, Professor Says

The professor in question is Benny Shanon. He says you can find the same plants on the Sinai Peninsula that you find in the Amazon, where these plants are used to make a mind-bending hallucegenic cocktail. (One of many versions of the news story can be seen here.) Not only was Moses on the stuff, says the prof, but perhaps his followers, too. That means they were understanding when he came down off the mountain and said "Thou shalt not kill, and does anybody have any Cheetos?"

Any story like this, attributing less than divine cause to the great moments in the Bible, immediately draws scalding criticism. Hearken back to the "DaVinci Code" phenomenon, for example. For some people, the lessons in religious teaching are no good unless you have all the special effects. It's not enough for a human person to teach about faith or love or devotion - you have to have two of every animal, and water turning into blood, and people who live 900 years. Great plot, but what about the character development?

I think anybody who has imbibed even a mild hallucinogen can see the potential truth in this "stoned Moses" theory. Even a stiff dose of cold medicine can make you think you're hearing the voice of God, not to mention taking something really potent. Consider the peyote cults of the southwest as just one example, or the ritual Indian fasting and deprivation on the vision quest, which leads to the same hallucinatory state. There are those moments, whether on a good or a bad trip, when everything is understood - and if that is not a state of spiritual enlightenment, I don't know what is.

That's not to say you can't get on that same plane without taking drugs. God knows (and I know he knows because he spoke to me after the third bottle of Nyquil) that I am no proponent of taking drugs. (Keeping in mind that I learned from my dad that "beer is like food" so that's not a drug, right?) It's easy to see that some people can reach some other state of existence through the power of their minds (and souls?) Something that in some cultures would be called meditation, and in others, just called praying.

That is also not to say that everybody who "hears the voice of God" goes on to be a great leader for the good of mankind, or even a team player. Seems like the news is full of people slaughtering their families and claiming God was telling them to do it. In fact, there are more of these nutjobs than there are Moseses (or is that Mosii?)

Bottom line: don't know if it matters if Moses was a user. Wherever he got the idea for those 10 commandments, they seem to make sense. And the whole story made a swell movie, so we all win.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Leaving it behind

Once in awhile you get a situation in sports where somebody is playing for vindication. A big contract for an aging slugger- the golfer with the reputation for choking - or more currently, the whole Brett Favre mania. In all these cases, that player comes out to prove he or she's still got it, deserves to be there, is truly the best. There's a vindication story playing out right now in China, in the women's gold medal match between the US and A and Brazil, and she who may be vindicated is Hope Solo.

You have to be a real soccer fan to be really into this, I guess, but the Hope Solo story broke out into the mainstream last year. She's the US goalkeeper who played great all the way through the World Cup, then got benched for the semi-final, and Brazil cleaned our clock with Briana Scurry in the net. Solo was the better player at the time, Scurry's best games were well behind her, and just about everybody who follows the game thought it was a dumb mistake by the coach. Solo broke ranks after and said she would have made those saves, that she was wronged. For that bit of truth, she was ostracized. It was cold comfort that the numbskull coach got fired a little later.

Now (it's in the 79th minute) she's got a gold medal shutout working against big bad Brazil. Brazil is still the better team, but even if they take the win, Solo will be cleansed. I hope it goes to a shootout and she makes the winning save. She deserves it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Mikey Angels" flies off in both directions at once

The expression we've all heard is "you can't be too rich or too thin." I suppose that gets said a lot around the tennis court at the country club, the changing room at Sak's? I suppose it draws a wry smile every time. Or is it really said in the aisles at Target by people who are at no risk of being too much of either?

The expression we've never heard is "you can't be too smart," because we all know it is possible to be too smart. Kind of ironic since we spend a lot of energy trying to force kids to be smart. We pound them with homework, make them take tests, tell them the kids in Mumbai are going to take your future job. We try to get them into the best schools, the ones for the smart people, but they are always at risk of becoming "too smart for their own good."

Based on what I've heard about last weekend's Presidential candidate activity, Obama is running the risk of being too smart for his own good. He and McCain did these long interviews with Rick Warren, the "Purpose Driven Life" guy. (A huge success, I know, but a fully unreadable book for me.) Upshot of it all for some pundits - Barack sounds like a constitutional law professor when he answers questions. Funny how that can happen when you are a constitutional law professor. McCain, on the other hand, comes off simple, no gray areas, just a regular guy. I know for a lot of people, when it comes down to it, they just don't trust that guy who comes off too smart. If Obama wants to succeed, he needs to get a little dumber.

Meanwhile, I went over to Obama's web site to check out the "sign up to get texted when the VP is picked." I noticed the prominence on the site of the 16 - count 'em - 16! social networking sites the campaign is using. Not just MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn, but a ton more that I've never even heard of. Over on the McCain home page, no sign of any social networking, even though he does have a MySpace page. This leads to an interesting comparison - Obama's MySpace shows he has 451,933 friends, McCain's has 63,485. Not exactly a scientific poll, but there's some meaning there. Talk about your "digital divide."

Kind of interesting to look through the people who have requested, and been accepted, to be MySpace friends to these prominent guys. (I assume there's some team of campaign interns who spend all day just dealing with these social networking sites.) On just the first page of Obama's friend list you'll see a guy with angel wings and women showing off their cleavage or their tramp stamp. Over on McCain's page, you'll see he has friends called "Sexy Gershom" and "The Bri Man." No tramp stamps visible, and all his friends seem to really be into cars. And wait - there's the guy with the angel wings again! He's friends with both candidates! He's either a real slut, or he's trying to get a bill passed. But I repeat myself.

I think I have found an enduring entertainment to carry me through the rest of this campaign.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The proxy war is on channel 11

Indifference rapidly turns to rabid partisanship as soon as the Olympics offers its first big moment, and it looks like that's happened, so let's pump our fists and do a little "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

In case you missed it, some French swimmers claimed they were going to "smash" the Americans in the 4 x 100 freestyle. (Imagine that, French bragging.) The race turned out to be spectacular, with the USA winning, so in your Gallic face, monsieur. Maybe you can win some gold medals if they had a smugness competition or a smoking marathon. We know the French could win the sprints if they could just have Germans chasing them. But mon dieu, enough cheap slaps at Pierre.

(And in case you missed it and you want to see it, NBC has set up an excellent website to feed video. You can get live streams and archived stuff. Go to the site here, and if you get a message that you need to install "Silverlight" that's cool, don't be fearful.)

It's a funny thing that happens when the Olympics starts. I can go from a complete lack of interest to the edge of obsession in about two days. All of a sudden I'm watching beach volleyball. (Looks like fun, but how did that become an Olympic sport? They don't even drink any beer while they're playing, so it's not very authentic.) And then I am rooting for some total stranger to break some record, or win some number of medals, and a week ago I could not have cared less. Shortly after that, I become an expert in dozens of arcane sports and am prepared to debate the importance of the #3 man in the 4-man bobsled or why the US doesn't produce great pentathlon winners or why some Swede will never win the pole vault because his run up to the pit is lackluster. Before you know it, the network turns some little known gymnast or skier into a famous face - a fame that has a short shelf life these days, but gets a prominent place on the shelf while it lasts - and I can add some "up close and personal" facts, usually heart-warming, to my stock of essential Olympic knowledge.

This Olympics, of course, is more symbolic than most. It's not far under the surface that it shapes up as a chest pounding exercise with the Chinese hoping to show that (a) they can host it, and (b) they can win more medals than the Americans. (Tally this morning: China = 14 medals, USA = 12. ) If all sports are symbolic of warfare, this particular set of games has the potential to produce some sort of new world pecking order. (China has clearly surged into the lead in the "smoggiest country" competition, so they've got that to be proud of right off the bat.) Is the US on a slippery slope to also-ran status in the world? Is China the new big man on campus? These games will shed some light on that topic, so pay attention.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

George Washington's crotch and other curiosities

I am proud to present my 200th post on this here blog, entitled "George Washington's crotch and other curiosities." You're welcome.

George Washington - what do we know? He chopped down the cherry tree (not really) and he threw a dollar across the Delaware (unlikely) and later he crossed the Delaware (maybe to retrieve the dollar?) and he had wooden teeth (true) and he married for money (true) and he was lucky as hell to win the war (true.) But today we ask, did he have a deformed groinal area? Was he, in fact, engaged with something less than a full set of equipment? Were his legs on backwards?

I'm not sure just what the heck was going on, but I enter as evidence this photo of a portrait that hangs in Faneuil Hall in Boston. (There may be copies in other galleries, too.) It's called "George Washington at Dorchester Heights" and was painted in 1806 or 1777, depending on what internet source you want to use.

We see the familiar face with the wig, the long nose, the long neck, the colonial military garb, the jacket buttoned high and exposing the waistcoat, and then the --- what the...? What's going on with George's crotch? Let's take a closer look.

Hmmm, something is not quite right here. Where is George's junk? These guys liked to wear the tight pants, and since he was the father of the country and all, we should see some evidence of fecundity, don't you think? The more you look at this (and don't look at it TOO much, you pervert) the more it looks like a badly-drawn female groin, or even an emaciated butt - but it sure don't look like this man is a man. Did he pose with his pants on backwards?

And that's not all: consider also GW's partner in this portait. Common enough that a military man would stand aside his faithful steed. But how many times have you seen a revered figure side by side with a horse's ass?I am sure you will remember from "Art Appreciation" that it was Gilbert Stuart who made the most famous portrait of Washington, from which the image on the dollar bill was derived. Stuart painted just about everybody who would stand still back in those days, and is the creator of this "man with horse" portrait above. Did Stuart have a peeve on for George? Slow pay for earlier paintings? Wanted to be an ambassador and never got the call? Got cheated by George at the poker table? Perhaps we shall never know. But I don't think you have to be Dan Brown to decipher the symbolism in this art work - Stuart was saying "George Washington has no balls and is comparable to a horse' ass."

Either that or he was just a really bad painter.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"

It's more than a little bit sad that bookstores are going the way of the dodo. Not only are times hard for the independent booksellers, but even the big guys like Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling. (Look for those two to merge and share the pain.) In little old Napa not that long ago there were at least three bookstores downtown. Now the total is zero. Their sales fell as rents rose. On our recent east coast trip I was on the lookout for one of those funky old book shops with stacks and stacks to poke through. Sorry to say after two weeks on the road I never saw a single one.

You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to conclude that the ability to buy books online is making the brick and mortar bookstore weak. If I want some old book, chances are I can find it for pennies from some Amazon re-seller - and if it's a new book I'm after, what keeps me from buying it at Wal Mart or some other discounter where you get the same book for several dollars less? (Other than the fact that I don't want to go to Wal Mart, of course.) I am surely to blame for the dwindling of the bookstores. I buy 90% of my books online. So be it.

But now and then it's a gift to wander around in the surviving stacks and see what tickles your fancy. When we finally found a bookstore on our east coast trip it was a big chain on 5th Avenue, we fell into Mark Kurlansky and this has been a good thing.

Kurlansky is one of those writers who makes something mundane something interesting. His book Salt: A World History got onto my radar when it came out in 2002. I thought it sounded worthwhile but never read it. In the bookstore a couple of weeks ago we turned up his more recent effort, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, which is both a telling of the bivalve's story and the history of New York City. I love to read a book about a place I'm visiting while I'm there, so this was a major winner for me - and we were already on a seafood diet, having gobbled mussels in Philly and oysters on the half shell at the famous Union Oyster House in Boston (the oldest restaurant in the whole country), and then the best fried oysters I've ever tasted at a little joint on Plymouth Bay. I had days where I read about oysters, thought about oysters, and ate oysters. It was oyster-iffic.

So I'm continuing on a Kurlansky run right now. After the oyster book I read Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (and if you follow that link you'll see you can buy it used for $2.20 - goodbye sweet bookstores!) And on deck is The Basque History of the World. So I started with the oyster and now I'm on a roll.

Mmmmmm...oyster roll....

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gracious behaviors for the tasting room and the dining room, si vous plait

It seems that I have three basic states of consciousness lately:
  • Mildly dissatisfied
  • Fully peevish
  • Overly sentimental
Oh, and I guess there is one more plane of existence for me - inebriated.

Today I seem to be trending toward fully peevish, and it was all set off by what I overheard while on a lunch run yesterday. But let me start at the very beginning, that's a very good place to start. (Cue the music.)

Having heard about the newest wine bar/tasting room to open in downtown Napa I popped in to check it out. (It's Gustavo Thrace in the Oxbow District, and you will be hearing a lot about Gustavo in the next few weeks with the opening of the new movie Bottle Shock. It's a movie about the 1976 Paris tasting, and he is portrayed in it.) After my visit I went to their website and noticed they had a blog, so I clicked over to that, too. It's not a real high energy blog - the most recent post is from December 2007 - but what I read was interesting: "Things we hate about wine tastings." That caught my eye. I know what bugs me when I am in a tasting room - like being made to feel that I should be getting down on my knees and asking nicely for the tasting I am entitled to as a wine club member when I am at a winery to pick up my club shipment, such as, oh, let's say Artesa Winery, last Sunday, let's say, and the nimrod back there thinks he is God's gift to wine tasters and tries to impress the giggly young women by bandying the phrase "volatile esters" (which would be a great name for a band) and when I finally get his attention he gives me a dollop of wine that is about a third of an ounce, and there's no way I am going to progress from mildly dissatisfied to inebriated at that rate - but it's interesting to see it from the other side of the bar, too.

Somehow that awareness of the server-served relationship made me more tuned in yesterday when I was at one of my all-time favorite places, ABC Bakery, getting a to-go sandwich. As I'm leaving, I hear a server saying to a table, "Are you done or are you still picking at that?" That is in my top five most unpleasant things to hear when I'm in a restaurant. "Picking at it" is something finincky children and scavenging buzzards do. "Picking at it" is what your mom always tells you not to do when have something you really want to pick at. Bad memories of being denied the simple pleasures. At the top of my list, though, is the commonly-heard phrase from the waiter, "Are you still working on that?" It always makes me want to say, "Yes, and I think I need a chisel and a trowel, it's starting to set up," or "Yes, almost have it solved but I need to go back and check my work." I don't think of eating a nice meal as "working on it." All the same, I do not want to hear "Are you still enjoying that?" That one makes me want to say "I was enjoying it until you showed up," or "No, I stopped enjoying it awhile ago, now I'm just poking it in and chewing for the exercise." It all seems so simple to me. The acceptable phrase is "Should I take your plate?" That one never makes me fully peevish.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The local grub

The was a good book a few years back (ok, I checked and it was 23 years ago. That's my new standard for "a few years" I guess) titled The Accidental Tourist. Anne Tyler wrote a character who was a travel writer for people who don't like to travel - the kind of people who always stay at a familiar hotel chain where there are no surprises, and seek out McDonald's and Applebee's so they're not confronted with culinary uncertainty.

I'd like to think there are fewer risk-averse travelers out there these days, due to the relentless promotion of "close to the ground" travel by people like Rick Steves, and "authentic experience" promotion by the Lonely Planet crowd. We are all expected not to stay at Ho Jo's when overseas - better to rent a spare room in some local's house - and seek out the local cuisine. With all those Food Network shows with Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay chowing down in every wide spot in the road - how can there be any local secrets anymore when it comes to getting some lunch?

And so I am adamant about looking for a neighborhood restaurant whenever we go traveling. Since as a tourist you inevitably end up in the most touristy places, the strategy is to walk four or five blocks in any direction away from the throng (farther if you've got the energy and time) and start letting your intuition guide you. In other words, hope you get lucky.

Our best success on the recent East Coast swing was in Boston. Having mastered the grueling 2.5 mile Freedom Trail (which wasn't really grueling but I thought this story needed some punching up) we had seen dozens of North End joints that looked good from the outside, but knowing there was a river of tourists passing through I was suspicious. So we wandered off into the neighborhood. Down on the next corner, we saw some guys sitting in chairs out on the sidewalk, looking like extra from The Sopranos. As we get closer we see the place is "Jimmy's Men's Club" or something like that. A good sign that we are off the beaten track. Instinct said not to walk right through these guys, so we make a quick left turn and the next thing you know we have entered pizza heaven.

I figure I have eaten pizza maybe 2,000 times in my life. I've eaten pizza in probably a dozen different states, three or four different countries. I've eaten pizza in Italy and on the street in New York. I've eaten deep dish in Chicago and vegetarian in California. Frozen, take and bake, home made, leftover cold for breakfast - I've has every permutation. So I can with authority say we found the best pizza in the universe on Thacher Street in Boston. I think this picture says it all - that is the face of ecstasy. Regina Pizza - how is this not a national brand?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Staycation my Aunt Fanny, let's go somewhere

Ask a dozen people how they define vacation and chances are good you will get something like 1 to 12 different answers. Some like a week at the lake, doing whatever it is people do at lakes. For others there's nothing better than the sun/sand/disposable fiction/rum-based cocktails combination. And then there are your guide book-toting types who need to visit monuments and museums. I admit I fall into the latter category. I can do the laid back beach routine for a maximum of two days before I am itching to read some plaques or slap on the audio tour headphones. I am not capable of just lying around doing nothing - at least not when I am on vacation. If it's a weekend at home and there are eleven projects I should be doing, that's when I am very good at lying around doing nothing.

So our recent east coast adventure was right up my alley and down my street - two weeks of tramping around in our three great eastern centers of history and culture; Philadelphia, Boston and New York City.

Philadelphia is a good place to go for people who think our government can't do anything right. You will see that they are, in fact, quite good at managing tourism. In the Old City where all the history is packed in, and where the tourists pack in to see it, there is an artful use of National Park Service guides and Wackenhut contract security to manage the crowds. And if you're lucky, you get the Independence Hall spiel from a guy with a great style. Our guide (that's him in the picture) did a good job of chiding everyone for knowing so little about their own American history, for taking it all for granted. He reinforced the idea that history is not about things - buildings, statues, monuments - but is about people and ideas and choices. (He said "If you just want to see an old building come on over to my house and I'll make you some french fries." Probably should have taken him up on that offer.)

It was a little inspiring to overhear, while we were waiting in line, the conversation among a large family, at least three generations all together there. The Indian or Pakistani father was telling his children the reason we were all visiting Independence Hall, quoting dates and names and imbuing his story with a sense of how truly meaningful it was. He was likely a naturalized citizen, a person who has learned and absorbed American history as an adult rather than memorizing, regurgitating and forgetting it as a child. That's something that's usually forgotten in our constant debate about immigration - the people who come here from other countries - legal or illegal - seem to show a lot more passion about the American dream than those of us who grow up here. We don't stop to consider how lucky we all are, and how we loudly complain about a country that so many others long for.

The tour guide made it clear - history is not about old buildings, it's about people and their visions, about their passions, their convictions. That was a great message to hear at the start of our history crawl.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

This blog is not dead!

Today we are back home after two weeks on vacation. Blessed home! The entire two weeks were spent in big cities - big, humid cities - and our quiet, modest abode has never seemed so perfect as this morning.

Do I have tales to tell of my travels to far-off lands? You betcha. More soon

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Musing on mortality

So you're running pretty good all in all, but one day something's not quite working right. You've got a drip, or a squeak, or a pinch. Something's bent. Front end out of line, or you're not hitting on all cylinders. You take yourself into the shop and the doctor seems a little too serious for your comfort. You get to take some unpleasant tests, and you worry that you're getting worried over nothing, but then the other shoe drops - you've got it bad, and that ain't good.

Here's the big question - what would you do with yourself and your little life if you knew you were a short timer? Say they tell you you've got six months or a year to go - would you live your life differently if you knew you didn't have much of it left to live?

It's a little like pondering what you would do if you won the lottery. (Granted scenario 1 is a little less joyful than scenario 2.) If you won the lottery, you'd have sudden wealth and you'd live a different life, right? You'd run with a faster crowd, jet off to Monaco to play roulette, dinner at Maxim's in Paris, caviar for breakfast, custom Italian suits, big, fat diamond rings. And that would make you happy, right?

Or would it? What if you're a Fritos and bean dip guy and you just want to get the lawn mowed and watch Nascar.

There's a fundamental flaw with the fantasy that if you were suddenly rich or suddenly terminal you would do everything differently from what you're doing now.That means you are subsisting from day to day but you're living some other life than the one you want, doesn't it? Maybe that's why some lottery winners have such a freakout. They try to live like rich people. But what they really want is to be slobs.

Be careful what you hope for.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

50 is 50, get used to it

Nominee for the biggest lie of the modern era: "50 is the new 30." This whopper is right up there with "I am not a crook," "I did not have sex with that woman," and "Mission accomplished."

I think there may be whole legions of writers working for fashion and lifestyle magazines who sit around all day coming up with "blank is the new blank" comparisons. They are the Typhoid Marys who spread the "is the new" virus. It may have all started when one of these savants came up with "pink is the new black." This appears to have been spawned in the 1980s, and ever since, we can't get enough of it.
  • "Iraq is the new Vietnam" is an easy one.
  • "Small is the new big" was a line to sell little cell phones.
  • From Wikipedia, we get: Carson Kressley from Queer Eye once declared, "Gay is the new black."
There's an entire chart of "is the new"-isms here. It includes even the painfully obvious statements like "Slovenia is the new Switzerland." Well, duh. Everybody knows that about Slovenia.

Once you start down this path, it may be inevitable that someone comes out with "50 is the new 30." Oh yeah? Tell it to my liver. Tell it to my sacroiliac. Tell it to the supersized bottle of ibuprofen that's never out of reach. Falser words were never spoken.

But this seductive lie we're trying to tell ourselves fits right in with the basic boomer attitude - never grow up. And to admit that 50 is, well, 50, is to admit you're more than likely past the halfway point to a dirt nap, the big sleep. Not a cheerful awareness, so better to say "50 is the new 30." Yeah, sure, the check is in the mail, right? I will accept that 50 is the new 30 in terms of milligrams of blood pressure medicine needed, or number of minutes to complete a 3 mile run, or inches around my waist if I'm not careful. And, oh, yeah - 30 is the age when you start getting mail from AARP, right?

Pull the other one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Slap leather, sidewinder

For a short time yesterday I became part of the holstered set. I have been issued a Blackberry at my work, and tried out the nifty clip on holster. Not wanting to look like yet another guy with Batman utility belt fantasies, I have heretofore resisted hanging anything from my belt, and have generally resisted using the word "heretofore," but hey, things change. (Future iconic image of the earlier 2000s: guy with two or three gadgets clipped on his belt and a headset permanently plugged into his ear. That look will be like dresses with big shoulder pads or parachute pants when we look back on it some day. Oh, how we will laugh. By that time we will all have something the size of a button that does everything with voice command, or some gizmo surgically implanted in our brains that just knows what we want and need and produces it. Like, I could use an order of chili cheese fries right now, and I would like that to just appear before me, but the technology isn't ready yet. Sure hope I live long enough. I reallt like chili cheese fries.) The BB is a little large for the pocket, so I took the leap and latched on the holster. It lasted a full 2 hours or so, and then I broke the holster getting out of the car. Apparently I use that part of my hip pretty aggressively to leverage this sad old meat sack out of my overly low-slung and suspiciously mid-life-crisis-indicating wheels.

So I see it as a sign - don't wear the fricking holster. Down deep in my soul I knew it was wrong in the first place. Now, since the Blackberry is part of me, I am torn between just shoving it in my pocket or starting a new trend of wearing it on a lanyard around my neck. People just don't wear lanyards like they used to.

But the larger point here - I now have the Blackberry and the Blackberry has me. Like the vampire bitten, I am now doomed to slowly degrade to a semi-human form, a devolution noted by the shuffling gait with the hands held low, an almost prayerful aspect with the head bowed to receive instructions from the unblinking eye of the All Powerful One. I am resolved to a fate where I can no longer give even partial attention to the actual humans in the room with me once the buzzing and the beeping begins. I must slavishly attend to the screen. I will wantonly disengage from a crucial meeting at just the most important moment, wasting the time of everyone else in the room, while I focus on a random message from a stranger. This is my fate.

Hey, who cares about civility anyway? Human interaction? Old school. Pointless. Better to just fling pixels on the wall and see what sticks. Scattershot messaging, quantity over quality - that's the ticket. I will Twitter you later. Pull my chain and I will respond. At least until I am overwhelmed with messages, and then I will ignore them all.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The birds and the bees

Atticus Finch taught his children well, that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mocking bird."
One thing I can't stand it's birds nesting in my corncrib.

I have always been impressed by mockingbirds. They've got so much to say all the time, and they say it over and over in so many ways, and with such enthusiasm, even though it doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. It's kind of like listening to sports talk radio.

We have a fairly regular mockingbird presence in our neighborhood. Some mornings it's that mockingbird talk that wakes me before the alarm. Not bad to lie there and listen to what the mockingbird has to say, knowing there's no chance he will go off on how Obama's middle name is Hussein, or that Bush lied about the WMD, or offer any opinion whatsoever on gay marriage. Then again, since I don't speak mockingbird, maybe that's exactly what he's talking about. Maybe that's why all the other birds get quiet when the mockingbird gets rolling - they're all thinking "Here he goes again..."

In any case I will take the mockingbird over the crows. They like some tall redwoods nearby, and they like to sit on the telephone pole right outside the bedroom window and play their one note symphony. Seems to be a pack of three of them, and one has a voice that's sort of a cross between crow and duck. Maybe got something stuck in his craw. Or he could be some kind of bird impersonator. Either way, he's extra annoying and loud. Atticus Finch made no defense of crows, you know, and if I had a gun I might prop it on my pillow and try to eliminate some evildoers, all in the interest of a few more minutes sleep. I'm sure the neighbors would thank me, as long as I managed to hit the crow and not the electrical transformer he sits next to.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence around this neck of the woods suggests the bees continue to decline. (Faithful readers will recall this post from last summer about the bee problem. I was bitching about the crows back then, too.) I'm not the type to get all Chicken Little about the crisis of the week, but this bee failure thing is a little eerie. Last year, about a third of all the bee colonies died off - and this year, a third of the remaining ones died off. These are huge losses. As it was described in this news story, wouldn't people be up in arms if a third of all cows just dropped over? I don't think most people have any idea it's happening, or what impact it would have, but I don't think they will like it when a jar of honey or a carton of strawberries costs as much as a tank of gas.

Maybe the mockingbird and the crows are trying to get me to wake up and do something about the bees.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The news has reported on tornadoes, plane crashes, and Mars rovers, but what about this...?

I'm no fan of Pres. Bush. We all know he lacks skills, is a general daily embarrassment, and an example of the Peter Principle in action. Nonetheless, history will probably show that he was right about a few things, and one of them may be the thing he is most vilified for-namely, the war in Iraq. Thanks to my man Chris for passing along this item that I would otherwise have never seen.

Terror On Wane,' 'Al-Qaida On Run' And Other Headlines You Won't See


Posted 5/22/2008

Mileposts: As President Bush's term winds down, signs are there that the war on terror is being won. The conflict in Iraq is ebbing, and worldwide terror attacks are down. When will someone call it what it is? VICTORY.

Back from the front, Gen. David Petraeus called on Congress Thursday to begin considering a drawdown of U.S. troops after five years of war. Violence in Iraq has plunged to its lowest levels since 2004, and al-Qaida is a tattered shadow of its formerself — key leaders dead, successors weak and recruiting down.

"My sense" Petraeus said, "is I will be able to make a recommendation (in the autumn) for further reductions."

This is no Saigon-style exit, but a coming victorious end of a long conflict. U.S. forces have pounded al-Qaida into irrelevance.

Using highly disciplined Special Forces strikes, advanced intelligence and communications, and local allies in the right places, 155,000 U.S. troops have been crushing a vicious enemy motivated by no rational forces in a war with no precedent.

They are winning against all odds, overcoming not just terrorists, but other obstacles such as a lumbering Pentagon bureaucracy and weak-kneed Western intelligentsia whose media toadies trump every military error and harp on every isolated bad deed.

Now proven wrong, these same critics retaliate by ignoring what is a very big story.

Worldwide terror attacks have fallen off 40% since 2001, according to a study by Canada's Human Security Report Project, and support for al-Qaida in the Arab world has collapsed. The study found terror attacks had been overcounted because Iraq War atrocities distorted the figures. Security gains elsewhere included even sub-Saharan Africa, where the improvement was called "extraordinary."

Just as the conflict in Iraq is coming to a close, two related terror wars — in Spain and Colombia — are also seeing signs of victory.

Working with France's tough, savvy police forces, Spanish authorities on Tuesday arrested Javier Lopez Pena, the top terrorist of the Marxist ETA group responsible for 800 killings since 1968.

Lopez himself broke a cease-fire negotiated in 2006 and, assuming Spain wouldn't fight, resumed his bombings. His al-Qaida-linked group is now headless and unlikely to cause the same trouble. Sealing ETA's doom was the Spanish government's decision to confront rather than negotiate with the thugs, and then join with France.

Even more impressive, the FARC terrorist group in Colombia has been reduced to a ghostly remnant of its former self, unable to make payroll and its leaders terrified of being slaughtered by its remaining 9,000 foot soldiers out to collect government rewards.

Its leader, Raul Reyes, was killed in an airstrike March 1, and six other commanders have been either blown away or jailed.

This week, FARC commander Nelly Avila Moreno put down arms, admitted the FARC is "crumbling" and pleaded with her comrades to surrender. More than 1,000 FARC fighters, seeing no future against superior firepower and a united public, have done so.

FARC's terrorists can no longer communicate with each other except by messenger and are running out of money. Colombia's people completely despise it and are turning them in. Thursday, Colombia's army unearthed a huge FARC arsenal in the jungle, taking two tons of bombs and 8,000 land mines from FARC's bloody hands.

From the deserts of Iraq to the villages of Spain to the jungles of Colombia, these victories against terrorist groups are all linked. They are the result of using proven tactics, holding together resolutely, cooperating with other nations to share and deliver intelligence, and forming united fronts. When this happens, terrorists cannot flourish. Recent successes show that these wars are winnable.

So why are the mainstream media so eager to ignore this news, and let their dour view slant their coverage? By failing to recognize the emerging victory over terrorism, the media only damage public morale and give the terrorists hope.

But in the Internet age, the media can't hide the news forever: Victories are beginning to emerge from Iraq and beyond. Maybe the news media should drop their bias and catch up with reality.