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The Mist Net Chronicles

A blog of sorts by Matt Freeman

 

 

notice that Mist Net Chroncles has moved to http://blog.mattfreemanwriter.com/mist_net

12/29/07
Misses and Miles

My friend J. plays tennis, and always seems to have a taut, ready air about him, as if he were waiting on the baseline, ready to move in whatever direction he needs to go. He was playing tennis a couple of months ago, and his chest started hurting badly, and he wound up in the emergency room. The cardiologist said he needed bypass surgery. J. asked if it could be put off a couple of weeks—he had some travel plans. I don't know exactly what the doctor replied, but the gist was that if he didn't have the surgery immediately he might end up traveling further than he wanted to.

Last night his wife had a get-together for some of his friends. "We have a lot to be thankful for this year," the invitation said. I couldn't get over how he's his same old self. We were sitting at a table, talking, and when the phone rang in the kitchen he popped up to get it just like that. I imagine it's a little like putting a new engine in your car—you don't want to, but if you have to, the car will be just like it was before the engine blew. I assumed that's how it would be—I always assume that people will get through hard times, if I care about them—but it was nice to shake his hand, thump him on the shoulder, tell him he looks hale and hearty, and trade jibes like always. It all seemed faintly unreal—how could he go through all that, and end up his same old self? But there he was, big as life. They used to tell a person who'd undergone a shock, "You look like you've seen a ghost!" I may have been looking at J. quizzically now and then, as if I expected some wisps of mortality to be trailing off him still, and if I had an odd expression I'd have to say that it was because I was seeing someone very much alive.

12/28/07
Important Distinction

I have a small confession and an explanation, before I launch into more religion-bashing. First of all, I'm just a little superstitious myself, especially when I feel stressed or feel a sense of lack of control. I can tell I feel this way, because I'll read the horoscope. Yesterday I saw a square of note paper lying on a sidewalk that had writing on it, and I bent down to look. It said, "The end of" and that sort of gave me a teeny little chill. And I always avoid picking up pennies if they're face down. Face up, sure, they're good luck. Face down, no. Maybe it's silly. Maybe a penny is just a penny. But I can afford to leave a penny lie. What I can't afford is to take chances.

That said, if you need to believe that the fanciful stories told in your faith's tradition are literally true, then fine. The problem comes when you hold that belief and you try to run my life. "Running my life" is a fairly open-ended thing, in my view. Blowing me up is a form of running my life that I object to. So is standing on my porch, ringing my doorbell, and questioning me about my own beliefs in the hope I'll decide to adopt yours. If you want to drop the teaching of evolution from a science curriculum, or pick a U.S. president based pretty much on whether he thumps the same Bible you do, that's a form of running my life too and I object to it.

I don't go in for bombs or running for the school board or whatever myself, when I object to what people are doing. Mostly I just mock them. Now, that said, we come to the matter of Reeves, Louisiana. Their mayor, Scott Walker, has been working hard—the newspaper story says for 40 years, which I find incredible (but still very Biblical)—to change their telephone exchange number to something other than 666. (They picked 749.) If you don't know, 666 is "The Mark of the Beast" according to the Book of Revelation. It's all rather murky, but the number seems to be a numerological code for some Roman emperor or other that the author didn't like. (Numerology assigns numbers to letters for some reason. Its practical value is as yet undiscovered.) I wondered why they chose the number 749, and decided that maybe it was numerological too. I tried some numerology myself. I started numerologizing "credulous buttheads," thinking it would equal 749, but it only came to 218. I think the problem is that I need more adjectives. (But credit where it's due: Evidently you can keep "666" if you want. You won't have to change your address book if you frequently telephone the freethinkers in Reeves, and I applaud that.)

Where was I? Right, the Book of Revelation. See, there's two ways of thinking about the Book of Revelation: that it's either a vision of God's plan for the future, or the opinions of one person, a person who quite possibly needed a type of medical attention not available in the Mediterranean world in the first century. That second thing is my opinion. It's also the opinion of Thomas Jefferson, who called Revelation "merely the ravings of a maniac." Jefferson edited the Bible and took out all the magical stuff. I think if he could come back and get caught up with things, he'd leave evolution in the curriculum. I don't know what he'd say about "religion in the public square" and whether or not it's constitutional to have a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. Possibly he'd wonder aloud why you couldn't just put the nativity scene somewhere else. I can't speak for Thomas Jefferson. But I wish he were running my life. He was a pretty smart guy.

12/27/07
The Other, Gold

Two old friends called last night as I was sitting on my lazy, friendship-undeserving butt having dinner. I had absolutely meant to call both of them many times before this, but they, being more expeditious, beat me to it. We got caught up and made plans to get together. It's that time of year, you know, when you mend fences this way.

And it reminded me of a thought that I've had lately about a really helpful consumer product—one that would help me, at any rate. I'm thinking of some sort of little unit, like one of those bizarre Bluetooth things you wear on your ear, that would detect kindly thoughts about people and send them a message about it. I often fail to call people because I think I need to have some gift to offer—good news, or some sort of invitation. But all people really want is to know you're thinking about them, right? So anyway, this thing would let them know that. You'd get a call from X, and you'd be delighted to hear X's voice, because it's been a while, and you'd cry, "X! I was just thinking about you!" And X would say, "I know."

P.S. Speaking of the approaching new year, if sometime soon you see some functional and cosmetic changes around here, you'll know that I've successfully performed certain transformational incantations. So come back around, and we'll see.

12/26/07
Wuzzat?

Two a.m., and there's a distinct and very loud scratching noise coming out of the wall. The cat jumps off the bed and walks into the middle of the room, listening. He didn't literally say, "I'm on it," or "This one's mine," but scratching sounds at night have to be something that works on the mind of a cat.

This noise reminded me uncomfortably of a story. A guy I know did Peace Corps work in the Marshall Islands, and when he arrived the locals told him that whatever he did, he should wash his hands every night before retiring. He didn't ask why—local custom, whatever, I'll go along with the gag—but one night he forgot to do so and when he woke up the top layer of skin was missing from his fingertips. "Well, that's weird," he thought. He asked the locals about it. They started laughing. "You didn't wash your hands, did you?" they asked. It seems that washing removes the accumulated salt, which you wanted to do there because if you didn't the rats would come and take it, along with that top layer of skin. My fingertips seem fine this morning but I'll be washing my hands tonight just in case.

You know how people say everything, especially artistic stuff, is political? I don't entirely believe that. There are academics who have politics on the brain, but I'm not one of them. But I was struck by an accident report on the way home from work yesterday. It said that traffic was messed up in Kennett Square, my home, of course, because of a pedestrian accident at Church Alley and State Street. Perhaps this is a more dangerous intersection than some people have been assuming.

12/24/07
But Once a Year

Lately that seems to apply not only to Christmas (Merry Christmas, BTW) but to fishing. In previous years my average was more like twice a week, and more when the fishing was actually good. But I may run out for an hour today, since I have about an hour in which I have nothing to do. This is not the best way to fish. Fishing isn't like tennis, where you can get your jollies fairly efficiently in an hour or so. Fishing takes all day, if you're doing it right (wipe that smirk off your face) and it's only in certain situations that you can get away with less. But I may run out anyway, feeling that it's better to light one candle than curse the fishing-deprived darkness. So bye for now! I may be back later, but if not enjoy your plum pudding and roast goose. I actually did that once, experimenting with Dickensian food for the holiday. This was a shock to my system, since I normally eat lighter foods, and there's nothing light about that meal. Plum pudding is made with suet, and so are geese, and the upshot was that I didn't have an appetite for about two and a half days afterward. OK, really gotta go now bye.

Piscatorial Update: I went to a trout stream I keep conveniently nearby and took a shot. It was a pleasure just rigging up, putting the waders on, assembling the rod, screwing on the reel, and then I marched briskly through the wintry woods to the stream. I tried a couple spots where I didn't expect to catch fish and didn't, and then I tried a spot where I did expect to catch fish and did. Two trout, one landed and one broken off (the good one, that's how it works) and then I looked at my watch. About 45 minutes had gone by. Perfect! I packed up my stuff and headed back. I passed a happy family out for a walk and their dog barked and growled and I put up my hands and said, "I surrender!" and they laughed and we wished each other a Merry Christmas, and I stood in the path, admiring a particularly attractive tree, and moved aside for a bicyclist who thanked me, and then I went home. When we don't catch fish we often say, jocosely but meaning it too, "It was good to be out." It's also good to be out when you do catch a couple. And I thought, before I got in the car, about how we often also semijocosely talk about certain actions that anger the fish gods. You're not supposed to get on a fishing boat with a banana, for instance. Bragging and being a dork are other ways to provoke the fish gods. Expecting to catch fish because you've put in money or time are other ways to get crosswise with them. But I thought about it: The fish gods punish you by making you not catch fish, right? So what's the way to make them angriest, the biggest sacrilege, the thing that will make them so angry that your catch rate falls to zero? The thing that makes them angriest, of course, is not fishing. But I'll do better in the future. I don't believe in any of the regular gods but I do believe in the fish gods, and life is better when you keep them happy.

P.S. It may be that strictly speaking, there's no suet in geese. I say this so as not to be thought less of by people who know a lot about suet. I also don't want kids who are doing research for school reports to be led astray. Kids, if you want to know about suet, consult the Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst. Don't consult me. I really don't know jack about suet.

12/23/07
Tradition

If you listen to National Public Radio here in the States, you won't be surprised if I say that I was listening this morning and felt a weary sense of inevitability when the announcer said that just as they had done for 15 years, they would play David Sedaris doing his Santaland Diaries. I've heard and read and enjoyed a fair bit of his work, but somehow this one is beginning to pall on me a little. Yes, yes, David, by now we're pretty familiar with how you worked as an elf at Macy's and how you saw through it all and commented on it, at the time and later, with wry cynicism. But somehow it's just not working for me 15 times in a row.

First of all, Sedaris has been accused of being one of these nonfiction writers who help out their stories a little bit. Maybe a Santa did urge him to sing "Away in the Manger" for some kid, and maybe he did, in fact, decide to sing it in the style of Billie Holiday, and maybe he wasn't fired on the spot. Or maybe very little of it happened anywhere except in his imagination. I can't help wondering that.

I also can't help wondering how many years it takes for a fresh take on a given subject to start to seem not so fresh. The first time I heard this, I thought it was amusing, certainly. He was believable as the kind of guy who haunts the cities and dreams of great success in some branch of the arts and in the meantime takes a series of odd jobs like being an elf at Macy's, jobs too degrading for most of us, because in his own mind he's a novelist or poet or whatever. And it was amusing to hear one of those guys commenting sourly on the job. But there's nothing behind the joke, no vision of something better, no great truth to learn. So the elf is cynical? Big deal, who isn't? So Christmas is stressful and commercialized? Again, we know that, and repeating the message every Christmastime for 15 years doesn't really get us further forward. Nope, weary cynicism is easy to find, there's plenty of it around everywhere. It's actually a pretty big problem, because it's easy to be sour and negative and cynical. It's easy to see through things. It's a lot harder to make good things happen. So cynicism is thick on the ground.

My own favorite seasonal tradition is A Christmas Carol. It may appear sentimental, at this late date, but it's really about cynicism and its consequences. I love the passage near the very end, where Scrooge goes to his nephew's house. His nephew had invited him to Christmas dinner, despite Scrooge's continual rejection and abuse, and Scrooge had refused. (Scrooge's beloved sister had died in childbirth, and Scrooge had always blamed his nephew.) But then the three Spirits had come, and a chastened Scrooge has gone to make amends. "He passed the door a dozen times before he had the courage to go up and knock," the book says. He was afraid, in a way he had not been before. Dickens is not entirely a sentimental sugar-coater here. Scrooge has been asked to make a greater effort to see beyond himself, been asked to endure pain (he is shown the heartbroken Cratchit family after Tiny Tim dies, and pleads that this future be averted), been asked to run risks. Will his nephew forgive him? Well, as it happens, the goodhearted son of a goodhearted sister greets him happily ("It is a mercy he didn't shake his arm off," the book says).

Things go better for Scrooge from that point on. I'm just thinking that things go better for most people, really, when they're hopeful and have things they value in life. People rarely utterly transform themselves, the way Scrooge did, and I don't think utter transformation is likely to happen globally either. And sometimes dire necessity requires you to put on an elf suit and be ridiculous because at the moment that's the only way you can put bread on the table. Lots of things stink. But much is good too, and I think remembering that makes a nice little holiday tradition. The days were getting shorter, but now they're getting longer, and it appears the sun isn't going to go out after all. That's a start, isn't it? And now I have to call some long-neglected friends. I haven't treated them as badly as the old Scrooge, but I haven't treated them as well as the new one either, and today might just be a good day to start mending fences.

12/21/07
Anti-Establishment

They were so careful. Laughably careful, really. If this were a sports thing, it'd be a "heartbreaker," you know, where they were in good shape right up until the end. But let me backtrack: last night I was reading the Dec. 20 issue of the local weakly weekly paper, called The Kennett Paper, and on page A4 there's a headline, "Questions remain over massage therapy business."

It seemed to me that the primary question in everyone's mind was how to discuss their concerns without actually calling a spade a spade. You and I, dear reader, are sophisticated adults, and we're all aware that certain massage parlors offer services of a nature more sexual than strictly therapeutic. (The term "happy ending" springs to mind here.) But the township supervisors, the prospective business owner's lawyer, and the reporter all managed to skirt this fact. The second paragraph in the story pretty much covers things: "Why does a retired 70-year-old woman from Deptford, N.J., want to open a massage therapy and acupressure business in Southern Chester County, especially since she has no prior experience for [sic] such a business? And why does the business need a shower?"

The applicant didn't show up to the hearing, but her lawyer said she wants to get into the business because it's a good location, there's no large capital investment necessary, and she's "bored and wants to be active." He also expressed the hope that the supervisors would not be prejudiced against his client (she's Korean) because of her race or background. The township solicitor said there was no prejudice involved, but "there was some concern that the proposal reminded board members of 'other facilities' that had existed in the area."

At this point the question of the shower came up. The lawyer, an effective pleader I've seen at work myself, said some clients might want to shower if they were going back to work after getting a massage with aromatic oils, and that a therapist might want to shower as well, the work being strenuous. He added that if the work is legal, OK, and that "if things go beyond that, then someone will have to pay." The supervisors then offer a unanimous desire to have more questions answered, and more definitively, by the applicant.

OK! Great! We're almost done! One more paragraph to go! We've all managed to keep this supervisor's meeting and newspaper article within Victorian bounds, we've bent over backwards not to talk about happy endings or full release or guaranteed relaxation or full body massage or body shampoo or any of that. And then, in the very last paragraph, there's a "kicker" quote, the sort of thing with which newspaper stories often end, and it has a typo that just ruins everything:

newspaper paragraph that says

Like I said, a heartbreaker. They came so close, they really did. What's that? Could this be some sort of Joycean pun? No, I don't think that's likely. This paper is rife with such things. My guess is (this comes within the "fair comment" section of libel law") is that they do no editing or proofreading of any kind. Every issue features a bumper crop of things just as outrageous.

Further examples? Glad you asked! I have to admit that part of me hates to do this. There are a lot of just awful weekly papers around, and you could describe this one as sub-par for the course, but I think the world would be a better place if people would just try, you know, and these folks aren't trying. The woman who reviews the arts events, for instance. She's not one of these pompous arts reviewers, because she knows almost nothing about the arts. She goes to the show and then natters on about it in stream of consciousness fashion, like your dottiest aunt. Well, this week she had a listing of local events, and suddenly, a propos of nothing, she inserts an item about the American Civil Liberties Union. "Last week I suggested that you send a Christmas Card to the A.C.L.U. to clog up their mail box, as they were behind so many of the efforts to take any mention of Christmas or Christ," she said. You read that correctly, by the way. It doesn't make sense, but it sailed through the editing and publication process without anyone saying anything. In an effort to be fair, she went to the ACLU website to find a "disclaimer," but couldn't find it, she says, "not being too computer savvy." (It's here, and I found it in about a second, right on the home page, for Christ's sake.) Anyway, she goes on and on, like one of those people who sit down next to you on airplanes. "Name me one cause the A.C.L.U. backed that you agreed with. I remember that I agreed with one about five years ago, but I no longer remember r what it was." I don't know what the "r" stands for; maybe she was growling. In the newspaper business, we call this sort of thing editorializing, by the way. It doesn't really belong on the arts page, IMHO.

And that's a few glimpes at this week's edition of The Kennett Paper. I've often thought of making a few comments on it as a weekly feature—what do you say, gang? Should I? I hate to go negative, but I may have mentioned that the editor met me socially a few times years ago and decided that I was arrogant, and has gone around saying so, and I was hurt and offended. People have much to say about my many flaws, but I rarely hear arrogance mentioned among them. I believe myself to be as gentle as a parson and friendly as a pup, with a healthy objectivity about my strengths and weaknesses. But I think that if you're running a newspaper, you should do a better job than that. You should at least try. I remember another writer friend and I discussing the desire to never make a mistake, and the effort it takes to maintain a certain standard, while being reasonable with yourself and your limitations too. "You can't ever do things perfectly," she said. "But you can almost always make them so that they don't suck." That seemed like a good guideline to me, but I suppose that for some people it might come off as arrogant. At any rate, I'll read the paper again next week and if I have comments I'll be sure to air them.

12/20/07
Small Steps

Wow! Yesterday I got a newsletter out the door to the printer and a freelance magazine article with photos over to the magazine editor and then had a full day at work and then played piano with a friend. And then, finally, we cracked a few beers I'd brought and had pizza and talked. At this time of year, folks, let's give thanks for all the friends we have with whom you can have a freewheeling conversation about just about anything under the sun or not under the sun, for that matter. A conversation about shoes, and ships, and ceiling wax, of cabbages and kings. I had brought some Chimay, a fancy Belgian beer, because there's a bar here in town that serves all kinds of fancy beers on tap and I've acquired the habit. (The monks themselves say, "Here, in this heaven [ed. note: I think they mean 'haven'] of peace and silence where since 1850 Trappist monks have dedicated their life to God, products are made which, in themselves, gladden the heart of man.") These are big, heavy, flavorful things. So I'm drinking this beer, and my mind goes back to the first time I encountered anything like them. It was about twenty years ago, and I was a youngish magazine editor doing a story about a local doctor who was also a beer expert, and he was turning me on to all these wild beers, and my first sip of these Belgian things was a revelation. I was shocked by the heavy feel and the combination of sweet and sharp flavors, and I really couldn't think of it as beer at all, it was that different from the German lagers I mostly liked.

But last night, I was hard put to remember how I could have felt that way. It certainly seemed like beer last night—interesting beer, delicious beer, but still, you know, beer. So I imagine my beer perspectives have broadened that much in the intervening years. At this stock-taking time of year, I certainly look over my world and see many ways in which I'm deficient, things I need to do better at, things I regret. But in the matter of how I look at beer, I think I've truly become more accommodating, more sophisticated, more broadminded and accepting than I was before. In this one circumscribed area of my life, at least, I've made real progress.

I haven't mentioned the Infamous W. lately because, frankly, that doesn't seem to be what the marketplace wants. But she's still around. I called her the other day with a question about freelancing and taxes. She's always bragging about how much money she makes as a freelance editor, and about her financial acumen generally, so I called because I got a check myself and was hoping to make it 2008 income by not depositing it until then. I asked her what triggers this—when does it become my income, for tax purposes?

"When you get it, I guess," said the Infamous.

Naturally I became exasperated. If you wanted to test the reaction of lab animals to exasperation, you should just put the Infamous in with them and have her start talking. They'll be exasperated in seconds. "When you get it?" I spluttered. "What's that supposed to mean? When the check touches your hand?" She recommended I ask my accountant. See? I was right to call her Full of good advice, that one.

12/18/07
Outage

Sunday the power went out for the whole morning. This used to be kind of fun—you'd run around, get the flashlight, light candles, and life would go on without TV but otherwise normally. But it's getting worse. I couldn't use my desktop, which meant progress screeched to a halt on a volunteer newsletter editing job that takes over my life on a quarterly basis. I worked on a magazine story on my laptop, but without reference to the photos I'd shot. And only one of my three phones worked. The others are wireless, and they're great for strolling around the house, assuming the power's on. If it's not, you might as well keep strolling all the way to the house of the person you want to speak to, because the phone doesn't work.

This becomes more and more disquieting. I envisioned a situation where you feel a little funny, so you get up from the couch to get a glass of water, and suddenly Yow! The world's gone crazy! And you go bang! and hit your head on the ceiling. The cat is going end-over-end through the air and yowling, the furniture and appliance are starting to hover a few inches off the ground, and you realize what's happened and say, "Damn! Damn gravity's gone out again!" That's what it's starting to seem like, when the electricity goes out. It's not just a convenience, or even an important tool; it's verging toward being a necessity, minute to minute. This has disturbing implications for the vulnerability of technological societies. It's also a hassle to reset all your clocks. I wish someone would get to work and solve at least one of these problems.

Last night my writers' group had a holiday party at a local bar. We're there talking and all, and a guy dressed as Santa comes in, and I thought it was something the bar arranged to give people a laugh and so forth, but no, Santa and some other guy sit down in a booth. Santa ordered a cocktail, like a whisky sour or something. Eventually he took off his hat, and he had black hair slicked down like a balding guy's, so I decided it wasn't really Santa. But when a guy dressed as Santa walks into a bar and just sits down and has a drink as if he's relaxing at the end of long day of toy manufacturing, well, don't you wonder, for a minute?

12/17/07
It's Always Something

Yesterday I went into a bookstore to get gift cards for people. (I know, it's not much of a present.) I figured I'd pay for the gift cards with another gift card, this one a sort of pure-money gift card, plus a little extra from a regular credit card. The cashier gave me a look of pain and said she'd have to get Bonnie. You know it's bad when they have to get Bonnie. Bonnie, she said, knew "the incantations." Well, OK, and now here comes Bonnie, and she frowns at the register for a minute or so and I begin to feel pity.

"Look, it's OK," I said. "I'll just use the regular credit card and use the gift card to pay that. Both cashiers were giving me looks of sorrow and gratitude now. "It's just that I don't want to mess up your transaction," Bonnie said. "The software here just isn't up to handling the two different cards." I said I understood, and I did. And I could see that this might well have been the one opportunity I would have during the whole holiday season to do something kind and generous. We parted friends, the cashiers and I.

So I'll get that straightened out sometime soon. I'll also straighten out the payment for my recent tooth cleaning. I used to just go, and then be billed later for what the insurance company didn't feel like paying. Now I have to be billed for the entire amount, then get reimbursed by the insurance company for the amount they feel like paying (my dentist is out-of-system), then apply to my flexible spending account to pay for what the insurance company won't pay. I think I can do that, although I have no idea what the incantations are. Walter Mossberg, in his 1991 debut personal technology column for the Wall Street Journal, famously said, "Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn't your fault." I have to say that these days I have relatively little trouble getting my personal computers to work. Today the problem is that very often my society is just too hard to use, and I'm pretty sure it's not my fault.

12/13/07
Questions of Taste

Well, it seems I've provoked a minor controversy by dissing Jackass and I've made a private confession that I'll now make publicly: I've never actually seen it. A friend wrote and said "What! What's so wrong with Jackass?" And I wrote back, "I've never seen it! It might be wonderful. But I feel like I ought to disapprove."

I didn't explain, but I understand from what I've heard that Jackass basically features young guys striving to do things that are more dangerous and stupid than the things youngs guys usually do. Now, here's the thing: I'm not often accused of being overly adult, but I have a grasp on adulthood, and it's essentially the ability to foresee what might happen if you do a thing. This was probably illustrated best in an episode of "That 70s Show" in which the young fellows tried bouncing a bowling ball off a couch. The ball would bounce, but ponderously, in a slow-motion way that was actually kind of fascinating, and they kept doing it and on one bounce it bounced into the TV screen, which of course shattered spectacularly. In the next scene the father, an extremely intense and irritable man, is berating the boys about bouncing the bowling ball off the couch. "What good," he snarled, "could possibly have come of it?"

That's the question adults ask when considering a course of action. And now here's Wikipedia's description of Jackass: They said it was a show "featuring people performing various dangerous, ridiculous, and self-injuring stunts and pranks, with humour that could be described as a modern-day combination of the Three Stooges and a physical manifestation of Groucho Marx's innuendos." I'm not sure how you physically manifest anyone's innuendos, but in general that's what I understood the show to be from the beginning, and I asked myself what good could possibly have come of it. Normally, yes, you ought to have some experience with things you're commenting on ("LOL! You'll never change," is what the friend said when I fessed up), but I felt I was on pretty safe ground here.

Update: I went to YouTube and checked it out. It really is stupid. I mean, really. Sheesh. Personally I like my vulgarity spiced up with cleverness. South Park comes to mind, and so does anything by Mike Judge, and Shakespeare, come to think of it. Not Jackass. Maybe I'll lose readers but I'm taking a stand here.

12/12/07
Racing to the Bottom

Hi and bye—I was sitting at my desk, reading the virtual morning paper, and one of the things that caught my eye held my morbidly fascinated attention all the way to the end. I literally put my head in my hands by the end of it.

12/11/07
Nev–er Mind

When I find a spare minute with nothing else to worry about, I worry that people will completely forget about the classical world. When I was a kid and we had a free reading period, I used to get this book about mythology and read it over and over again. Dragons! Swords! I know they had philosophers and scientists and knew about atoms and how the world was round and all, but the Greeks' literary tastes were perfectly suited for getting young boys where they live. And then in college we all had a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology knocking around on our bookshelves, because all through English Lit there are references to the ancient world and its myths. This was common knowledge for people like, say, John Donne and Thomas Jefferson and their ilk, and it served them when they needed a metaphor or whatever.

But you don't hear a lot of it today, unfortunately. I'm not sure how the educational world looks on the myths, but they're undoubtedly the work of dead white European males, which doesn't help. I don't hear the young people of my acquaintance talking much about, say, the Minotaur, or Demeter. I'm thinking Seinfeld is pretty much ancient history to a twentysomething. But yesterday I'm sitting at a light, and I see a Jeep Wrangler with the word "Rubicon" on it. Now, it happens that the car is named for a trail in California that's one of the few places in the world where a four-wheel-drive vehicle might actually come in handy. But the people who named the trail back in 1852 or whenever might well have been thinking of the river in Italy that marked the country's border in the good old days. When Julius Caesar was on his way back home, feeling flush from having conquered Gaul, he hesitated at the Rubicon. Roman politics were pretty uproarious at the time, and commanders were not allowed to bring their armies into the country, for fear that they'd declare themselves dictator.

Caesar had enough enemies that the thought of coming back to Rome without his army made him feel uncomfortable. So he thought about it, and then brought the army with him. Alea iacta est, he is reported to have said: "The die is cast." (As in dice.) And ever since, until recently, at least, people would say "Crossing the Rubicon" when talking about some dramatic and irrevocable act with an uncertain outcome.

So there I am, waiting for the light, looking at the car to my left, thinking about Julius Caesar standing on the banks on a river on January 10, 49 BC, thinking, "Well, here goes." Then I looked at the car in front of me. It was a Honda Odyssey. No kidding, it really was. The light changed, and as we all pulled away I decided that the classical world has been reminding us of itself for several millennia and can probably take care of itself for a while longer. I have other worries, most of them just as silly, but they're stories for another day.

12/9/07
Humbug

Yes, I must admit, I've been feeling grumpy and depressed. Just now I noticed that I hadn't rinsed the cup well enough after washing it and the coffee tasted faintly of soap. The other day this happened and I got up and made another cup, concerned that I'd become violently ill. (Also I like the taste of coffee better than the taste of soap.) But this morning I just gave up. It's not that soapy, I thought, taking another sip. It's only a little soapy. I can live with it.

Did I say I can live with it? No. It's like in the movies, when they say, "This ends here!" I just now threw it out and put the water on for another, and I hope less soapy, cup. Which I have now tasted, and deemed soap-free. It's not everything, but you have to start somewhere.

12/7/07
The Last Political Thing for a While, I Promise

This will be puzzling if you don't know the lolcat thing in general or the lolrus in particular but I couldn't resist. You also have to know something about Rose Mary Woods who used to work for some guy from like a million years ago named Richard Nixon or something. Anyway, like I said, this is just a quick shot of political stuff and I'll get back to whatever it is I normally do.

lolcat style juxtaposition of Rose Mary Woods Stretch picture with headline about CIA destruction of torture video.

12/6/07
Rhymes With "Mitt"

"Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest," said Mark Twain of Rudyard Kipling. In that spirit I'll offer some comments by Christopher Hitchens on that slimy, pandering speech by Mitt Romney yesterday and, by extension, the swamp of non-ideas that it arises from, and offer a few comments of my own.

First comment: Shut up, Mitt, you slimy panderer. Religion has no place in public life in the United States of America. If you have freedom of religion at all, then it becomes a private matter. It needs no help from the state. Put up your crèche on the church lawn, OK? Thanks.

Second comment: Shut up, Mitt, you slimy panderer. The founders were ambivalent at best about religion. You're rich, and presumably literate (you slimy panderer) so buy or borrow a book on the history of the Enlightenment. The founders had to deal with religious people too, but they did it in a dignified and intellectually honest way.

Third comment: Shut up, Mitt, you slimy panderer. There's no such thing as "secular humanism," and if there were, it would most certainly not be a religion. Ergo, Mitt old buddy, keeping religion out of public life is not a forcing of this other supposed religion on people and you know it damn well, you slimy panderer.

Let's see, what else? OK, fourth comment: Shut up, Mitt, you slimy panderer. The only religion I personally profess is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It happens to be a parody joke religion, but if Mormonism were a parody joke religion, which it very well may be, it would be far funnier than my own. Mark Twain, again, is fairly devastating on the subject. Get Roughing It and read the whole chapter, it's great stuff. Oh, and if you're a Mormon and I've offended you, tough.

Gee, I'm getting pretty worked up today, aren't I? Here's some more for all you good people whose inability to think rationally about politics is running this country into the deepest of ditches: I'm sick and tired of people on the radio saying they "want a president who reflects their Christian values." Do you know what you'd want if you had a lick of sense? You'd want a president who promoted good policies. The greatest good for the greatest number, all that fun stuff. People, we've got a president who reflects your Christian values. Can we please just try to elect a president who's good at being president, and see how that works? Thanks! Love ya!

12/5/07
First Snow

The zoo director leads me to this tiger habitat, essentially a large cage outfitted with rocks and such in a way that would make a tiger feel comfortable and at home—this is a long time ago, by the way—and then she takes me around back of it to a wooden hut, like a shed, attached to its side. The hut doors have an extremely heavy padlock on them, and she gets out a key and starts opening the padlock. "I want you to know," she says to me, "that this isn't dangerous or I wouldn't be doing it."

Hmm, thinks I. Is this woman going to lead me inside the tiger cage? I was there to do a short magazine article about the new tiger—it might have been a white tiger, I honestly can't remember—that had just arrived at the tiger habitat, and I wondered for a very long second about that. Sometimes people who are used to a certain type of hazard get blasé about it. I'll bet you anything that when airline pilots are transporting an empty plane somewhere, they do barrel rolls and loop-the-loops and laugh like crazy.

OK, where was I? Right, outside the tiger cage. The zoo director opens the door and we crouch and go in. There's bars on the other side, no problem. There's also a big 'ol tiger, just lying against those bars, exactly like a big cat except it weighed four or five hundred pounds or so. The director was telling me a bunch of stuff about the noises tigers make and so forth, but I was too jazzed to pay serious attention. At one point, I was invited to touch it if I wanted. So I just brushed its fur—very, very gently. Even with the bars, I wasn't keen to rile it up. Just brushing the fur was enough. It's not something I had done enough to get bored of.

snowy rural scene

Why did I think of that today? Because it snowed. And the snow, which began sifting down flake by flake around 9:07 this morning, reminded me of the start of a huge blizzard we had years ago. This would have been a few years after the tiger. I was visiting friends in the city, and all day long we'd been anticipating a big blizzard. They showed it on the radar maps, this huge blob of color hundreds and hundreds of miles wide, grinding across the continent toward the east coast. It was dry all night, but crisp and cold. I lived out in the country, and I was excited—a blizzard is an event anywhere, but in the country a good storm will leave you on your own, if only for a day or two. It makes you feel small in a good way, the way the ocean makes you feel small, or the mountains, or the night sky. So I was looking forward to the blizzard.I was looking forward so much, in fact, that when I got home that night, I figured that since the blizzard was on its way, getting nearer and nearer, I would chill out in the back seat and watch the first few flakes fall. I was interested in the idea of seeing its very edge, the tenuous, feathery, leading edge of this huge, powerful entity. Something in the contrast there compelled me to get in the cramped back seat of my little old Renault Alliance to curl up and wait. (I wasn't boozed, if that's what you're thinking.) But it took longer than I thought. I dozed off, and when I woke up, there was snow sifting over the car windows, and over everything else. Not a lot, but I had missed those first few flakes, and I was a little disappointed with myself.

It turned out to be a rip-snorter of a storm, all I could have hoped for, except for the aforesaid disappointment not to have seen the very first flakes. I had some time, over the next couple of days, to think about why I was so eager to see them, why I'd lie in the fetal position in the back seat of a tiny car and wait in the cold. I vaguely understood, sure, but today, watching those first flakes sift down to start the first meaningful snowfall of the winter, it came to me—that blizzard was like the biggest, coldest, whitest tiger there ever was, and I wanted to brush its fur.

That said, I had a damnable commute home tonight. Slippery as hell! But now I'm home safe with dinner cooking and a small feline sitting next to me, just hanging out. And the 19th-century town is looking its most charming. I know, I had to drop off a DVD at the library.


12/4/07
The Mysterious East

Has it been, what, four days? Sheesh, sorry. But here I am! I had a great time visiting friends last night. We had spare ribs done in what my host said was a Hong Kong style, and they were so good that I had a vision of myself on a plane to Hong Kong, a napkin tied under my chin so I could run right off the plane and straight to the rib restaurant without any delay.

I'd love to give you a sharply limned description of the rest of the evening, since if you limn things in any but a sharp way you're mostly wasting people's time, but the morning is melting away. What I can do is put up a video that Sully had this morning. (Gotta love the guy—a political blogger with a sense of humor and a willingness to be distracted.) Among my few but distinguished visitors I get a fair number from Asia, so if you're Japanese please understand: We outsiders respect your culture deeply and find that most of it translates perfectly into our worldview, but some things, I'm sorry, we just don't get:

I know one thing—I'm never going to see the Macarena quite the same way ever again.

12/2/07
Why You Should Carry a Camera

I've been meaning to thumbtack this one to the wall for a while, but it really doesn't need my help—20 million views and counting. It's one of those rare instances when life organizes itself into a story without human assistance. And it's quite a story. (Rated PG for animal-on-animal violence.) I don't know, maybe these critters are bitin' on each other because of the legacy of colonialism, but I'm more inclined to think that it's a good example of how the natural world is not a Disney cartoon.

12/1/07
Oh, What a Beautiful Morning

How'd I sleep? Much better, thank you. Insomnia carries within in the seeds of its own relief: Two or three low-sleep nights and you're so wiped out that you're likely going to stay asleep through the night at least once every now and then. Which I did, and I have to say that actually sleeping all night is quite refreshing and I heartily recommend it for young and old.

This puts a nice complexion on the morning, even though there's freezing rain falling. I went out on my back porch, held the railing, and skidded my shoe around on the icy steps. Then I canceled my plans to walk uptown and have a blueberry scone for brunch. I've said before I don't put much stock in these people who claim that nature is telling you all kinds of things all the time. I'm talking about the people who say that if you get a cold, that means nature is telling you to cut refined flour out of your diet, you know, that sort of thing. I think nature is pretty explicit that it wants us to breathe, drink, eat, and reproduce. Beyond that, I think nature gets pretty vague, most of the time. But I think that when ice falls out of the sky, it's nature's way of telling you to stay the hell home.

At the moment the neighbor is using some sort of power tool on the other side of the wall that sounds like the mating call of a moose. At least I hope it's some sort of power tool.

11/30/07
Everything Happens for a Reason

Actually I don't think that's true. Last night I tossed and turned, unable to sleep the sleep of the just or any other kind of sleep. I've got a few stressors lately—what used to be called "tribulations." I'll get it all worked out, this is no big deal, not the end of the world and all but sleep is a good thing. Somewhere in the small hours I got to thinking about how Beethoven once got very sick, feared he would die, then got better. This led him to add another movement to his String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132. (Make sure you have about 20 minutes free if you want to listen.) The movement's the third in the piece, molto adagio, and Beethoven called it "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart," which means Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode. It's literally heavenly—it's what I imagine it sounds like in heaven. So I'm lying in bed, thinking that periods of tribulation aren't necessarily so bad if you're inspired to create such beauty in gratitude when you feel less tribulated.

Then it occurred to me that the music had a hell of a lot less to do with Beethoven being tribulated than it did with Beethoven being Beethoven. Sigh! Most of us aren't going to create undying art after a period of tribulation, no matter how grateful we feel. I know I'm not, at any rate. But I would wish to, I really would, if I could just ... get ... some ... sleep.

11/29/07
Green-Eyed Monster

Last night, before slumber overtook me, I was reading Little Big Man, which was an incredibly wonderful novel by Thomas Berger before it was a movie. The movie was OK, but the novel is a masterpiece of humor and invention and not too many people have read it. Just read it! Trust me on this. But the thing is, I'm working on a fiction project of my own, and it's a struggle to get just a little bit of life into it—the color of the grass, a sideward glance that somehow tells you something about what a person's thinking, the little things that make up the texture of a moment. I have to work hard to get a little of that in, and Berger's book just bulges with it. It's depressing. (He's written other things not nearly as good, though.) I was telling a friend about this once, a friend who's herself a very good writer. You have to steep yourself in the best writing you can find, I said, if you want to learn, but those lofty examples are so far above what you're capable of yourself that it makes you feel unworthy to pick up a pen. She laughed. "That's not a very productive attitude," she said.

But there's some consolation in knowing that Jonathan Swift felt the same way sometimes. In his Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, which is pretty hilarious for something written in 1731–32, he bewails his frustration at his friend Alexander Pope's skill:

"In Pope I cannot read a line,
But with a sigh I wish it mine:
When he can in one couplet fix
More sense than I can do in six,
It gives me such a jealous fit,
I cry, 'Pox take him and his wit!'"

I know how you feel, Jonathan. But read that book, you guys! You'll thank me.

11/28/07
Wealth

I have a lottery ticket in my wallet, and at the moment I might be a kajillionaire. Do you ever wonder what you'd do, after the dust settled, if you acquired sudden wealth and didn't have to work? I always think about drawing. Of course, I also think about around-the-world travel, multiple dwellings, having a few people quietly whacked, all the desiderata anyone else with an extravagant imagination might think of. (I'm always disappointed in those people who win multiple millions and say they'll pay some bills and save the rest for the kids. Maybe a new car. Contentment is a blessing, but bovine complacency isn't, IMHO.)

At any rate, yes, I'd live the life of a quietly rich person—not wretched excess, but expansive, certainly. I'd write, I'd try to do philanthropic things, I'd still be engaged with the world and all. But I'd draw. I've never put much time into it, but I took a course once. There's just something about seeing a picture emerge from under your hand as the charcoal goes on the paper. You see a problem, you consider, erase, no, that's not it, consider, erase, draw again—perfect. And at the end, if all goes well, there's something there, something that partakes of the real and the alive. It's neither, but somehow it seems to capture a bit of realness and aliveness, seems to isolate and highlight that something.

portrait of man

Actually, I think my real ambition is to be a medieval Chinese landscape painter. I think it would be marvelous to live a peaceful, contemplative life, working steadily at creating things that are delicately beautiful in a way we don't entirely understand. I think that would be awfully nice. I can't be that, of course. But I could get that art thing going just a little, like any duffer amateur, and please myself, at least. It would be nice. That's what I would do, if I were rich.

But I just checked, and I'm not. I guess I have to get ready for work. Bye!


11/27/07
Except Cave 76

I've been feeling a little frustrated and grumpy lately, so I shut up for a day. (You're welcome.) Just this morning I felt very much in sympathy with Mel Brooks' 2000 year old man and the anthem he had for his cave. You've heard it? It goes like this:

"Let 'em all go to hell, except Cave 76!"

Still, there's some progress being made around the shop here. A long-delayed biography I was working on is achingly close to being done—achingly close as in final revisions are on their way to the printer. This doesn't mean that I'm a published author. You'd think that with literally thousands of newspaper and magazine articles to my credit, with stuff reprinted and anthologized, I'd be entitled to be called a published author, but if you haven't published a book, you're not a published author. That's the rule. But when this project is done, I'll be a vanity–published author, I suppose. It's something.

The worst thing so far about my days of malaise is that I consoled myself last night with about 11 pieces of the leftover Halloween candy. This is healthier than Scotch but really faintly ridiculous and I feel bad about it. But it's not my fault. The world shouldn't drive a well-meaning man to the point that he needs to drown himself in a candy binge. It's just not right.11/25/07
Tick Tock

Well, here it is Monday morning! Way back on Wednesday, I was looking at a four-day vacation and feeling quite ambitious about the blessings it would confer. So much time off! I'd write a symphony, perhaps, with part of the time, and use some more to build a canal through the steaming jungle that would join two mighty oceans and in the rest of the time I'd read about 17 novels.

Well. I think we knew how that was going to work out. The days flew by, I got a couple things done, but this morning it feels like the time just went poof. Thinking about it, I remembered some people I used to know. They were living modest, ordinary lives, and some friends of theirs told me that years before, their family had won a state lottery and gotten five million dollars. They figured they were rich for life, spent accordingly, and in about five or six years they'd gone right through every dime and went back to living the way they had before. That seemed inconceivable to me at the time—how in hell, I asked myself, could anyone spend that much money that quickly? But this morning, looking at what seemed like a vast fortune's worth of time that I could spend any way I wanted without running out, it seems much more plausible.

How was Thanksgiving? It was OK. You know how it is—families. The best part was being in my sister's house, which is a regular American house with about a kajillion TV options, and getting to watch Idiocracy. I love its director, Mike Judge, because even though his work can seem sketchy and tossed off, he makes keener (and funnier) observations about the way real people live in the States today than anyone I can think of. If you don't care to click through, the premise of the movie is that a very average guy is frozen in a military experiment and wakes up 500 years later. The dumb people have been proliferating far more than the smart ones all that time, and extreme dumbness is the prevailing characteristic of this future world. It's wacky and goofy and all, but like all true satire, you come away from it seeing similar stuff in the world around you.

The film had pacing problems, because the premise was the point, and the plot had a wag-the-dog afterthought quality. But the parts equalled more than the sum of the whole, if you see what I mean. There's at least one bit that really stuck with me, because I encounter it all the time in real life. As a newcomer and misfit in the world of 2505, the protagonist is thrown in jail, escapes because the jailers are so stupid, and eventually is offered a pardon by the President (formerly a wrestling champion and porn star) if he uses his superior intellect to fix all the problems in the world. One problem is that crops won't grow. Corporations run everything, and a sports drink outfit called "Brawndo" has people believing that water is for toilets. Water fountains dispense Brawndo, and crops are watered with it, and the billboards by the farms say, "Brawndo's got what plants crave: electrolytes!" In this one scene (caution autoplay), the idiots and boneheads who make up the President's cabinet explore the protagonist's idea of watering the crops with water. There's other yuks in the film, but this scene gave me that familiar sense of frustration and futility you get when you're talking to people who won't or can't use their brains and substitute marketing slogans for rational thought. See, now you don't have to explain that to people; you can just say "Brawndo's got what plants crave!" and stroll away. I think it's going to come in awfully handy.

11/21/07
Thanks

First, I'm grateful for the small but select group of people who stop by my little curiosity shop here to find out what's on what I laughingly call my mind. Happy Thanksgiving, which is what day it is today in the States. It's a harvest festival, basically, and they have such traditions worldwide. Today we call it Turkey Day for a joke, because fewer of us are farmers and we don't have to worry about droughts or hail. But up until about a hundred years ago, just about everyone on the planet was a farmer, and I can imagine they knew something about feeling grateful once the harvest was in.

In a technological society, you have to work harder at it. I was fighting my way through the crowds at the supermarket yesterday, feeling grumpy, but I saw something that straightened me right out. It was an unusually warm day, and a woman wearing shorts was ahead of me, walking with a cane, and I could see she had a prosthetic left foot. And suddenly my own healthy, flesh and blood left foot, taken for granted the rest of the year, became a blessing I made a point to count.

Other blessings occur to my mind and to yours too, I hope. Last night I woke up at 2:30 a.m. because the neighbor had his radio on. He left it on until 4, the oblivious dope, and I tossed and turned and thought things over. You don't think your happiest thoughts in the small hours, usually, do you? But the list of fears, regrets, frustrations and so forth that unscrolled before me was relatively short, compared to many people's, and there are things I really want to do. And I'm grateful to feel so. Grateful for friends and family who continue to put up with me despite sore trials. Grateful and glad, in the end, just to be alive. I could mention lots of other things, but that'll do for a start, right? And thanks again for reading this stuff every now and then, it's much appreciated.

Almost forgot, I'm seriously grateful that my family lives within about 15 miles or so of my own home. If you have to deal with the highways or the skyways just to sit at the same table as your parents, you have my sympathy.

11/20/07
Assembly

At this very moment I'm sitting in a Quaker meeting hall, writing on my laptop. If there were actually a Quaker meeting going on, that would be inappropriate, but it's Tuesday evening and my writers' group is having a presentation. The speaker seems genuine and nice—he's a bright young fellow who went the Master of Fine Arts route, published some things, and taught writing, and seems to have some cogent, worthwhile things to say, but the Blog God must be propitiated, must have her due, and so I'm writing. The beauty of the laptop is that you can do other things while someone's speaking without being rude. You look like you're taking notes, but actually you're making up dirty limericks or whatever it is, and nobody knows.

As a matter of fact, this Quaker meeting has a school associated with it, and I went to that school, many years ago. We had assemblies here in the meeting hall, and we'd be offered presentations about various things. Tonight, the speaker is seated on a stool in front of the stage, talking away, and on that very stage we had plays and operettas years ago, and once we did a sort of Punch and Judy play and I played a victim of Jack Ketch, who was a famous hangman. His job was to hit me with some sort of cardboard tube representing a bat, and my job was to fall down. But I got the idea to make up a bit of what I believe vaudevillians once called "business:" I decided that before I fell down I would roll my eyes. The night of the performance came, with everyone's mom and dad and sisters and brothers sitting out in the darkened auditorium. I got hit, rolled my eyes, fell, and got a huge laugh, and lots of comments afterward. Right on that stage up there—I was standing just past the speaker's left shoulder.

I should pay better attention, I should absorb the speaker's war stories by osmosis, hear about how to schmooze the literati, all that, but frankly, it always comes down to the same thing: Learn the basics (e.g., fall down when Jack Ketch hits you) and then work on it to make it better (e.g. roll your eyes first). There's no point leaning in, listening hard to people who've done things you want to do, thinking there's one big secret. It's lots of little things, and you learn them at the pace you can manage, or you don't. Whoops, the guy just got off a pretty good one: "I think with most writers, nothing's ever really finished. There's just the day you have to send it off." He's right about that one. But the thing is, if writers do their work well enough, they can upstage Jack Ketch, who is a traditional stand-in for Death or Satan, and if that's not a worthy writer's goal I wonder what is. Anyway, I have to send this off, there's no more time. Bai!

11/18/07
Suspension of Belief

It was Sunday yesterday, which makes sense, this being Monday, but it really was Sunday in that I gave myself the Sabbath as a vacation and read a book. The book was Away, or as it's more formally referred to as, "Away: A Novel." (Like it was one of those restaurants with a name so cute you can't really tell what they do inside without the subtitle.) It was good to devote the day to pleasure reading, of course. But the novel, for which I had high hopes (the reviews I read were rapturous) was a big disappointment. Frankly, I judged this book in large part by its cover: beautiful art, certainly, how could there not be at least something of worth inside? Just a little? Something? But no. Just a big nothing. I could attempt to figure out and describe what the problem was, but it's really pretty simple. Years ago I was watching an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street with a friend who had studied drama in college and whose judgments on acting tended to be worth listening to. At one point the controversial (because of his suckiness) character Det. Falsone was onscreen, and my friend burst out, "I don't believe you! I don't believe one word you say!"

This is the kind of honest reaction that people in the creative world sometimes claim to want. "I don't care if they love it or hate it," they say, "I just want someone to react to what I'm trying to do." Well, if you must know, Amy Bloom, I hated your book. I didn't believe it—I didn't believe one word you said. In large part that was a failure of (the writer's) imagination. Real books are, if nothing else, believed by their readers, because the writer has imagined the story in a rich, believable way and rendered the imagined world with solid craft. This book hasn't got that. But there are other, less subtle problems here, and if you have a moment I'd like to point out at least one. In the acknowledgements section, the author preens herself by praising the various helpers she's had, including one Joy Johannessen, who "continues to be the archangel of editors. She is unerring, unswerving, attentive to a laserlike degree..." and so forth. All well and good. But here's a passage from page 231, where the heroine has had a mishap with her boat: "Lillian takes off her blouse, tearing off all the buttons, and wrings it out and puts it back on, leaving it unbuttoned to speed the drying." See, I'm an editor myself, most working days, and I have to ask: How do you leave a blouse unbuttoned if the buttons have been torn off a moment before? Without speedily reattaching the buttons, Lillian can't button the blouse at all, no matter what effect the buttoning or lack thereof would have on the drying. It's just not an option, buttoning. I feel quite certain that Joy Johannessen is worth about eleven of me, and the author so far above me that I'm a dung beetle in comparison, but still. I didn't believe about the buttons—I didn't believe one word. I spent close to 30 bucks on this book too. Maureen Corrigan didn't like it much, either. She likes Richard Russo, which is all well and good. I intend to read Richard Russo, but this time I'm getting the book from the library. I've been burned too often.

11/17/07
Overbusiness Watch

Are you keeping an eye on the signs that we're becoming way too busy? I was in a store today and saw one-handed pepper grinders for sale. I'm not saying it's a bad idea, it's actually a fine thing. But I think it would be nice if we took the time we saved with one-handed pepper grinding and devoted it to reading, or listening to music, or just watching the dust drift through a shaft of sunlight on a lazy winter's afternoon. My guess is that most of us won't. But we probably ought to.

11/16/07
Correspondence

I'm a near total recluse but I do get mail. Today there was an e-mail from one of the Nanowrimo people. Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, which is what it sounds like: a collective effort in which people cheer each other on to write a novel (well, 50,000 loosely associated words) in a month, the month being, as you might suspect, November. The key to accomplishing this is to turn off that inner voice that warns you that what you're writing is almost certainly crap. I did it once, and it was interesting, but I've decided to try to devote my Novembers and the other months to writing stuff that's worth reading, and more to the point, worth being paid for.

But I'm sympathetic. Even with the inner censor turned off, it's hard to average 1,667 words every day for a month, because there are only so many hours in a day. So anyway, everyone on the Nanowrimo e-mail list got this pep-talk letter from author Sara Gruen, who was complaining that she was falling behind in her word count so far. But she had an explanation:

"Then life got in the way. My horse got conjunctivitis, and while I was out treating her, I slipped and broke my foot."

OK, is everybody ready? On three, now—one, two, three...

"THAT OLD EXCUSE!"

The other letter I got that struck me was snail mail from one of my credit card companies. They offered me the usual bouquet of check-things and told me to buy myself something nice with them, but before I sent the whole package spinning into the trash, something caught my eye—a paragraph that said, "We recently noticed that you made a large payment and we're concerned that we might be losing your business."

No, you poor insecure, needy credit card company, you're not losing my business. You're just losing my balance. I don't want to pay interest. I like buyable stuff as much as the next person, but the more interest you pay, the less stuff you can ultimately afford, right? That's why I'm paying off the balance, guys.

When I was little, I loved fishing and would read books about fish, and there was one horrible fish called a lamprey that made a huge impression on me. The lamprey is an eel-like fish that has a suction mouth full of raspy teeth. It swims up to other fish, suctions on, then rasps their skin so that it can suck their juices. Now, if it did that to you or me, we would of course seize its tail so as to pull the loathsome thing off, right? Well, that letter made me imagine one of those lampreys turning its eyes to me at that point with a hurt expression and saying, "I'm concerned that I might be losing your business."

11/15/07
Hair Quality

I try to make haircuts a pleasant half-hour or so for both of us, the stylist and me, because I like pleasant times myself and because there you are, after all, the stylist and you. If you don't like each other, enjoy each other's company, it's like a bad date, isn't it? My own stylist cuts my hair perfectly well, which is nice, of course, but more importantly I've got a sense of what amuses her. She's bright and funny her own self—she's aware that life itself is pretty funny, a lot of the time—so we work together like an improv team.

We had some pretty good material tonight, though, I have to say. We chatted about what kind of haircut I wanted—there've been some adjustments lately to the treatment of my temples—and I was talking about how some of the younger guys I know get really short haircuts these days, and then she mentioned (I had my head back, getting shampooed) that she had a customer come in with a note from his wife about how his hair ought to be cut. I questioned her about whether she was kidding or if I had perhaps misheard. No, the guy had a note, like a kid, from his wife. Make the haircut very short, the note said. "Don't be afraid to let some scalp show," the note said. Was he, um, a lunkhead? Impaired in some way? No, she said, he's a nice guy, just fine, impaired only by a certain oblivious disregard to his personal appearance and his wife was taking steps about it. I'm something of the same way myself.

We moved on to other subjects, after a while. The stylist just got married, and evidently there was an electrical problem in the house, and she had to hang around home all day to wait for the electrician. Then her husband came home, saw how the electrician had handled the problem, and complained that it wasn't the right solution and the electrician had to come back another day and fix it. "How was I supposed to know?" my stylist asked.

This was a golden opportunity. "I'll tell you what," I said. "Have your husband give you a note to give to the electrician to tell him exactly what to do."

She threw herself backward, laughing. That, ladies and gentlemen, was a good haircut. Looks pretty good, too, by the way.

11/14/07
Hair of a Stooge

I've been feeling flat and blah lately, which is one reason I've spared you the sound of my voice. Part of the problem is the human condition, the search for meaning in an absurd world, and so forth. (I'm like Holden Caulfield when his sister tells him, "You don't like anything that's going on.") But another part of the problem is that I really need a haircut. I have curly hair—if I'm meeting a stranger somewhere, I generally tell him or her to look for a person with curly hair and glasses—and it seems to grow faster at the temples. Curly hair is especially susceptible to what's called "bed head," so when I need a haircut the first glimpse of myself in the morning appears to me, in the funhouse mirror of one's self-perception, to not be me at all but rather the famous Stooge Larry. I don't know how much looking like Larry bothered the original Larry, but it certainly bothers me. I'm getting a haircut this evening. We'll see how much it helps.

11/13/07
Good Reads and Bad Literature

Ah, let's get back to the subject of writing, since in the past couple of days there's been a little spate of writers dying. I've been busy—that's why I haven't written here much, sorry—but not too busy to notice with interest the many deeply ambivalent but certainly splashy obits for Norman Mailer. And then, this morning, a quiet little below-the-fold notice about the death of Ira Levin. Mr. Levin's passing was noted with less fanfare because, I assume, he was not an egotist, a blowhard, or a Man of Letters. All he knew how to do was write books that people actually wanted to read. You saw his books on end tables and beach towels just about anywhere you went, back in the day. Typically the books became movies. His gift was to dream up interesting ideas—what if Satan fathered a half-human child? What if Josef Mengele was alive today, cloning lots of little Hitlers?—and then imagine those ideas playing out in the real world, and then to write it out plausibly enough that you kept turning the pages. He wasn't a celebrity. All he was was a writer.

So when I saw that modest little headline and read the obit, in which the writer's lack of interest or enthusiasm for her subject was palpable, I felt a surge of irritation. I used to wonder what was wrong with me, that I didn't care much for contemporary fiction. But I now suspect, suspect very strongly, that the thing that's wrong isn't with me at all. Or you. The thing that's wrong is with the literary establishment these days. If you want a pretty good read, go pick up Rosemary's Baby or The Boys from Brazil. I can't offer a greater tribute to Mr. Levin than that.

11/9/07
My Heart Would Be A Fireball

OK, I totally refuse to be a boomer version of the old coot who goes on and on about stuff he remembers. But just today it occurred to me to check out YouTube to see if there were clips of Fireball XL5, and it seems I'm not the only person who fondly remembers this show about marionettes in space. The intro is below and I plead, I beg, I implore you to wait it out, no matter whether you enjoy the first half or not, because at 1:30 you will hear a really quite amazing song (it became a hit in England) and you'll thank me. And now, without further ado...

11/8/07
Questions

A hectic day yesterday, running around until I got home at 10:30 p.m., and then one of those moments between the car door slamming and the house door pulling shut when you stop and look up. Cold, clear night; brilliant stars. Above the darkened house are the Pleiades. I have a Pleiades problem: I once read that the ancient Greeks used them as a vision test—if you could see all seven, you had good vision. And when I read that, I thought, Well, so what? What would the ancient Greeks do with the information once they had it? Revoke your chariot license? Take soldiers' arrows away and give them a desk job? I think this absurd thought every time I see the Pleiades. Whoever wrote that has pretty much ruined the Pleiades for me, so please be careful about spreading illogical poppycock, if only out of consideration.

I was at a meeting last night, held in a hip-'n-cool food store in downtown Philadelphia. It's ironic that you have to go to such places to get old-fashioned stuff like licorice and crystallized ginger, but it's so. I reminded myself, picking up the ginger, that you could probably make your own crystallized ginger, it doesn't look hard to make, and that seems true. But I was reading the list of characteristics you want to see in the ginger you use, and I was struck. The author says you want "thin, tender and even brown skin; firm flesh with minimal 'give,' or 'spongyness;' a well shaped main body with minimal extraneous protrusions, and a fresh and pleasant odor." Do you think this author is going through some sort of midlife crisis? That would be my guess.

11/6/07
Civic Duty II

Not many people in line yesterday were opting to vote electronically, but I did. It was easy, certainly, a nicely designed interface. Do you want this or that? This. And now do you want this, that, or the other? The other. And so forth. Easy, but uncomfortably similar to the more forward-looking convenience stores where you order your sandwich with a touchscreen. Turkey, ham, or pork? And so forth. The sandwich I got was bland and inoffensive, and I hope the candidates I've picked can be better at governing than the last sandwich I had was at being a sandwich.

But I'm not worried about the possibility that electronic voting machines could introduce an opportunity to rig the results. Look at it this way: We have previously unimagined possibilities before us as we launch ourselves into this new century. An administration that has the vision and skills to rig an election using electronic voting machines is pretty much the sort of government officials we're looking for, right?

11/5/07
How You Look At It

You know, carrying a credit-card balance is wrong and bad, and I don't recommend it to anyone, but it just occurred to me (I'm paying bills) that there's at least one consolation. Instead of paying off your balance in full, which requires you to write out in longhand a long string of numbers (e.g. ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SEVEN AND) and the the squiggly line and the cents, you just bat out some round number, (e.g. SEVEN HUNDRED) that knocks the balance down at least some. The first way is tedious; the second frees up time you can use to make more money.

11/4/07
Civic Duty

The other day, Lileks was saying what a drag it was that everything turns political in the blogosphere, and I agree. But tomorrow is Election Day, and just today I happened to be looking at some notes I had made on Election Day from either 2001 or 2002. The polling place I went to then was in a rural township building, a big drafty barn of a place full of snowplows and such, and it was presided over by some typical examples of the local citizenry: some rich, some middle class, some horsey and tweedy, some in sweatsuits and such. Local folks, as familiar as your hand. I'd lived there a while, and it was comforting, so soon after the start of what we used to call the global war on terror, which we now just call life. Comforting, and normal. The republic would continue, the American experiment would go on. Comforting, as I say.

And then a few years later came Abu Ghraib, and all the rest of it.

God damn it.

I assure you there are plenty of thinking people who are a lot less comfortable about the American experiment than they used to be. I'll vote tomorrow, of course, because it's a habit and because there are people who don't have the privilege, but not enthusiastically. There aren't a lot of Washingtons and Jeffersons and Lincolns offering to run things here in our little town. If there are two or three competent to organize a company picnic, I'll be happily surprised. I feel more or less the same about the candidates for national office we're being offered lately, unfortunately. Thinking about politics isn't inspiring lately; it's a distasteful necessity, like cleaning up after a puppy. And under the distaste, just under the surface, is a gnawing concern about whether enough of my fellow citizens give a damn about our civil liberties. We'll miss them, if they go. But I studied history in college, and I know how quickly things can go wrong in a society. So let me say this: Go check out the Bill of Rights, and think how things would be if we let them go, and for goodness' sake vote accordingly. I remember that Sara Taylor saying repeatedly that she'd taken an oath of loyalty to the president, until Patrick Leahy finally reminded her, with a certain restrained thunder that I admired him for, that what she had in fact taken an oath to was not the president but the Constitution of the United States. We're very, very far from a perfect society and anyone who says differently is a damn fool. But if you've got a better real-world system of government than the one spelled out in the Constitution, I'd like to hear about it. And I don't know about Ms. Taylor but personally I'd quite gladly swear to defend the Constitution. I wouldn't try to defend the Current Occupant, though. I recall that tomorrow isn't just Election Day, it's trash day on my block. In a parliamentary system, now, we could just have a vote of no conf—but no, I took an oath. Or would, at any rate. You take the good with the bad, right?

Anyway, sorry about that. Soon we'll get back to the usual stuff we do here. I just feel bad when I think about all this stuff, and I wanted to get it off my chest.

Finally it's fall, and a real seasonal chill has set in. I've retaliated by making a big pot of lentil soup. I don't suppose soup can save the world but it's certainly something.

11/3/07
Art Appreciation

I went to the newly renovated and vastly enlarged Delaware Art Museum yesterday and was suitably impressed with the building—the "space," as people say. They had some major corporate backers, and it shows. Wilmington, Delaware is a smallish city by any standard, but there's a lot of money there, and the building holds its own with lots of other major galleries you might visit.

possible Calder mobile in Delaware Art Museum

The art contained within it varies, from really quite good to less good than that. The pleasantest surprise was a mobile hanging high above a piano in a lobby opposite the café. There's something so charming, whimsical, and graceful about a mobile that seeing them, especially any that were actually made by their inventor Alexander Calder, just makes my mood leap ceilingward. I don't know if this one's an original Calder, there was no information about it that I saw, but it had that look.

That was the high point. The rest of the offerings varied, although the trip was very worthwhile. The low points were the postmodernist gallery and the sculpture garden. The former had stuff that was labored and pointless, the latter banal and very big. This type of art is produced by artists who talk a really good game. Calder, on the other hand, is famous for this exchange in an interview:

Reporter: How do you know when it's time to stop [working]?
Calder: When it's suppertime.

Some of the other artists whose work I saw yesterday could have stopped working even sooner with no great loss to the world's artistic heritage, but hey, that's why they make chocolate and vanilla, right?

Right now I'm going to have breakfast and then go fishing. I'd actually sort of rather work on some freelance things that could use the attention, but it's good for my mind and body to go fishing before winter really sets in, so out of a sense of duty and obligation I'm going to go. It's like a schizophrenic staying on his meds—I'm going fishing there's no telling the harm that might come if I don't.

Jeez, I almost forgot—after the art museum I stopped at a good liquor store, and while I was bending down looking at some bottles I heard another patron address a store employee. I couldn't believe my ears at first, because the patron said, "Excuse me—is this a white wine?"

I stood up and looked. The guy had a bottle of wine in his hand, and it was, indeed, white. Clear light green bottle, transparent wine inside. The employee simply said "Yes." The guy, who seemed like a reasonably well-heeled and not mentally impaired person, went on: "I don't know anything about wine. My wife told me to get some white wine for dinner."

Now, I could care less how much a person does or doesn't know about wine, but sheesh, this is like pointing to a dog in a pet store and saying, "Excuse me, is that a dog? Or a cat? My wife told me to buy a dog and I can never remember which is which—I'm terrible with quadrupeds."


11/1/07
Giving It Away

I remember last winter, being a freelancer, and noting calmly that the gas prices were spiking skyward. My own car would sit in its space out back from one day to the next, accumulating snow and consuming no gas at all. And the higher the gas prices went, the more I would sigh contentedly.

So lately I notice that there's some sort of writers' strike in the offing. Believe me, if writers want more money they probably have it coming, and I'm sympathetic and all. And I love TV and movies, and if I had TV in my house I'd watch all sorts of stupid crap all the time, but as I've mentioned, I don't. It's not being a boho—I have no idea if my coffee is fair-trade coffee and frankly don't care, for instance—it's just that I see cable in other people's houses and it doesn't seem worth the price and I get lousy broadcast reception here. So no TV. I've mentioned that I have to explain this all the time—"Did you see such-and-such last night?"—and I'm always thinking of getting a button made up to that effect, that I could wear like one of those little American flag buttons. No, I didn't see such and such. So if the writers want to strike, then fine. Strike away, gang, and good luck! It also seems like a good moment to remember that line Marge had when Homer's role in the "Itchy and Scratchy and Poochy Show" was a ratings bomb. "It's not your fault, Homer," she said. "It's those lousy writers. They make me madder than a—um—yak in heat!"

Speaking of lousy writers, I have to mention that I got an unprecedented number of visitors here the last couple of months, and I really appreciate it. I think I owe most of it to people desperately seeking real-life reviews of the Bedinabox (still happy with it) but still, I'm glad. What's that? The actual numbers? I'm afraid I can't (ahem) discuss that. We—uh—don't want to give the terrorists information they can use against us. Matter of national security and all.

10/31/07
Giving It Away

Well, in some ways it was kind of a disappointing Halloween. I don't think I gave away even 300 pieces of candy, which isn't even half of what I bought. (I stopped counting at 636.) There were noticeably fewer people than the last two years, in which we had this incredible inundation of kids. It's funny—it was really inconvenient and expensive to candify all those kids, but it was worth it just to have your mind boggled. I wonder if people who get regular hurricanes through their area are disappointed with the wimpy ones? "That," they might harrumph, "was hardly devastating at all."

lit jack-'o-lantern

But there were some great things. I got some props, if I'm using that word correctly, and if it's a word at all, for my jack-'o-lantern. Nothing fancy, but a good size and a nice traditional design. You can't go wrong with the classics. People liked the Kit Kat bars, too. A classic again. And when the littlest kid would smile winsomely and say thank you, or just whisper it uncertainly, I would say "You're welcome" and really, really mean it. That does you good, I think.

Another thing the experience did was give me an appreciation for people who run restaurants or in other ways put themselves at the mercy of a fickle public. (One man walked his daughter past my neighbor's place and my own, then turned and went up to a much more elaborately decorated porch. He never came back our way. Marketing, man. Marketing is key. The elaborate-porched neighbor was giving out pencils, by the way. That's just asking for an egging.) I bought all this candy, based on previous figures, and took a bath on it. It's like if you have a restaurant, and on Tuesday night everyone wants Dover sole, they're clamoring for it, so Wednesday afternoon you load up on Dover sole at the fish market, and that night, forget it, they won't even look at it, they make a face if you mention it, you can't give it away. That's sort of how I felt last night. Except I wasn't trying to give away fish, I was trying, unsuccessfully, to give away candy. My dining room table now groans under the weight of hundreds and hundreds of Kit Kat bars. But I cleaned off, salted, and roasted a bunch of pumpkin seeds, so that's something on the credit side. Waste not, want not, that's what I say.


10/30/07
The Devil You Say

Happy Halloween! I've been getting ready for days and days. I assessed the pile of the candy on the dining-room table and found it's upwards of 400 pieces. Not enough; I'll have to hit the store today and get more. We have masses of kids who wash over the neighborhood sidewalks and porches like a costumed tide, and twice in the two years I've lived here I've run out of candy after an hour or two and had to put out a sign to that effect, turn off the lights, and cower in my darkened house, awaiting a holocaust of eggs and toilet paper. It never came: the kids just want candy, and they moved on to greener pastures. But this year, I'm ready. I don't want to have to go back in until the kids are gone and the only people out there are the sheepish teenagers, the ones with no costume who know perfectly well they're too old for this but still like free candy.

I certainly love the holiday, and I'm especially psyched this year to think that maybe, if I poke around the Mexican tienda-style stores that we have more and more of around here, I'll be able to find the sugar skulls made for La dia de los muertos, the Day of the Dead. I remember reading about this tradition in a Ray Bradbury story when I was a kid, and it totally freaked me out. I now understand that it's a fairly benign thing, the dead might as well be in Florida, and the day is the equivalent of calling them on their birthday, but that wasn't my understanding when I was 11 and I think having a few of those things around would give me a pleasantly spooky little nerve-tingle even today. If I can get some, you'll see 'em first here, don't worry.

special tool for scooping out pumpkins Pez dispenser in form of black cat

And now a cuff and a kiss for consumer culture. For weeks I've been frowning at these green plastic tools I've seen for sale in the supermarkets. Clearly and for the record: Kids, and adults, you do not need special tools to create a jack-'o-lantern, so don't let any blood-sucking marketing people tell you different. You need a knife, and a large spoon. And some newspaper. The first two you have, the second you can borrow from an elderly acquaintance. That's all you need, you don't need to buy a god-damned thing besides a pumpkin and a candle.

Now, on the other hand, I turned around in the aisle and upon what did my eye fall? Halloa hoy, me hearties, it's a black cat Pez dispenser! For like a buck and a half! As you may know, my cat Panther is, as you've already guessed, black, so this was perfect. (Great graphics on the package too.) So now I'm all set for the holiday. Panther wishes you a Happy Halloween too. It's one of the big days of his year. Later! Gotta work out, gonna be eating some candy later.

Oh, and if you're really a good guesser, here's an extra credit question: What sort of candy does a cat lover like myself prefer to hand out for Halloween?


10/27/07
The I in Cider

I was out at my favorite orchard today, buying apples and cider, and I saw that instead of simply offering pasteurized and unpasteurized cider, as they've done for years, they now proclaim that the unpasteurized has been treated with UV light. This made a little concerned—not as concerned as I would have been about 11 years ago, but it did raise a question.

I went over to one of the young women working there. "Will this cider," I asked, "get hard if you let it go for a while?" She paused, like I'd asked an awkward question about the side effects of a medicine. Then she said, "Well, it'll take a really long time."

apple

Now, 11 years ago this might have been a much bigger deal. I was relatively broke back then, but had expensive tastes, and I enjoyed things that harked back to an era when people were a little more tied to the seasons and the agricultural year and all that fun stuff. I had discovered, for instance, that hard cider was a delicious drink, very popular in Europe but hardly even known in the States. This was very much a change from the past—in the colonial era and for some time after, cider was the standard drink in most households. If someone came in the house thirsty, you offered them cider, and the cider was understood to be hard. People would make tremendous quantities of it in the fall, because running out was considered near-disastrous.

I personally considered it near-disastrous that I'd gone all those years without knowing how good it was, but I was making up for lost time. The problem was that if you wanted hard cider, you had to go to a high-end liquor store and get expensive French or British versions of it. They were delightful, but at the time I couldn't afford them on a regular basis.

What I could afford was the unpasteurized cider offered at this one orchard. If you left it out of the refrigerator for about a day, then put it back, it would acquire a certain yeasty tang after three or four more days. It wouldn't give you a buzz, but it was an interesting flavor. But I rigged some demijohns up with air locks and let it ferment all the way. That's really not how it's done, because if you ferment out all the sugar, as I did, it doesn't taste nearly as good as when you leave some sugar in. But it sure enough gave you a buzz, though, and for a bonus it wouldn't make you go blind. And I'd made it myself—it wasn't much, but it was my own. (I made a dandelion wine that same year that was much more successful, in that it actually tasted pretty good.)

My income has grown enough over the years that while I can't afford sailboats or starlets, I can afford a pint of cider now and then. It's more popular—you can get it on tap at a local place that has modeled itself on an English pub, and you can buy it in more liquor stores—most, I'd say.

So generally, things are good. But this UV light thing bothers me. If you want to pasteurize milk, fine. I've never had a drink made out of fermented milk that I thought was worth drinking. But if I can't make hard cider myself anymore, well, I just feel like my options are that much more limited. Do I have to start voting Libertarian, just to have the option of buying cider that will ferment the way nature intended? What's next? Pasteurized dandelions?


10/26/07
Interest-Bearing Account

Well, I suppose from the dawn of humanity, there's been some tension involved when one person proposes to entertain another with some sort of story. I can just imagine a bunch of cavepersons sitting around a fire in France or Spain about 30,000 years ago, and they've just eaten, and nobody has much to say. Then Ork clears his throat and says, "You know, I saw the most interesting mammoth today." And the whole band rolls their eyes—oh, god, not Ork and another one of his interminable I-saw-this-interesting-whatever stories. It was, indeed, interesting to Ork, but that's Ork. Nobody else gives a damn.

Which is approximately the position I find myself in. I agreed to join a group of people in my writing club in a public reading two days from now, and I don't have a damn clue what I'm going to read. The last time we did this, I thought the most interesting story of the bunch, a bunch that included a story by yours truly, was from this guy who wrote an account of his experiences in the Korean War. If I could arrange to get shot at between now and Monday night, I would give it serious thought. Otherwise, I'm stumped. I was actually considering doing a kind of greatest-hits selection from this og-blay of mine, but I'm not so sure. The one thing about blogs is that they're like odd, outré sexual practices. It's OK as long as it's among consenting adults. If you force it on people, however, it's of course a very different thing.

10/24/07
Small World

I got up yesterday and worked on fiddly stuff all day. I didn't expect to encounter much beauty, or inspiration, or even to be very much struck by anything, and for the most part I wasn't, although I looked at some video I shot last night of a veil of clouds scudding quickly across the nearly full moon. The moon wasn't as big as I'd have liked in the image, but still, it was very cool and Halloweeny. Other than that, work work work, and right at the end of the day things started snapping into place. A writer from yesteryear, Gene Fowler, I believe, said that writing was easy—you just stare at a blank piece of paper until beads of blood form on your forehead. I think that's true of most things in the working world.

Then plunging into all the traffic in this congested part of the world I live in to attend my father's birthday dinner. We went to a nice restaurant. I had ostrich. It was pretty good, but it wasn't the best ostrich I've had.

If you have a family, then I don't have to tell you how family dinners go. Your ability to accept your family members' quirks is often a barometer of how you're feeling generally, and personally I've been a bit stressed, so the quirks got on my nerves. One of my dad's quirks, for instance, is to offer unnecessary explanations. We were sitting opposite each other, and at one point he said "Look at that fire!" Then he started explaining that he was looking over my shoulder, that there was a television over there on the far wall, that they were showing film of the fires in California, that the fire extended from one edge of the screen to the other. All of this presumably was to prevent my becoming confused by the remark, since I wasn't looking toward the television. "So I'm not personally on fire?" I asked. "No, no, it's that television over there, they're showing pictures of the fires in ... " and so forth. Sigh. Everyone was holding forth in their personal quirky manner, myself included. Other families always look more sensible to me, by which I mean their craziness is deeper, more effectively sublimated. My own family's oddnesses are relatively open and visible, and if we conducted these family dinners wearing bathrobes and had cigarettes in our hands, you might imagine yourself in the day room of a mental hospital.

At one point I explained for like the kajillionth time that no, I can't get broadcast TV and I don't have cable. I'm not against it exactly on some philosophical basis, I just don't want it. If they offered cable for free I'd take it, I suppose, and watch the History Channel to find out who won the Second World War and how many tanks they used to do it. Whatever. But the upshot is that I'm not seeing the fires in California all the time, I'm not seeing the poor kitties (lolcatspeak: "kittehs") in cages in the teeming shelters, the families distraught because they don't know if they still have houses or not. No pictures, and so it's something far away, and thus less emotionally engaging. It's a shame, certainly, but there are people with worse problems.

And then this morning I was struck, finally, by something. A guy named Ken Rockwell who runs an excellent photography website happens to live in San Diego, and had to evacuate, and was talking about what it was like. I've been reading the site for years, I've sent him a contribution (it's that good) and he wrote back, he's got plenty of pictures of his family, and you feel like you know someone a little bit, when it's like that. They're fine, and all, but the point is that a little thread of awareness has connected me to this big event, and I was struck by that. There are always fires and floods, famines and droughts, all sorts of fun things going on in the world, but if you know someone where it's going on, it's suddenly personal, and it matters. Maybe the United Nations should encourage everyone to have eight or ten pen pals in different continents. Not for communication, not for understanding, not for any of that Trick or Treat for Unicef stuff, but just so that you actually know someone in all those places. You'd wonder if that person was all right. Can't hurt, might help.

No fires here. It's dark, and a chilly rain is falling. It makes you appreciate your coffee, and your roof, the heat, and the cat—it makes you appreciate being home, and OK. My feet are cold! I'm going to go put on socks and appreciate them too.

10/23/07
Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

I'm sure you've heard that way people talk when feel that something they've just heard in conversation is a little crazy. It's a sort of halting, disbelievingly amused tone. I heard it once from a college professor in a film course. We were talking about a film we'd just seen, and this one oddball guy said that one of the characters performed some action or other after the film ended.

The professor said, in this halting, amused way, "But—nothing happens after the film ends. It's just a piece of celluloid. There's nothing happening beside what's on the film."

Which brings us to the Dumbledore-is-gay kerfuffle. See, it's kind of cheating for our dear Jo to say, once the series ends, that Professor D. leans that way. She has some standing to say that she conceived of him that way, that her conception guided other choices in the writing, but there's nothing on the page that says the character is gay. And the only thing that books are are words on a page, ink on paper. The story happens inside the reader's mind. The characters don't exist independently of the words on the page, and the images you create as you read. Rowling herself laughingly admitted that adding to what's on the page amounts to fan fiction—taking the characters and making up your own stories. Not that there's anything wrong with that! But it's not in the books, gang. So let's move on.

Personally I prefer to imagine Dumbledore as this kindly near-saint, a personage of dignity, authority, and grace, ensconced in his chambers, thinking the deepest of thoughts. He's not thinking about tail. At least not in my mind.

10/21/07
By Any Other Name

I don't know who named the fish I caught yesterday the "sea robin," but I suspect it was some promotional group like the Sea Robin Advisory Board. A robin is a handsome bird that you could use as an emblem of the entire bird race on a magazine cover or something. The sea robin (uglyassus nightmaricus) is, by contrast, one of the most awful-looking creatures in nature. It has large pectoral fins that look something like wings, but they look like the wings of a brain-eating scorpionbat, not the wings of a bird. I strongly suspect that the fish was originally named "horrorfish," or something, but the Sea Robin Advisory Board bought a lot of advertising space in different publications and got the name changed over time. (This happened with "Chilean Sea Bass," a fish that is actually called "Patagonian Toothfish" when it's at home.) Sea robin! The damn things look like Jar Jar Binks a hell of a lot more than they look like a bird. I got to wondering what they taste like, if you were ever reduced to a condition of starvation so desperate that you'd tackle one, and I read that according to Wikipedia they make an acceptable substitute for the French fish called rascasse, a key ingredient of bouillabaisse. Do they really, Wikipedia? Or has the Sea Robin Advisory Board gotten to you, too?

10/20/07
One More Reason to Go Fishing

A friend of mine just had triple bypass surgery the other day. He's fine, but it's been a couple of days and I've been wondering when he'd be ready for visitors. I figured he'd be pretty out of it for a while—you get torn up pretty badly in operations like that, after all. But then I had a vision of all his friends gathered around his bed, telling funny stories and cheering him up, and occasionally frowning disapprovingly at the empty chair that did not contain me. So I called the hospital and talked to his wife. No, it seemed he was still pretty tired. His sister's family had come up, an hour and a half drive or so, and he was only able to talk with them for a couple of minutes. The wife said maybe he'd want visitors when he came home, in a couple of more days. So OK. The guilt I would have felt for being a cold, callous, neglectful person has been pushed back a few yards. I do care, and all. It makes me cringe to think of what the poor guy went through. (Listen folks, go easy on the red meat, OK?) And I think of all my friends often, much more often than I may call or write, which much more affection for their amiable selves and sympathy for their problems than they might ever suspect. And as the years go on, I'm more forgiving when I don't hear from a friend for a long time in a similar way. I don't take it so personally, I figure they think of me fondly on occasion, and then the thought is driven from their heads by a million other things. In other words, I've become a better, more understanding person by virtue of my own bad example.

And sure, when a friend is that sick you feel a certain existential dread, don't you? Note to self: Remember you're not immue. A solution for the global energy problem might lie in finding a way to harness the energy wasted in pretending to ourselves that we won't get sick and die. So what to do about it? I'm going fishing, that's what. Imagine a wide, long beach, and a ocean out to a far horizon, and a sky arching over it, and a trail of footsteps in the sand that leads all the way to a little dot near the surf, a dot that if you squint looks maybe taller than it is broad. For most of the day, that dot will be me.

10/18/07
What Might Have Been

It's always something of a bittersweet feeling for me when Benazir Bhutto is in the news. See, back in the '80s, I had this huge crush on her. So exotic, and yet somehow familiar as a type, with those elegant, graceful lines you've seen in Modigliani's paintings. I fell for her pretty hard, to be honest. Of course, it simply wasn't meant to be. We never actually met, for one thing. We traveled in different circles—she went to Radcliffe, Harvard, and Oxford, and everyone she knew was in some sort of world-leadership position, and I have, to put it simply, walked a different path. The religion thing—well, we probably could have worked that out. I never quite bought that headscarf, I always figured she just sort of had to wear that. I'll bet she just tosses it on a table in the foyer, with her car keys, the instant she's home.

Anyway, time goes on. I'm happy in my present life, and certainly I wish her the best in hers. Now, just between us, this guy she married—well, I won't say anything. It's all worked out for the best. I'm a fairly high-strung person, and being involved with the person who's running Pakistan has got to be stressful, so there you are.

10/17/07
Trouble Brewing

They tell you in writing classes, usually before you've even taken off your coat, that a big part of writing is eliminating unnecessary and distracting details, so I'll just not mention exactly who it was that sleepily spilled about a tablespoonful of coffee into my keyboard yesterday morning. The point is how it affected the keyboard and the computer, which promptly went nuts. It was as if I were ripped from my comfortable world and hurled into a parallel universe where everything is inside out and nothing makes sense because the control key is always pressed. I don't make a habit of spilling stuff on my keyboard but I knew that thin liquids aren't really a problem, so I set my keyboard off to dry, the way you hang a wet bathing suit on a fence, and went about my business. Now it's fine, just a little dirtier than it was before, which was very. I researched how to clean these things, and couldn't believe the lengths some people go to. I also couldn't believe the advice some people gave, which was to put the keyboard in the dishwasher. First of all, it's a Bluetooth-equipped wireless keyboard, so I think that might be like putting a camera or cellphone in the dishwasher. Second of all, putting anything electronic in a dishwasher seems a little unsound to me. Does it seem like it would belong there? Does it give you a sense that your household is well-ordered? Ah, you say to yourself on Sunday afternoon, the yard is raked, the magazines are neatly stacked, and the keyboard is in the dishwasher. Everything is as it should be. No, that's OK for some people but I don't swing that way. Better that some wintry evening I sit down with a glass of sherry, put some music on, and slowly pop every frickin' key off the keyboard and then spiff it up good. The chore list grows ever longer!

10/14/07
The More Things Stay the Same, the More They Change

The town of Kennett Square is really two towns, and I honestly don't know which one I want to live in. Old Kennett was a small town in a rural area. When I have breakfast at Fran Keller's Eatery, I'm in Old Kennett. People are old and stocky there, and they know each other. Many of them have roots in the area that go back three centuries or so. They have lounge chairs at home in front of the TV with little magazine racks on the side holding copies of Reader's Digest, if that still exists. The point is, I wouldn't know, it's been a while since I was in a home like that. It's also been a while since I was in DeFilippo's, an old barn of a general store that sold shotgun shells and galvanized tin wash basins and rat poison and wellington boots and shovels and all. I bought my fishing licenses there some years. But it closed, and I miss it, even though I was never really a part of Old Kennett and its world. I liked it, though, I liked it a lot.

New Kennett is a fiction. It has cutesy stores and cutesy food places. I was in one of them the other day, a Saturday morning, around 11, and it was crowded with suburban yuppie types. "Should I get some olives?" one woman asked her husband. "How are we with olives?" "We're low," he said, as he browsed the tubes of anchovy paste and fire-roasted Spanish almonds.

These people are polite, educated, much more like me (on a good day) than the Old Kennett folks. But they struck me as tourists, as summer people. I'm glad to see my town inventing a new role for itself. It has atmosphere, with lots of 19th-century architecture (and a smattering of 18th too) and strollable streets and so forth. It has a sense of community that most developments lack. But I'm still a little taken aback when there's hordes of people roaming through it like a herd of caribou, wondering aloud how they are with olives. It's a watershed moment, a tipping point. For the first twenty-five or thirty years of my life, I lived in a beautifully rural area, redolent of the 18th century, but fairly conservative and traditional too. (My real home town, West Chester, a few miles northeast of here, couldn't support a decent Chinese restaurant for all that time. It could barely support an indecent one.) It seemed like an OK trade to me—if I wanted sophistication, or just good Chinese food, I'd go to Philadelphia, thirty miles away. Philadelphia, as in Philadelphia Orchestra.

But now it's all changed. It's beautiful less and less. And Philadelphia, or at least its more populous and affluent suburbs, came to me. People of a certain income level are more sophisticated today, and they're camped all around me. They know how they are with olives. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Old Kennett any more!

And what was I doing in the store myself? Well, they have this wonderful little dried sausages they make there, the kind of thing you might find in a good charcutier in France. What's your point?

10/12/07
Note to Self: Fish More

First, to reassure you, I'm all done with Taking Stock and all that birthday-related stuff. I had a couple of nice dinners and some nice presents and birthday wish e-mails, and let's let it go at that. People get older, and I'm a people, simple as that. Even in the blogosphere, arriving at a certain calendar date is not some big accomplishment or occasion that calls for a few suitable words.

I'm going downstairs to make coffee and such and then, by gum, I'm going fishing. I've neglected fishing. Most of the other realms —work, music, social life, writing—have gotten at least some attention in the last year or so, but now I see that the fishing side has deteriorated, the way people will suddenly realize they've neglected a child, or a marriage. If my fishing career were a child, it would be calling from the police station, I'm sure, and I'd suddenly realize that all the honors and accolades and acclaim and money (this is the movie version, not my real life) don't matter at all compared to the well-being and happiness of my fishing career. If my fishing career were a wife, it would be seriously considering having a fling with the charming rogue from work. It's not that my fishing career doesn't still love me, my god, after all these years, the bond is still there, but it's just that the charming rogue from work makes my fishing career feel like a woman again. I don't blame my fishing career. This is all my fault. But I'm going to make this right. We're going to start over again, baby. For other people it might be soccer or rollerblading or Fabergé eggs or whatever that really does it for them. For me, pastime-wise, it's fishing. I just love being out there with all that good nature stuff. And now the coffee's made, gotta go.

10/11/07
The Emperor of Ice Cream

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he sailed for me, he sailed for you, in 1492. They had us say that in elementary school, and had us memorize the date he encountered "America"—the Bahamas, actually—which was October 12. I never had much trouble remembering that date, and I've always had a certain fellow-feeling for Columbus, because I happened to be born on October 12. Fifty-two years ago, as a matter of fact.

The Big Five Two doesn't really mean much to me. I felt stuck in life, years ago, but I don't now, which is nice. But there's certainly a sense that you're no longer at your physical peak. Your body, even if you're reasonably healthy, is like an empire in decline, like the late Roman Empire, say, and you yourself are like an emperor gone half mad with paranoia, watching every corner of the crumbling realm for signs of weakness and betrayal. You scan everything suspiciously. Are those the finest possible wrinkles developing around my eyes, or am I just sort of tired from having just woken up? Have I strained my foot just a bit, or could I be developing gout, for God's sake? So you resolve to work out harder, and put on more sunscreen, and all that. If there's one difference between youth and, uh, maturity, it's that you don't simply take your bursting good health for granted, or assume it will continue. You resolve to do a hundred pushups a day, and then take it to two hundred. And you scan your rebellious realm unceasingly. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, when you're a mature person.

Other than that, can't complain. Had dinner with the sister and parents last night. They're going on a cruise, if you can believe that, bless their hearts. My mom likes cruises because they encourage you to smoke and gamble. Families are interesting—you're forced to be part of them, so it's really not typical, or reasonable to ask, that they completely understand you, see what's best about you and forgive what's worst, it's not reasonable to ask that they know and value you the way your friends and lovers do. So OK, you don't. You learn to make reasonable requests. The one request I've really insisted on over the years, come my birthday, is that I have a pumpkin pie in lieu of birthday cake. I have made this utterly clear and insisted upon it since I was a kid. My birthday comes in a season when pumpkins are being harvested where I live. Early on I came to associate pumpkin pie with my birthday, and it stuck. There have been years here and there where the family has failed to remember this, and I decided to draw a line, and now that line is being consistently toed. We went out to dinner, and I happened to arrive at the restaurant last. When I sat, they passed a bag up to me. I glanced in—it was a pumpkin pie, which was only right and proper, since it is, after all, my birthday. There's a line between the set of things that are reasonable to expect in life and the set of things that aren't. Perfect families are on one side of the line, and pumpkin pies are on the other.

Anyway, birthday or not, gotta work out, lest the empire crumble further. Then, I believe, I'll have pumpkin pie for breakfast. A bit self-indulgent, but after all, Columbus and I have a special day going.

10/10/07
Jaaaaane! Stop This Crazy Thing!

Only got a minute this morning, but since there's an inordinate number of people finding their way to my front porch to ask about the Bedinabox, I can tell you that it's still a pretty good bed and my lower back agrees. No affiliation with them, not a stockholder or even friend, just a reasonably satisfied customer. I just heard about someone else who went with his girlfried to the bed store, tried the Tempur-Pedic, loved it, couldn't afford the multo-thousands, and went with another memory-foam mattress that comes smushed up in a box in the mail. People have guts, you know, doing that. Maybe not Battle of Britain guts, or anything, but still, you're taking a chance on a medium-big hassle if you don't like the damn thing.

Anyway, people want to know about Bedinabox. I'm always curious, as I say, about what brings people to my little literary curio shop, here. Sometimes I marvel at what they want to know about, and marvel even more that their search led here. I can't always remember what I wrote that might have sent Google to barking up my tree. But I'm absolutely sure that I've never written about Jetsons porn. Somebody was looking for Jetsons porn, I swear to God, and found me. They were undoubtedly disappointed, and I feel bad about that. Nor do I condemn that person—it sounds kind of interesting, I must admit. And I just checked—there really is such a thing. Along with Simpsons porn, much of it evidently featuring Lisa, which is just not right. Some people are caring, decent human beings (even if they're imaginary) and actually have intellects and Lisa is one of them, you troglodytes! Deal with it! Anyway, sorry, no, we're fresh out of Jetsons porn today. If you look elsewhere, you're sure to find it, believe me.

10/9/07
Forbidden Fruit

I'm always grumping about Slate, despite the fact that I read it every day. It's like family, I guess. And one of the things I grump about are these articles they run by overly righteous writers castigating us as a society for some fairly innocuous habit. Last autumn, for example, they ran this story by some yuppie scolding people for indulging in the seemingly innocent pleasure of going to a pick-your-own orchard, which evidently is a far more sinister thing than we knew before this fellow came along to tell us about it. It has to do with overconsumption, or naivete, or some other deep-down American failing that the writer makes a good living by pointing out.

apple on table

They ran it again this year, as a kind of seasonal favorite, I suppose. But there's an orchard near me where you can pick your own apples if you want to, or buy them out of bins if you don't, and I kind of like going to it. So do lots of other people. We're not lynching anyone, fer Crissakes, or anything. We're just picking some apples. I don't overconsume—I eat them enthusiastically but moderately. I took three to work yesterday and ate one, because these are huge Stayman apples about the size of softballs, very dense and crunchy, and eating one is like a full meal. They're at the peak of ripeness, and they're perfectly balanced between tart and sweet, to my taste, with a spicy tang. Other Slate articles have told me that eating locally grown food is the new and right thing to do, so I've decided to follow my own natural inclination and keep eating these apples. They make me happy. So phooey on you, Yuppie Boy. Don't go to pick-your-own orchards, if you don't want to. It's a free country.

BTW, since I was full from the apple, I decided to eat light for dinner. Salmon, from the supermarket, grilled on charcoal, with a relish of chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, shallot, salt and pepper, with lightly steamed broccoli on the side, and a glass of sauvignon blanc. Again, there's much that could be improved about supermarkets, but the meal itself was delightful. And if all these yuppie writers—the ones I'm starting to call the New Puritans—had spoken up to point out all the ways it was wrong, I'd have probably nodded my head in agreement, but not answered back right away, because my mouth would have been full.

Oh, and one last thing—some of you may notice I used this photo (lightly artified with a Photoshop filter) last year. I'm recycling it as a seasonal favorite. It's a picture of one of those Stayman apples. The apple came from a pick-your-own orchard, but I like the picture anyway.


10/6/07
He's Got the Fever

OK, you've all been patient and the all-important fish picture has arrived and now I'll tell you what it was like fishing for albies at Martha's Vineyard.

You stand on the beach, scanning the water near shore, and you occasionally check your fly line and every other part of your gear, the way a soldier in a foxhole will carefully brush a bit of dirt from the rifle sights, waiting for an expected attack.

me holding a false albacore I've just caught

And then the expected attack arrives, and it's always a surprise. Down the beach to your left, the water erupts in angry white boils, two, three at a time, with a violent thumping sound, the sound of a boxing glove connecting with flesh and bone. That's when you know the false albacore are running down the beach, smashing into baitfish collecting in panic at the surface, coming straight toward you and your friends, who now all have their lines in the air, ready to cast into this chaotic melee.

Somehow you get your line out—it's like you've forgotten how to cast, there's this dreamlike sense of warped time and perceptions, but the line falls to the water in front of the rampaging fish and now you're pulling your line in with short strips. Nothing—nothing—and then, incredibly, there's weight on the line. There's a fish out there, taking a couple of milliseconds to wonder why there's something pulling at its jaw, and in a haze you hold your rod up and get ready. Then boom! The fish zooms for the horizon. Your thick fly line flies through the fingers of your line hand and flashes toward the horizon too, and you thank the fish gods it didn't get tangled on the way. (That happened to a Belgian guy; the line tangled and formed a knot, and the fish pulled it out the guides and pulled the top guide right off and then pulled the rod sections apart. He landed the fish, miraculously.) Now the thinner braided backing line is rushing out too, and the reel emits a high-pitched whine. There's plenty of time to watch it whirl in staggered admiration; the fish eventually will run maybe 100 yards out into the water. Finally it sulks out there, and you can start the laborious process of bracing the rod butt against your stomach and cranking the fish in with the reel. It's still strong, but eight or 10 minutes later it comes toward you.

And what a fish! Very few are as impressive. Football-shaped, but what they remind you of is some sort of military rocket, everything built for speed and strength and deadliness. You lift it up for a couple of quick snapshots from your friends, who've taken advantage of a lull in the action to get their cameras out and come over to check it out, and then you plunge it forward into the water, where the fresh oxygen rushing across its gills revives it from the potentially fatal fight. It swims off. You're still in a haze, and you walk a few steps up the beach to take it all in. That's your first albie from the beach on a fly, more or less. At least, that's how mine was.

I only caught the one all week, but it was enough. Just knowing they're out there, catchable, is enough, really. I remember I finally went back to fishing, and about 10 or 15 minutes later, a friend called over from down the beach, "Stopped shaking yet?" "Not quite," I answered. And now, almost two weeks later, I find that although my knees have steadied and my breath slowed, I'm still shaking just a little on the inside—shaking because there are such awe-inspiring things as albies in the world. For a few minutes, you can feel one of nature's stronger forces right through your fingertips. You're literally in touch with a creature of dizzying power, speed, and beauty. It took a week of strenuous effort to feel it once, but it was worth it and more than worth it. Albies! The word will never be the same to me.


10/4/07
Dark Thoughts

By which I mean I feel reasonably cheerful, even though I have a busy day coming up—busy like an astronaut with a moon shot happening later in the morning—but it's 6:27 a.m. and pitch dark out. I could walk uptown and drop a bill in the mail, but that struck me as a little off, like a person in a noir film, walking uptown in his trench coat, traversing the dark rain-slicked streets, dropping off a bill at the post office drop slot, and going home again. The End. Nope, you drop off bills in the bustling light of morning. Time for another cup of coffee—hang on.

Coffee made. Let's see, what to muse upon—got it. The lack of matches around the house. I've been running out of matches, and it was becoming obvious to me that I haven't been spending enough time in fancy bars where they have bowls of stick matches in boxes all around. (Note to self: Frequent fancy bars more often.) But in the short term I went to the supermarket to buy matches. Well, they had two things: those butane wands you stick into the bowels of a propane grill after the igniter conks out, which seems a little highfalutin to me. It's got about a million parts, and it costs $5.79, or whatever, and it verges on an appliance. I just want to strike a good old-fashioned match and have some fire. I don't want to operate machinery just for that. They also scrambled around and found a cylinder of those matches that are incredibly long. The only use I could see for those was to light the fireplace in my Upper West Side apartment after Gore Vidal and Andy Warhol had settled themselves with drinks on the couch. A little dandified, in other words, the long matches. So no.

I googled "Ohio Blue Tip Matches" and found some, of course, on eBay. Again, I'm not shopping for antiques, I just want a damn box of matches. Finally, yesterday, I had a brainstorm—I should try the funny little supermarket called Zingo's on my ride home. They're old-fashioned; maybe they would have matches. And so they did. Paper books, small boxes (if you prettified them you could offer them in bowls in fancy bars) and big boxes of good old wooden matches. It shouldn't be this hard, just to find matches.

Of course, what I'd really, really like are the strike-anywhere kind, the kind you can strike on the side of a building, or the sole of your shoe, and then light your cigarette, the flame illuminating your hard-bitten face, like in the noir films. But in the darned old real world that kind lend themselves to kids burning the house down. Liability issues, and all that. So they're getting hard to find. I'm a reasonable person, I can see the logic and all. I don't mind striking the side of the box, even when the striking surface stuff starts to wear out and it becomes something you have to concentrate on. I'm just glad to have matches.

10/3/07
Dog Bites Man

Remember the other day, that jolly little simile about treating my duties like a pack of yelping dogs and shooing them out the door? Huh—so do I. They've all come back, as they say, to bite me, and now I'm living the life of a hunted animal. Couldn't help thinking about the classic Robert Johnson blues Hellhound on My Trail. "I got to keep movin', I got to keep movin', blues fallin' down like hail. And the day keeps on worryin' me, got a hellhound on my trail." Well, if you'll forgive me I can feel the hot, sulfurous breath of the baying hellhounds on my calves, and their yellow, blood-flecked fangs glint in the murky gloom when I glance behind me, and I've got to run. I'm a little busy, in other words, but some pictures of Martha's Vineyard and what we did there are on their way, I promise promise promise.

10/1/07
Fish Story on Hold, but Reality Bites

I'd love to sketch for you, as best I could, the sun and wind and water, the sense of anticipation, the wild climax when a hooked "albie" takes off for the horizon, but my fishing buddies and I haven't exchanged all the pictures yet. If I couldn't include a picture of my grinning self holding a fish, the whole effort would be totally wasted. I'm sure the guys out there understand this. The fish picture is the capstone, the crown of the experience. Gotta have the fish picture. But any day now, really.

Back to work, that's the reality. I enjoy imagining it as more suffering than it really is. I imagine myself as a miner in, say, Azerbaijan, where the conditions are 19th-century exploitative. I shake my fist at the mine. "The mine," I cry, "she eats us up like pistachio nuts and spits out our bones like shells! Damn her!" Of course this is ridiculous. I work with pleasant people in a clean, well-lighted office. Every few days the Wellness Committee puts out a spread of fresh fruit for us in the kitchen. My job is nothing at all like working in a mine.

But it's nothing at all like going on a week-long fishing trip, either. Just now I had to literally run to take the garbage to the truck in the alley. Now I have to gulp the second cup of coffee, do some quick working out, rattle the pans to make an even quicker breakfast, and run out the door. I am so home. Anyway, fish story to come. Talk to you soon.

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