Tuesday, December 29, 2015

All I ever needed to know I learned from Jon Carroll

For Thanksgiving we tried something different — a picnic in San Francisco with our children. Low frills, simple, light on preparation and heavy on just spending time together.

That was my plan, and I was shocked that anyone had even listened to me when I uttered it long ago, let alone agreed to carry it out.

We ended up having the traditional Thanksgiving anyway — in addition to the picnic. It was the multiple-meal, multi-meat, Armageddon-in-the-kitchen Thanksgiving that inspired me to propose a picnic in the first place.

Even the picnic became an extravaganza, our son's girlfriend making something, our daughter making something, all of us bringing too, too much.

Change is hard.

We tried something else different — well, Nancy carried it out, since I'm often useless beyond instigation — called the Untied Way®™. It's not branded, but it should be.

The Untied Way©™is Jon Carroll's idea of charitable giving, and it too is low frills and simple: Withdraw money from your ATM — take out an amount that would sting a bit — and distribute your $20s in a part of town where people might ask for money. When someone asks, give him or her a $20 until you're done.

That's it.

The Untied Way®™ makes no judgments on recipients, Jon Carroll would say, and has its flaws. For example, a giver really doesn't know how the recipient would use the money, and couldn't control it anyway. It could be used for drink or drugs, for example.
You might expect gratitude from your clients, but you may not get it. Some of your clients may not process the denomination of the contribution, and therefore your special virtue will go unremarked. Sometimes, alas, your clients will say insulting or incomprehensible things to you. Other times, they may be overly grateful, and follow you down the street asking in stentorian tones for God to bless you. The Untied Way is not a particularly comfortable charity.

Jon Carroll wrote once of his non-traditional charity.
Sometimes people ask: Won't the Untied Way clients use their money foolishly? Won't they buy drugs or cheap booze or unsavory companionship? And the answer is: Yes, they might. Have you ever spent your money foolishly? Have you ever behaved unwisely? Untied Way clients are human beings like you.
Jon Carroll's words on this and any other subject are harder to find, because Jon Carroll is gone.

Not gone gone, but a funereal gone nonetheless. He retired as columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, about Thanksgiving time, and with his retirement went the weekly dose of words joined remarkably well, words I would have loved to have heard in person across a coffee table.

Carroll started with the Chronicle in 1962 as a reporter, joined a new venture called Rolling Stone Magazine, joined a variety of pioneering journalism projects before returning to the Chronicle in 1982 as a columnist. He's been there, done that.

His are words of level-headed mirth and just the right mixture of satiric rage at so much I rage against but don't have quite the way to say it.

Besides the Untied Way, he spun a description of circus life, specifically the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, which his daughter belonged to, so joyful I wanted to join, and got the next best thing when that circus — no animals, just acrobats galore and hilarious clowns (yes, they can be funny!) in an itty bitty performing space — came to out-of-the-way Hanford, where Nancy and I were working, long ago.

He delighted in Mondegreens — writer Sylvia Wright's coinage for misheard lyrics — and his readers delighted in his delight, sharing their own over the years. "Mondegreens" come from Wright's own mishearing of a Scottish poem: She thought the enemies had slain Earl o' Moray and Lady Mondegreen — when the enemies had really "laid him on the green."

Rock songs are shot through with Mondegreens: Jimi Hendrix singing "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy," or Elton John pleading, "Hold me closer, Tony Danza."

Jon Carroll always sounded like he was just having a conversation — an erudite riff on the day, with witty asides so plentiful they pushed against the main point. Too often I've thought, "I'd like to write like that," and have emulated his writing, whether or not I wanted to.

Now he's gone.

And yet.

In his retirement — while he figures out what to do — he started a blog. His latest post: Make-believe answers to his annual really difficult Christmastime quiz, which he hasn't published in many years but which readers still clamor for. As with everything else, it's a fun read.

I give thanks.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A ponderous chain

cried the Ghost,
wringing its hands again.

“Mankind was my business;
charity, mercy, forbearance,
and benevolence, were, all,
my business. The deals of my trade
were but a drop of water in
the comprehensive ocean
of my business!”

— Charles Dickens 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Go jump in a lake

Nothing focuses the mind quite so well as slinking headfirst into a winter lake, the water hovering just above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

My mind, anyway.

Your mind might hold a different opinion in this scenario, such as: "Ooooowwwwuuuuuu
oooooowwww!" Or maybe,
"Get out! Get OUT! GET OUT!!!

I get it. Perfectly reasonable. "Reasonable" is an excellent word here.

Chances are your mind and body are not used to doing such a thing, may in fact desire very much not to do such a thing, because your mind, being smart, and your body, being precious, would react negatively to this being done — to the point of avoiding the near occasion of this precise happenstance.

Being used to it, however, I do not think such things. I get in immediately anymore, have done so for more than two years now, after the buddies I used to swim with decided they weren't putting up with my ritualistic easing-into-the-water bit, and left me behind.

I first think, upon first slink, "This is cold," in a detached, Spockian (Mr., not Dr.) manner, simply acknowledging a fact. But about 120 strokes (counting every other stroke), I think, "This is ideal now, so I might as well start slowing my stroke and practice slipping my arms in without making bubbles."

Sure enough, 120 strokes in (it's not an exact science; sometimes it's 117, others nearly 145) I am calm. I am suspended in solution, my limbs carrying on as if they had become the water, my left eye (I flunked bilateral breathing) checking progress, but both eyes looking down mostly, into the streaky green nothingness of my lake, my mouth frowning a little at the sight of bubbles.

I think spend a spare bit of thought to keep my arms wide and straight out, and resolve that I shouldn't be able to see them when my face is straight down in the water. It's an ongoing experiment.

In the chooka-whaush-splick-splacka-chosh of my moving, constantly moving, breathing and letting all the parts do their thing, I think things.

Sometimes I mean for such thoughts to happen. I think, "Something has been bugging me for a while; maybe this is a good time to work it out."

Sometimes the thoughts present themselves without warning, and I begin mulling unexpectedly. I suspect my mind has a mind of its own, and worries that I'm not worrying enough about such things.

In the former category are work things. A drawing I want to do is just not getting drawn, because it is literally a puzzle I'm trying to solve. Just a couple of days ago, the drawing appeared before my eyes in the green nothingness, bright little atoms of tiny things floating around each other to form a big thing. In the chooka-whaush-splick-splacka-chosh, in the mantra of sound and movement, I could see and think no other thing than these floating atoms, moving about at my will.

Many other days lately, I have been thinking about a writing project I need to finish, which wouldn't be so bad except I've barely started, and too much depends on it, too soon. I have been writing about the trees and ignoring the forest, I decided in the green nothingness, and have gone back to work trying to write the forest instead. I know a tremendous amount about bark, but bark won't get the job done.

These problems don't get solved entirely in the water; almost none of them do. But the sensory deprivation chamber of cold Lake Natoma helps me to see around and through them in a way that sitting in front of a computer in a warm office never will.

In the latter category of things my mind urges me to think, are things my conscience knows but won't admit to. More and more lately, for example, it urges me to consider I have gotten larger. And larger. I am regarding this thought these days in the green nothingness.

It is my own doing, of course. My life has changed; I am an office now, a real office and not a former bedroom, and nearby are snacks for everyone, that other office workers consume judiciously, The only diet plan that has worked for me is to not have snacks around in the first place. It worked fairly well at home; don't buy the stuff and they won't be there to be eaten. Lead us not into tin of cookies. Simple.

But there they are, in the real office, and I take them. It's my own doing.

I used to tell myself swimming would keep my weight in check, and now my conscience is screaming in the green nothingness it's not necessarily so. I swim routinely longer distances than I did in the first two years of open water swimming, but my conscience is pointing out, screaming politely, my body is just used to it now, and all this swimming is doing more wonders for mind than body, this daily solitude of cold green water.

My mind is using the swims to suggest I should do something in addition to swimming, to improve my health.

These problems don't get solved entirely in the water. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Not enough black ink

Oh, how I wish this was a comic book!

Like the wonderful Watchmen, a grimly layered tale about costumed semi-superheroes who must adapt to a world that no longer tolerates them.

In it, Adrian Veidt, a former superhero who trumps Donald Trump in wealth and chutzpah, plots to unleash a horror so catastrophic that it fulfills his grand wish — the entire world abolishes divisions to unite and vanquish the horror.

I want Donald Trump to be that horror — a thing so devastating, so harmful, that people denounce their own ugliness and hate to turn against him and choose civil, reasonable leaders.

I want Trump to be what some pundits have proposed: So awful an impersonation of a human being that he'll drive followers away so that he can back out of the race, or drive voters to the Democratic ticket. I want him to be playing such a monumental prank on us all, if only to massage his giant ego, with the breezy gall of someone who has more money than God.

I want him to be a Democratic conspiracy, a trick deployed on the Republican Party, a massive inflated parody of itself, a hulking chicken having come home to roost.

But I'm afraid Donald Trump is real, and that he is in fact the runaway leader of the Republican ticket, and that he may win that party's nomination to the presidency.

And that makes me angry.

This cartoon, this little exercise with typing paper and Pilot®™ Razor Point pen, doesn't even begin to express my anger. I thought it would, but it's an ineffectual doodle.

I wanted to portray what makes me angriest: Joke or not, Trump has now made it OK for people to act out their hate. Like the bully he is, the demagogue he has become, he encourages followers to demean and demonize, even hurt those not like them. He cracks fear like a whip, pitting one group above another, and followers hear his whipcrack as permission to blame an entire group for the actions of a few, and to diminish them and compartmentalize them, and to act with violence against them.

Followers say many times Trump tells it like it is; Trump himself insults his critics and says they're just upset because he's not politically correct. Neither are right: Trump doesn't tell it like it is — he calculates to tell it like people want to hear, things on their hearts already, things written in fear and anger and blame. As if Trump saying it makes it true.

Trump is not being politically incorrect: He is insulting and humiliating and defaming, and stirring up others to do the same, under the strange off-color of authority he has built through the years, in the boorish, piggish televised persona we can't seem to get enough of.

At a Trump rally this week, a "Black Lives Matter" protester was detained by the crowd, one Trump follower flashing what looks like a Nazi salute, another shouting, "Burn that motherf----r alive!"

This is Trump's legacy. Joke or not, this is what he has wrought. Donny Demonseed has sown a dark harvest. Expect worse to come, unless we come to our senses. I'm trying to imagine him as president, the divided mess of a country he purports to make great again.


I'm really, really hoping I have overreacted. I really hope that months from now I'll look at this post and laugh at my usual hyperbole and misplaced anxiety.

We are a horribly imperfect country, a moving experiment so broken with hypocrisies and sufferings and broken promises upon broken promises — either forgotten or repackaged as patriotism and progress. But we are an experiment; we experiment with this counter-intuitive idea we can rise above our base fears and impulses, that we can, with vigilance and patience and hope for ourselves and one another, be a country that accommodates and accepts. A country that can still be better than itself.

Donald Trump will wreck that experiment, that long-held dream against all odds.

I still hope it's all a joke.

The joke on me is that Donald Trump makes some of the other Republican candidates —namely Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee and Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson (remember Ben Carson?) — who at least (for now) couch their demonization in old-school rhetoric, look almost statesmanlike.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ties that bind

My facebook™© feed has already blossomed with ties, most of them knotted around the necks of semi-naked bodies — all symbols of support for a woman many of us know but have never met.

Swimmers have rallied around her.

She is Helena Martins, and last week in south London, a man attacked her as she walked home from work. She said she believes the attack was because she is lesbian, and that the tie she was wearing became some kind of signal to the attacker.

The attacker punched her in the eye and choked her with the tie. Read more here.

On facebook©® afterward, Helena wrote:
I don't think I'll be rocking a tie in the near future.

Today, one street away from my home, I was assaulted by a man who just went berserk at me, trying to pull my tie off.

I've got a scratched and punched face, a sore neckline by all the tie pulling and a very bruised soul.

I did fight back a little, but when I saw my (cochlear) implant being tossed around on the floor and stepped on, I just wanted the guy to leave me alone and crouched against the wall with my hands and arms above my head and chest.

The all thing was over in 2 minutes.

Please. Homophobia Transphobia are still very much alive. If you hear or see someone making fun with pub jokes, harassing or bullying of LGBT people, making comments while watching TV or a movie or whatever...

Act. Speak out.

Your silence makes them feel that they are right. They're not.

Tell them. Please. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Some women wear ties, some men wear skirts. Get the heck over it.

One thing is true: I shouldn't be punched in the face for wearing a tie.
Helena became deaf as the result of Ménière's Disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can also cause severe dizziness. The attacker may have identified Helena as an easy target, she said, mistaking her unsteady gait for inebriation.

Almost immediately, swimming fans rallied and began rocking ties. Fiona Bettles, like me, doesn't know Helena personally, but follows Helena and a myriad other swimmers in their daily open water and pool endeavors. She's among several who are organizing today, Tuesday, for wearing a tie in support of Helena.

Swimmer Suzie Dods posted the same on the Marathon Swimmers Forum. The grassroots campaign is #tieforhelena.

Here's my bid.

Many swimmers didn't wait for today, instead showing up at their group events over the weekend in (swim)suits and ties. Their sartorial choices made their way on facebook™® over the last four days.

Helena Martins, as well as those who have stirred this campaign, urge supporters to stand up and speak out against homophobic and racist attacks. Scotland Yard reported that homophobic attacks in London had increased by nearly a third in the year between July 2014 and July 2015.

Rock your tie today.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Those who can't

From a project I keep trying to get off the ground.
Yes, I do know the meaning of the word irony.
Be a teacher, they said.

More than 100,000 teachers in California are leaving soon, they said. See, they're grabbing their car keys and out they go, they said.

You'll make a great teacher, they said.

I did. They didn't. They weren't. Meh.

It seemed like a good bet, becoming a teacher. I read the tea leaves, looked up at the sky, felt the vibe. Be a teacher — try to be a good teacher — 10 years, maybe 15. Wrap up a working life.

I lost the bet.

Those 100,000 teachers? They didn't leave. A little thing called the recession. Pensions crumbled below their feet — for which somebody, certainly not teachers, got filthy rich — and they held on to their jobs.

Schools played musical chairs, each removing two or three chairs at the end of the year. Last hired, first fired. Make do with less. Cram each classroom with a few more kids. Yeah, the law says you can't do that, but it turns out you can, and what're you gonna do, make the taxpayers mad? Can't make the taxpayers mad. That's their money, they decide what to do with their money, and they're not spending it on schools, future be damned. Won't be around to see it, anyway.

So I was gone, sitting in one of those thrown-out chairs, after a full year. My five-year plan to become an effective teacher went to smoke and sputter. My rookie year was thrilling and frustrating and hopeful and hopeless. All the time I tore myself up about whether I was doing right by these children.

I went to the district office to see what could be done with me after I got my dismissal. Lady runs her finger across the line on the spreadsheet where my name is. Zero-point-zero. No official tally of my having taught, of credit toward my credential. I did not gain any ground, any traction, anything. I was a thing that happened. Thanks for being the adult in the room all those days, keeping the kids safe, I guess.

You can substitute. You want to substitute? That's all that I can offer, lady says.

I substitute. One school secretary admonishes, "You're too early! You're not supposed to be here this early!" Thank you, may I have another?

Same school, teacher provides no lesson plans, no map from yesterday to tomorrow. No warning: Hey, you're supposed to take my kids to an assembly; I get six competing voices of opinion from the students instead. Don't you have games or activities you bring with you? Most substitutes do, the teacher says later; it's supposed to be an apology, I guess. Yeah, I say back, but I'd rather help you teach your students.

I go back to school for another credential, but it doesn't take.

It still bothers me wondering whether it just wasn't meant to be, or if I quit before the fight even started, as I have done many times before. If only I was 20 years younger, I excuse myself. But I wasn't, and the time and energy I'd have to spend playing Frogger®™ in alien classrooms, waiting out another opening somewhere or the other, seemed better spent otherwise.

It was the first decision I ever made in which age played a role.

So this week, on the way home from the job I have now — a good job, fun and various, challenging and creative, a teensy tiny bit teacher-y — I hear on the radio that our area's largest school district is scrambling for substitutes. The district needs subs so that the full-time teachers can break away for professional training — need them so direly they're raising the per-diem fee and providing extending health benefits to them.
When the school year began, stories popped up in the news about teacher shortages in districts across the country, and that full-time teachers have to cover multiple classes because districts lack the subs to fill the spaces.

That same large district near us had earlier urged students' parents to come in and sub.

Sure, now the teachers are leaving — eight years too late.

How do I feel about that? Let me know, will ya?

Had I waited — and who would really know this? It's not like hedging the market — then I'd have more chance to continue teaching. Had I acted much sooner, way back when I first thought about teaching, I'd have had a long teaching career by now, and be aces at surviving the career troughs and bumps.

But I didn't. I bet and lost.

Eating from my harvest of sour grapes, I can conclude I wasn't cut out for teaching. I was in long enough to say it's incredibly hard, and those who teach do so with courage and fortitude and deeply drawn creativity. They are not well served, not by their community, by the families whose children they teach, by lawmakers, by taxpayers, by the schools that are supposed to mold them into teachers.

Sitting exposed atop an iceberg of dysfunctional society, teachers bear blame for the iceberg. The screwed-up world expects teachers to fix it, and buy their own paper and pencils to do it. Make do with less. And less. But save us. Save us all.

Teachers who teach despite it all are valiant.

Which is why I rode home feeling deep conflict, hearing about a district's for subs so teachers and learn how to be better teachers. Teachers were getting help, yet getting no help at all. They can't go be better teachers unless subs take their place in the classroom.

Part of me wants to rush over and help. I can sub! My sub kit is still there in the garage, one small heave into the truck of my car and I'm ready. Part of me reminds I have lost the spark of courage to do that.

And of course, I can't. I have moved on. As have many teachers, far younger far more creative than I, with fresh ideas and strategies; they've gone to other jobs, which compensate fairly and competitively for their skills and talents.

We don't think educating our children, the most important job there is, is all that important.

Go figure.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A love letter

The face that launched a thousand thousands
and thousands of spams!
Dec. 8, 2015

Donald Trump
1 Trump Tower
Trump Town, NJ USA 11111

Dear Mr. Trump,

Thank God for you, sir! Thank God!

We at Amalgamated Spammer Services, LLC, can't thank you enough for saving us. You are a savior, sir! But I'm not telling you anything new.

Truth was, the spam industry had been running on fumes. Email users were ignoring more and more of our emails as the years went on — and believe you me, we were sending more and more email! Just phenomenal, what we've been able to do! I guess users got burned one too many times clicking on one of our links; infested hard drives will do that.

But even as consumers wised up, we still had a vast empire of sheep yet to fleece, and our shears were going 24/7. It'd been fantastic for a long while. New and naive folks were clicking on the garage floor sealant ads, the window treatment stuff, the walk-in tubs, the prostate hoohah. Hell, we weren't even trying.

When that group resisted and shrank, we didn't worry. Plenty of ammo left, my friend, plenty of ammo, and still plenty of sheep. We threw the erectile dysfunction stuff at 'em; people even crashed their hard drives clicking on the oogy one with the illustration of the clogged penile blood vessel! "That ain't sexy!" We said around the office. "No one's gonna go for that!" But damned if it wasn't click-a-palooza! Cha-ching!

Then we shotgunned the cheaters' anonymous stuff, the meet-your-neighborhood-MILF stuff, the Russian fø*k buddies, and people still clicked because, you know, the sex thing. We told folks Obama was the devil incarnate. Click click click click click! Those were gravy days, my friend, I'm telling you. We thought it'd last forever.

By mid-winter last year, we could see that wasn't gonna happen. Not even the sex stuff. And people just weren't going for the brain pills "endorsed" by that Elon Musk fella, you know, the Tesla car guy. Fewer people seemed to care that Bill Gates' daughter became a genius by taking the very same pills.

It's like they got knowledge, or something, if I may be ironic.

The end was near, and after this Christmas season, after we had doubled up on the 700-lumen flashlight powerful enough to take down hijacked airplanes, and doubled down on the Star Shower®™ Laser Light thing (it's legit! I've got one in my yard, just turning the creche into some kind of weird holy disco!), we were going to pack it up. A couple thousand more pitches per account of "get your child a letter from Santa," and that was gonna be it.

Tie it in a bow. The end. Finito!

Then you came along!

Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!

You are the godsend to our industry. Correct that: You are the god of our industry!

That's not over the top, is it! Of course not: That's not possible with you!

You prove it every day, Mr. Trump God. I don't know how you do it, but you do it — every day, you say some interesting things (that's industry talk for any lie — any stupid, insane, vile, hurtful, outrageous, divisive notion), and people believe you. Fact, schmacts!

They not only believe you, they follow you! They want more! The more — interesting — you get, the more they want. I mean, ban all Muslims from getting into the country, like you called for yesterday?! Anyone else says it, he steps down the next day — from his job, from his campaign, from the planet. He disappears in shame.

Not you, though! No, not you! On the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, after Japanese-Americans were rounded up in our fear and sent to prison camps, you tell your people what they want to hear — fear Muslims now! That is rich and bold, because you know so well, people never really learn, and if they do, it's certainly not about history! Bunch of old stuff! Who needs it, am I right?

You tell your people Mexicans are rapists! You congratulate followers for roughing up a "Black Lives Matter" protester at one of your rallies! You denigrate women! You flail your arms and buck your teeth in imitation of a reporter with disabilities, for daring question your interesting assertion that thousands and thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the fall of the World Trade Center. And your followers roar, "More!"

Genius, sir! Pure genius! You are the Genius' Genius! You should bottle and sell whatever it is you got!

That's a joke, Mr. God. I know you're already bottling and selling it.

We're doing the same. Your followers are our people!

We are reviving the spam industry on your back. Every day, dozens and dozens of times a day (maybe we should do it thousands and thousands of times a day, in honor of your interesting assertion about the cheering Muslims) we're spamming everyone on the planet with your "Trump Economic Plan" or your "Trump American Plan" that says they can double or triple their income by clicking on the email.

We've got another one, the Trump Financial Plan (doesn't matter the name of the thing, as long as it incudes "Trump," but I'm not telling you something you don't know, am I right?!), that guarantees $7,000 to $8,000 income per month.

Did you really promise that? Wait — don't tell me. It really doesn't matter. People are gonna believe. They are gonna click like they've never clicked before.

We slap a news network logo on it, coupla magazine logos (they're so easy to get off the Internet) and plaster your picture on it. Same picture each time, the one I attached at the top of the letter. Some in the office say it's not very flattering, but I say, "It's the Donald, being Donald."

It looks like you're really sticking it to someone in that photo, like you're condemning another minority. Atta boy, Mr. Trump!

People love it, and they love you! Thank God for you again!

The gang here at Amalgamated Spammers Services has dropped almost all our usual spam product lines and just wanna post the Trump Economic Plan ads. They don't wanna run the "Date Exotic Asian Women Now" emails any more, not even the "Buy a Yacht" ones (though we may wanna slap your photo on those and revive that line; we've got a lot of "yachts" to move, if you know what I mean. Now that I think of it, those 700-lumen terrorist-destroying flashlights could use the Trump treatment too).

All they want is Trump Trump Trump! We revamped the whole "genius pill" line by putting your pic and a network logo on it, too. Forget Gates and that Elon Musk! Coupla losers! It's Trump all the way.

We're trying to keep a level head about all this, but it's hard to keep from dreaming where the spam industry can go once you become President! Every spam will be Trump! The sheep won't be able to get enough! We could be the leading industry in this country you're making great again — optimum profit by the minimum investment of lies (interesting statements, I mean) to foment fear and confusion.

Needless to say we're pulling for you, Mr. Trump! You're our boy.

Just had an idea! That finger thing, where it looks like you're sticking it to some loser in the photo were using in our spam? Have you ever thought about making it into a salute? You know, you raise your finger, and all your followers — every patriotic spam-loving American — raise their fingers in response.

I understand a salute like that went over big in Germany and Italy, back in the day.

Keep doing what you do!


s/Adolf Mussolini, Chairman
Amalgamated Spammer Services, LLC

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The force is weak with this one

Would this 'toon have been possible without the Star Wars®™ military-industrial-entertainment complex? No indeedy!
(Reagan on the left, Gorbachev on the right. Ask your parents.)
A new Star Wars®©™ movie is coming soon.

Oh, I'm sorry: Spoiler alert! I think it was supposed to be a surprise.

Merry Christmas!

I was being facetious there. You couldn't miss the advent of Star Wars®™©: The Force Awakens if you tried, and I tried.

Devotion to this mega-movie has been inserted into your DNA already, and at a signal you will storm(troop) the aisles of any and all officially licensed Star Wars©®™makers of branded goods and foodstuffs, forming long and ordered, though slightly tingly, lines at the cash registers, slimging the economy along at warp speed (which may be reference to another space movie, I don't know).

You won't know quite why you're doing this, so I'll tell you now: Thank you for your service (to come).

Hope is still strong in me: I had to go back and look up the official name of the coming movie, so I'm not subject to Star Wars™© mind control just yet. Years ago I became confused about which Star Wars™™®© installment is which, and moments later stopped caring. Episode I®™ is really the fourth movie? What?

When someone refers to a Star Wars™® movie (God help them!) by episode number, I still have to ask what happened in it before I know what she's talking about.

So — Star Wars©®®: The Force Awakens. What, no episode number? It's not (um, let's see here, pulling out the calculator …) Episode 7, or VII? Hey, Powers That Be: You're going to go and confuse me further?

No escaping the Star Wars®™ iconography, there is.
This is the badge I designed for the adult patrol when
our son was a Boy Scout. A Lucasfilm®™ lawyer said,
politely, that we couldn't use it. Now that Disney®™
owns the
Star Wars®®® franchise, better luck I may have,

No matter. Until the nucleotides start rearranging in me, I can assert with confidence I will not see the film. I have become my parents, who at my age decided they didn't like the crowds and sticky floors and the weightlessness of their wallets that watching movies in theaters produced. I thought them mad back then. But this is now.

Especially for a blockbuster movie such as Star Wars™®, a saga for which I had long ago lost interest. Absolutely no desire to share the experience with the madding movie crowd.

This is not to say I have not enjoyed Star Wars©® as entertainment. For some strange reason, I am attracted to a Disney®® computer-generated animation TV show called Star Wars™® Rebels, about a small group of creatures and androids from various worlds (don't know, don't care) who battle the Empire (bad guys) from the outer fringes of somewhere (don't know, don't care).

Maybe it's the perfect storm of a long day and fatigue from channel surfing, but I find landing on a simple half-hour space opera (as I've heard Star Wars©®™ described) scratches the itch. Though the show might have an episodic quality — that is, each show may follow the other in a great story arc — it doesn't really matter. Good guys and bad guys are forever pitching battle, barely moving the line.

The larger truths remain intact whether I tune into the seventh installment or the 37th — truths carried over from the three Star Wars®™® movies I did actually watch, long ago, in a galaxy far away:
  • The good guys are ragtag and poorly outfitted, the odds always stacked against them
  • The bad guys speak in British accents and wear strange caps with bills that must make it hard for them to see — except for some of the top bad guys, who speak with breathy assisted devices or from behind masks or in ssssnaky (British) voices
  • The Imperial Storm Troopers never hit anything they aim at — ever! — with their weapons which shoot out red beams (our son, obviously infected, relays the theory that the guys in white plastic suits are/were trained to miss the good guys, as part of a trap; he also instantaneously named the new bad guy in the new film — looking him up now — Kylo Ren)
  • The good androids bumble around,  "speak" in squawks and zings universally regarded as cute, and once in a while save their good-guy owners (?) from the bad guys
  • The Empire's armored vehicles — the ones that travel on land, anyway — are ridiculously stupid and vulnerable to spectacular destruction
Last month, I also stuck around on YouTube®® one night to watch a nearly 20-minute analysis of a two-minute trailer for the new movie. Why? It was entertaining on two levels (see for yourself). The two guys reverse-engineering the trailer and its portents are fun and funny, for one thing; they are supremely aware of their geeky joy.

For another thing, they are joyful geeks.

The Internet does not lack for other geeks with their own shows, breaking down the new movie's heretofore released nibbles and hints. I scanned a few (for scholarly purposes entirely) to find many a bit too concerned about every hint and micro-hint. (The bad guy made his own light saber! In homage to Darth Vader! Light shoots out the hilt! Why?! Is it an Imperial plot?)

This is the heart of the Star Wars©®© franchise, though — the part that has eluded me.

The Star Wars®™ I know is a Saturday matinee of movie theaters past, way before me, probably even before George Lucas, who created the franchise. It's the serial Hollywood of nearly a century ago would have made had it the time, technology and money.

It's silly. Come on, isn't it silly? And campy. But in a dazzling way. Everyone is a cowboy-pirate, or a Nazi automaton. Everyone swashbuckles.

Our son's girlfriend said the original Star Wars™® movie (now known as Star Wars®©™ Episode IV: A New Hope — see what I mean?!) didn't impress her. But she was born long after it came out, and by the time she saw it, the rest of the cinema world had caught up and surpassed it in technological pyrotechnics, so the first movie can appear lackluster alongside.

It's like watching the Gary Cooper Western High Noon after growing up on a steady diet of Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Every Other TV Western Ever Made, and thinking the lonely showdown on the empty street, bad guy versus embittered good guy, so been there, done that, ad infinitum. Instead, it was the showdown that begat almost all other Western movie and TV duels.

Before the first Star Wars®™, movie-goers put up with imaginative shortfall — the spaceship superimposed on a shaky star background, appearing to shrink and move. All of us in the theater would think, "Oh, the director wants us to think the spaceship is flying away from us into space. OK, we'll pretend."

In Star Wars™®, a real spaceship was moving in real space! The techniques and effects stunned viewers, and ultimately George Lucas should be known more for the effects technology he marshaled to all of movies, than for this movie saga.

The first Star Wars©®™ sort of made sense — ragtag good guys blow up the bad guy Darth Vader's big planet-sized weapon. Luke Skywalker might have a future.

We first learned what has become embedded into our pop-culture DNA — Vader, Yoda, storm troopers, Death Star, light saber, R2 D2, Han Solo, Obi Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca.

I was too old for light sabers, and never could tell a TIE fighter from an AT-AT (had to look them up); I was probably too old to buy the soundtrack too, but I did. Not really the record you want to throw on the turntable when friends come over.

The second movie (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back®™) spent more time on a compelling story — Skywalker may not be just a gifted kid — and one more everlasting icon, which you don't even have to explain when you say it: "I am your father!" Everyone is a James Earl Jones impersonator.

Then Star Wars®™ Episode VI: Return of the Jedi … something about creatures called Ewoks and the smell of marketing and licensing and plush toys and Legos™®.

I was done.

Somewhere along the way, Star Wars®™ was taken seriously. I mean, really seriously. People began tracing the arc of wars and battles, the relation of planets to one another, creatures to one another, bad guys to one another. They now the weapons, and they geek out about the new ones.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell had expended a great deal of energy on Star Wars'®™ mythic bloodline.

By the time Star Wars®™® Episode I: The Phantom Menace (the fourth movie, duh!) came along, I was willing to give it another try — until Jar Jar Binks opened his mouth, and big-name real-life actors seemed to sleepwalk, daring not blaspheme the gospel of Lucas.

I turned it off, done again.

Enjoy the next installment. It'll muddle along without me. From the 20-minute microanalysis, I get the idea the latest Star Wars®™™ is a retelling of the first — fourth, whatever — anyway. Sour grapes save me $11.75, or whatever movies cost nowdays.

And if you see me in line at the store, spare me the "I told you so's."

Careful where you point your light saber.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Pointed criticism

On this occasion, I'm grateful for the Old Sacramento Underground Tours.

They're great — full of little stories, well told, all adding up to one unlikely story of how a city at the center of the Gold Rush overcame one really bad decision through the force of its collective stubbornness.

I'm not just saying so because I manage the Underground Tour program, or because I've been a guide since it began six years ago. Or maybe I am; I'm part of the program because I love it. The tour began with a well crafted guidebook, inspiring guides to spin the facts into the little-known tale of Sacramento's beginning, each from their own perspectives.

Guides have brought their own passion for research, which has helped the tour unveil new facts as they arise. It evolves and gets better. Last year, 20,000 people went on the Underground Tour, and the program is expanding to a newly revamped walking tour about Sacramento's Gold Rush role, and an after-hours tour with adult content.

We're pretty good at what we do. There, I said it.

So I had to laugh when I read this online review about the tour:
"It was horrible I'd rather stab a fork in my eyes than do that again."
This was from the tour program's facebook™® page. Guides more talented than I have made the program better in other realms, including marketing and raising our profile on social media.

I check in to the page, whenever I remember how. facebook®© also alerts me to new activity on the tour program's page.

The only thing I could think to do with this review is send it out to the guides, mostly for a laugh. Otherwise, I don't know what to make of it. The reviewer doesn't elucidate, doesn't say why one fork in both eyes (if I read it accurately) would be better than taking a tour again; doesn't say which tour, or which guide; otherwise we could adapt to this positive feedback.

It could have been any guide, any tour, which is why we sent out to guides.

We can't, and don't, please everybody. Nor can anyone. Sometimes a visitor lets on that he or she thought the Underground comprised caverns, with stalactites and stalagmites; sometimes a visitor will complain online that the Underground is just basements, and I have to confess they're right; but that's where the guides' gift of storytelling kicks in, to explain that they're not just basements, but the spaces where the entire city used to be.
(We still suffer from an identity crisis in our corner of Old Sacramento; our museum is surrounded on two sides by the much larger and wonderful California State Railroad Museum, and many people walk past the great big signs and banners and actual entrance for the railroad museum, into our museum, and still ask if this is the railroad museum.

(Recently a man bought admission to the history museum and asked if we still have Indian stuff. Yes, on the third floor, I answered, referring to the display about this region's native cultures. Forty minutes later the man returned to the front desk. "I thought you said there was engine stuff," he said, and I realized I had misheard his question. I also realized why he pulled such a strange face when he imagined gargantuan steam-powered train engines somehow on the third floor.

(But I digress.)
I'd wager most visitors like the tours. I'll also say the tour program is always eager to make the tours better by force of story or new display innovations.

But I'm not sure that online review always help. This is just me talking, but I'm not a fan of online reviews. Too many reviewers are poorly informed about subjects I know about, which makes me distrust others' reviews for things I don't know about. I'm not going to follow their advice.

Opinions about movies, music and entertainments such as tours are sooooo subjective. One person's viewpoint usually does not overlay another's world view; your preference is probably irrelevant to mine. You likely will not like what I like.

Some online reviewers just want to cause damage, for whatever reason, not just for the Underground Tour but just about anything. Pick anything being reviewed through social media, and you're bound to find reviews posted for no other reason than sabotage and spite.

We're happy to hear what people think would make the tour better; I'm not so deluded to think we've created the perfect tour. We can be better, and we work toward that.

I hope you can the tour and let us know what you think. I'll hide the forks.

Peaceful Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

You don't say

I have failed.

Sure, I've saved lives, ended war, salved pain, cured disease. It's not enough.

Such trifles! Especially compared to my utter embarrassing impotence to stop people from saying stupid things. More precisely, I can't prevent supposedly smart people from saying really dumb things that I guess are supposed to make them sound smart.

I couldn't then and I can't now. I've tried; no use.

This has become a virus unchecked, a hideous phenomenon continuing to worm its way onto our tongues. Before we know it, it will seem perfectly normal. People will say to one another, "This is an entirely reasonable way for us to talk, going forward."

If you don't recognize the point of stupidity in this comment, you have already been infected. You will be saying "going forward," going forward, for the rest of your days.

Going forward.

"You know" has nothing on "going forward." "You know" has become merely a sound, a marker, giving the speaker a chance to gather thoughts that had wandered off from that moment, and the listener time to rest and prepare to process the newly herded thoughts.

There was a time, perhaps, in which a speaker said, "You know," and the listener actually did know: The two proto-communicators were talking about something that was obvious to each other.

Over time it became, you know, a thing. Just filler, almost unheard. You know?

"Going forward" will go that route too. We'll become numb to it, just another new-age "uh."

It defies gravity and sense, persisting, for some lame reason, like sagging pants on teenage boys.

It's obvious what "going forward" means: Moving into the future. Duh!

The question is, do you need to say it?

The answer: No. Make that, Hell no!

Unless time travel has become a common means of transportation in the two years since I first heard this phrase get regular play — and no one informed me, you selfish pigs! — "going forward" need go nowhere.

If time travel does exist, we may need "going forward" to indicate which direction in time we are discussing. But — cancel that! — we already have verb tenses to perform that function. Never mind.

"Going forward" has one legitimate use, as in, "I'm going forward with the divorce." Or some such thing. One is proceeding with an action.

As misused now — widely, vastly, almost universally misused — "going forward" always accompanies, in the same sentence, an already useful time reference, such as a verb tense, to indicate events that will take place sometime after now. "Going forward" is implied! "Going forward" does not reinforce the meaning of future events already described in the sentence containing "going forward."

It is the fattiest of fats, needless.

Yet, there it remains.

Actually, I've only heard newspeople, and the people newspeople talk to, use "going forward." I've never heard an actual everyday non-newsmaker misuse "going forward." I suppose I might hear "going forward" from a boss or director at a business meeting; I'm glad I've never been invited to such a meeting.

I might hear it there, as I hear it on the news, because the misusers seem to think it adds heft to what they're saying. I wish the misusers would instead hear how stupid they sound. I wish we would tell them. It'll hurt their feelings at first, but they'll get over it and be better for our help.

Last week, I heard National Public Radio host Ari Shapiro use "going forward" twice in a 5-minute, 14-second report (about a woman who is black in Santa Monica, Calif., locked herself out of her apartment, hired a locksmith, and then was visited by 19 police officers, at least two with guns drawn, on a neighbor's tip that she was breaking into her own apartment; an interesting story, as are online comments — but I digress).

Shapiro used two "going forwards" 1 minute and 7 seconds apart, to make the same point:
You write that this has changed your relationship with police going forward. You see police officers and feel differently than you used to. Tell us more about that.
and then:
here's a police interaction that has kind of forever changed your attitude towards law enforcement going forward.
Remove "going forward" from each instance, and the meaning of the sentences change not one iota. "Going forward" goes nowhere, takes us nowhere, wastes a whole second of our life and our respect for the speaker. Or should, anyway.

Shapiro also says "towards," but don't get me started about that misuse.

Phrases like that just crop up in the effervescence that is our language, a tiny bit of the new language being good. Phrases get started by someone who thinks it's clever, whom other people think are clever, and use it for their own, however stupid it is.

On ESPN, the sports network, hosts still say, after all these years, "Let us welcome in our college football analyst," or "We welcome you in to SportsCenter.®™" Why in? Why not just welcome? Do they ever welcome out guests? Maybe "welcome over" if the guest is out of camera range, but in is out. Memo to ESPN and all the regional wannabe sports talk shows inspired by ESPN: Stop it.

Last week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, one of their correspondents kept talking about fears of a "follow-on" attack, and the show host took up the phrase. Yeah, it's a real phrase, as in: it's in dictionaries. But why talk like the assistant junior head chief of security, where jargon just can't be helped? Why not use regular-person words, easily understandable time-tested words such as "subsequent" or "second" or "another?"

Following on, you may notice newspeople like to say things such as "they have optics on the target" rather than, "they're watching the target," because they're impressed by some spokesman for whom talking in a normal way is not high priority, and their strange talk rubs off. Newspeople and those they interview also like to say they have "metrics," when they mean measurements or data.

Politicians and political analysts like to start sentences with, "Look," by which I infer, "I know what's what, even if you and I know I'm telling a lie."

More and more people on the news begin answers to questions with, "So …" Someone said interviewed scientists are more likely to do this, but I have no way of knowing. I do hear it more and more, and it always sounds like the speaker is in the middle of a story and forgot to tell us the first half.

My wife grates at newspeople who say "expecially" instead of "especially."

Make it stop. 

Stop, especially, saying "going forward," if that is your habit. It's a bad habit and you need help. No one is impressed by your use of it, or shouldn't be, anyway. Unless you practice time travel; but again, verb tenses! Already available! Brush up on your conjugations. Save yourself valuable seconds you could spend mucking about in the 23rd Century or preempting the Black Plague.

I fear the worst, though. Right as I write this, NPR reports the story of Salt Lake City's first openly gay (is this phrase, too, overused?) mayor, presiding in a city where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its headquarters. The Mormon Church earlier this month announced a policy that adult Mormons in same-sex relationships and marriages face disciplinary action from the church, and some children of same-sex couples in the church may not be able to be baptized there.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is not Mormon, said she plans to meet with Mormon Church leaders about church policy and diversity in the city.

The NPR show host read a statement from a spokesperson for the Mormon Church:

"We look forward to working closely with Mayor Biskupski and her administration, going forward."

See? Now it's canon. With two "forwards" in one sentence, you really can't get much more forward thinking than that.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Because there are no reasons

My first memory of Del Paso Heights, driving to the elementary school
to meet the secretaries and get my class list.
Overshadowed by the Western world's very bad day last Friday, was a very bad day for Sacramento.

Overshadowed, but not eclipsed.

Just hours after the massacre in Paris, a kid in Sacramento named Jaulon "JJ" Clavo was shot to death.

Clavo had left Grant Union High School with four teammates for an after-school meal at a nearby Popeye's restaurant.

A senior, Clavo was to start at cornerback that evening for the Grant High Pacers, a longtime football powerhouse, in a playoff game against another powerhouse, Beyer of Modesto.

Grant was to host Beyer at its home field, in the neighborhood known as Del Paso Heights.

Someone shot JJ Clavo as the car he was driving stopped at an intersection headed back to school, about a mile away. Another teammate in the car was shot in the arm.

News reports say it's unknown if the gunshots came from another car, or from someone on foot.

The shooter is still at large.

Somehow the teammates raced back to the school for help, but Clavo later died.

The game was postponed. Del Paso Heights grieves still. A bad day became worse.

It's hard not to make JJ Clavo a symbol. He was a kid, just a kid — just a smiling, upbeat, helpful kid, by the news accounts. He was one of 14 teenagers shot and killed this year in Sacramento County.

He was a senior looking ahead, maybe to college and maybe playing football there, maybe the military. The Saturday before, he had taken the SAT.

The photos of him used in news reports are from his senior portraits, including him in a tuxedo, posing in casual clothes, smiling in his Grant blue cap and gown. Sacramento Kings player DeMarcus Cousins offered to pay funeral expenses; he tried to do it quietly, but word got out.

Clavo was killed, his promise was killed for no good reason, because there are no reasons, and his death tore a wound of sorrow in his community.

I have been in that community, teaching in Del Paso Heights for a year-and-a-half, and driving by Grant High at least twice a week, going there on occasion for school. I was in the community, but not of the community; but I was trying to be, trying to be a teacher for children in Del Paso Heights, seven miles and a world away from where I live.

Del Paso Heights, north of downtown Sacramento, struggles with crime and violence. Police, according to news reports, say violent crime has spiked in some Del Paso neighborhoods.

On bright late-summer days, weeks before I was to begin teaching third grade at Del Paso Heights Elementary, I felt no reason to be afraid. I was checking off my list of students, arranging to visit their homes and introduce myself, tell families what they could expect from me and what I hoped their children could achieve in our class.

I visited families in their neat chainlink-fenced lots with brightly painted ceramic suns hanging on the wall in the front porch, in drafty mid-century bungalows in need of repair, in small apartments, and out in the yard in front of homes.

Later, mid-way through the school year during a casual conversation, the principal learned what I had done over the summer said I shouldn't have gone into the neighborhoods by myself.

I think of those third graders often, wonder how they're getting on and hope they're succeeding and learning, mostly despite me as a rookie teacher, but maybe a tiny part because of me. They would be in 10th grade now, and most would probably be going to Grant High; I look in the paper every once in a while for a name I might recognize.

Maybe they had been wearing the school's blue and gold in anticipation of last Friday's game.

Grant rallied. The postponed game was played Monday, and players from surrounding high schools showed up in their school jerseys, to pay their respects to JJ Clavo and his mother, and the Grant Pacers.

Grant beat Beyer of Modesto 35-0, and will play Granite Bay this weekend. A blood drive in JJ Clavo's honor will take place at Grant High Dec. 1.

The killing must stop! say Grant High leaders and community organizers and JJ's mother, and the police, and I agree, from my comfortable place seven miles away. It is something the community says after every senseless killing, though I don't say anything because it doesn't make front-page, top-of-the-hour news.

Maybe in Jaulon "JJ" Clavo, who could not be protected even by the refuge of camaraderie and discipline and pride of the Grant Pacers football program — one upbeat kid killed on a day the world had gone madder still — can move people from the comfort of distance to support those calling for, needing, deserving change.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Mr. Zero-sum Game, that's me.

I cancel myself out. If anything, I do far more harm to my world than good.

My carbon footprint makes Sasquatch's look like Tinkerbell's.

All this car pooling I do, all this allowing of lawn to brown and die, and dumping of buckets of shower water beneath thirsty trees, is folly in the face of all the trees I demand be killed to slake my thirst for paper towels.

Must have paper towels! And napkins! And Kleenex®™ Brand tissues! Former trees of all manufacture! Die! Die! Die, so that I may blow my nose and dry my hands!

Right now — and I mean any right now that you read this — off-white wads of paper towel bank like suspect snow against my elbows on my desk. They fatten every front pocket of every pair of pants and shorts I own, even the rare few draped over hangers. Some are buried deep in the strata, compressed to the size and finish of almonds in the shell.

Wads are probably not in pants now being washed, but I make no guarantee.

In the leather caddy on my nightstand, where men of refinement would keep their keys and moneyclips and chronometers and cufflinks, I have let a hundred paper towels bloom, their petals held intact by snot and the passage of time. It looks like a meringue pie.

I wouldn't, by the way, eat meringue pie or anything else while reading this.

Wads and wads and wads of paper fill a plastic bag in the corner of my office, an untapped and untappable surplus intended for double duty on dog doody walks.

You don't want to know about my car.

Though I use and reuse these fistfuls of paper detritus — runny nose being a chronic side effect, I think, of cold-water swimming — I still grab a new square of tissue or paper towel — preferring the heft of the latter — when I'm near a dispenser.

Apparently I can't help myself.

And haven't been able to for some time. My parents used to remark on our paper towel use on visits to their home — Nancy uses a lot too, though not nearly as much as me … she's an enabler.

Our dog fishes the wads out of the trash and shreds them to pieces across the floor, to shame me for my profligate ways. Or maybe she likes the taste.

Really, don't eat anything right now.

I have a problem needing professional help. Already three wads of paper towel have made their way into my front pockets, and the sun hasn't even risen today.

Handkerchiefs might work. My dad was a handkerchief guy; guys from my dad's generation are. My tour guide characters carry them, though the guy playing those characters still wads up a napkin alongside. Handkerchiefs, in my twisted and unwell mind, seem more disgusting than paper towels.

But recognizing the problem is half the battle, isn't it? Just this morning I reached for a fresh paper towel from the roll, then stopped, knowing I had now seven wads of towel lodged in pockets.

Excuse me — my nose is running.

I can't write about Paris; I can't say anything more or different than anything already said. I can't be helpful or enlightening. What a horrible, wrenching thing, an abomination; it follows the abominations that went on through the Middle East and Africa the week before, the abominations that have passed largely without our notice until a stunning version of it took place in Paris.

We stand by Paris and we are praying for Paris, and we lower our flags to half staff for Paris, when we wouldn't stand by Beirut or Garissa or Sfax or Mogadishu, because Paris is The City We All Think We'd Love to Visit One Day, and those other places not as much.

Their booms and screams and torrents happen beyond our capacity to care.

Now we go to our horrible and predictable corners. We declare war and wage secret missions. Twenty-four U.S. governors say they will not accept Syrian refugees into their states, because if there's a lesson in interning people of Japanese descent during World War II, it's that all Japanese everywhere carried plans to destroy America. Was that the lesson? It was so long ago.

(Alabama's new motto: Whatever's Latin for "The terrorists have won.")

President-apparent Donald Trump pandered pondered that the massacre wouldn't have happened if everybody had been armed, explaining that bad guys glow a certain color when they're doing bad things, so they're easy to spot and kill in a crowd bristling with guns; no fuss, no muss. Third-time's-the-charm-President Jeb Bush said he'd take in Christian refugees but not Muslims. Revisionist-historian-President Ted Cruz says it's not likely Christians would commit terrorism.

Everybody gets to use religion as a cudgel to justify their actions, as everyone has through history, to hate or compartmentalize or steal or kill. Because your beliefs are inferior and you by extension are worthless. My beliefs say so. Or imply so. What's the difference?

We take for granted what we learn on the news, knowing in the past that authorities have been wrong about what they announce, frequently knowingly and willfully wrong, and what they say may not be what really is, which we learn long after, at great and terrible cost.

We once again become afraid to die and afraid to live.

I can't write about Paris.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fruit of the vindication

Forget politics. Forget child tax credits or the lunatic photo-op of pushing 11 million across the border. Enough but-but-Benghazi! and titanic comb-overs. No more grain-fed Egyptian pyramids. No more about the plain red cups.

Let's focus on what really matters:

I'm right about the folly of wine.

Overwhelming evidence has just come to light — well, this is from May, but I was distracted by all the war and pestilence and refugee crises and other trivia.

Not Vox, the news site where I learned this six months after the fact. Vox had its priorities straight.

Vox has blown the lid off this scandal: People wrongly buy more expensive wine because they think it's better. And it isn't.

I have been trying to warn the world about wine time and again, and I've been marginalized and ignored — mostly ignored — for it.

Maybe nobody took me seriously when I said all wine comes from one municipal tank somewhere near Modesto, and that the flavor and nuance of wine comes from the power of wine servers to suggest this wine tastes different or better than that wine.

But the world is going to listen to me now!

In something called Vox Observatory, Vox reported "Expensive Wine is for Suckers," and had its staff members taste three Cabernet Sauvignon wines, one $8, one $14 and one $43.
The most expensive is a 2011 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley," explained the video voiceover. "Wine Spectator Magazine rated it "Outstanding." And it costs five times more than the ($8) one on the right."
(The video shows Wine Spectator Magazine's 93 out of 100 score for the wine, and its opinion, "Extremely well done for the vintage, with style and panache."
"So," says the narrator, "does it taste five times better?"
Vox staffers gave the same average rating for the cheapest and most expensive wines in this taste test. This is consistent with a 2008 study that compiled more than 6000 blind tastings from 17 events across the United States.
"It found that unless they had undergone wine training, people didn't actually enjoy the taste of expensive wines," said the narrator. "In fact, they enjoyed them slightly less."
See?! Education, man, it's only gonna get you in trouble.

Vox implicates the power of suggestion, specifically the 2004 movie Sideways (great movie, even if you don't like wine; plus, you get to see the places where I grew up, in the proper light), which skyrocketed sales of Pinot Noir over other red wines, based on Paul Giamatti's character's fussy adoration of the variety ("That's 100 percent Pinot Noir. Single vineyard; they don't even make it anymore.").

Conversely, his character's infamous trashing of Merlot damaged sales of that variety.

Who judges what's good in wine? Why, wine judges! But Vox pointed to a study that showed not only are professional judges so inconsistent they cancel out each other, but their awarding of gold medals to wines are statistically no different than the awarding of gold medals by random chance.

Judges aren't even good judges of their own tastes. When some judges were secretly given the same wine to taste three times, only one in 10 gave it the same medal each time, Vox reported.

Not all professional critics from wine publications taste the products blindly, and are privy to the wines' prices. An Australian study Vox cited showed wine tasters consistently preferring the most expensive of wines selected, even though though the creators of the study had been adding acid to the most expensive wine to make it taste worse.

Another study even strapped wine tasters to brain wave machines, and gave them the same wine to drink. When told one of the wine was nine times more expensive than the other, brain wave activity increased in pleasure centers for taste and smell.
"So, expensive wines may taste better after all," said the narrator, "as long as you know they're expensive."
That's not quite the conclusion I draw. I say winemakers use the most cynical selling point — unmitigated profit from arbitrary pricing — to bamboozle wine drinkers, who must. have. their. wine!

I'm not against wine. I don't like it, but I don't care if others do. What I can't stand is the pretense and flim-flam and mind-meld that goes into the selling of wine.

Even wine expert and former Sacramento Bee TV critic Rick Kushman says the fuss over wine is ridiculous.

"There's two things you need to know with wine," Kushman told local public radio yesterday. "How to get the cork out, and which end of the bottle to drink from. After that, it's all minor."

Here's what I want wineries and restaurants to do: Simply give someone a glass of wine. Let the patron drink and enjoy, or not; if the patron wants to know things about the wine — what grape, where grown, how long in the barrel — despite the overwhelming evidence that it's been sitting in a giant tank with all the other wine — then the patron can ask. Otherwise, live and let freaking live.

But enough with the sell job. And enough with the arbitrary prices.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Idiot American

This is more like it: Plenty of information about the designer, Chris Bilheimer,
who has made his mark in a wide array of rock visuals in the last couple of
decades. Usually the part about graphic design is hidden away, as if the
musicians either don't want listeners to know, or want to imply that maybe
the musicians created the art too. This design not only evokes Saul Bass, but
feels like two iterations before the final art, shapes just a tad too awkward
and close together. I would have fussed with it more. But what do I know?
My apologies for submitting the tardiest music review ever.

I like "American Idiot" by Green Day.
(Wait, wasn't that, like, last century?)
OK, you know what? Let's call it a music appreciation instead. I think that's what it's called when no one really wants your opinion of the arts, or when every story has already been written about a recently deceased celebrity, but you write something anyway.

Because I'm not writing this to say you should like it too.

A hater of music reviews, I'm not about to do unto you what I wouldn't want done to me.

Music has to be the most subjective subject there is, rendering music reviews useless to me. No muscle of a writer's description is going to make me buy music, because the writer can't quite qualify why the music appeals.

It could be, and usually is, nothing to do with beat or structure or the front man's voice. It could have everything to do, and usually does, with my geographical and psychological place when I encounter the music.

Music love is an accidental thing. It is snuck upon you while you're doing other things. So it was when I first heard Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" in the days when if you wanted to watch TV, you had to watch what your parents wanted to watch. They wanted to watch something that showcased Copland, and after that I wanted to hear everything else he wrote.

Tom Waits sang my angst over long frustrating winter nights researching a project when I was a newspaper reporter. He always brings me back to those nights.

Caught up in The Colbert Report's final goodbye, I got caught up in "Holland 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel (album cover art also by Chris Bilheimer), and the possible reason Stephen Colbert chose it as the last sounds we heard.

"Sweet Disposition" by The Temper Trap is a song I never would have come by, except for its use as the soundtrack for the video of a swim in which I got to take part, and the music is ingrained in me.

No music review imploring me to listen to those pieces would have succeeded.

I also understand the irony in linking these songs here, because your music tastes are scattershot, defy reason, and may even be embarrassing, like mine, and you prefer not to be spoon-fed but have the music find you accidentally. But what the heck; the link function is easy and available, so why not use it, am I right?

Our son bought American Idiot when he was in high school. He bought it electronically as a good olf-fashioned CD 11 years ago, from iTunes™® I'm sure. I bought mine 11 years later as I always have, browsing the bins at a used-records store.

I didn't know much about Green Day at the time, but trusted his exploration. I teased that Green Day was part of UBT (Unified Band Theory), my idea that all the music he was listening to came from one band, relabeled and packaged for a different audience, the only tell being the lead singer with the odd Valley-Boy-slightly-Australian pronunciation of certain words.

I'm not Green Day's audience, nowhere close. Even when I fit the demographic long ago, I wasn't into sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. I didn't, and wouldn't, go to concerts.

And yet …

I appreciate what Green Day is saying and playing here. Call it punk-pop (here is where I betray my weakness as a music reviewer, because I don't know what I'm talking about), powerful guitar and explosive drums but with simple, infectious melody.

I appreciate the rage displayed in American Idiot, the anger and pain of suburban kids trying to get through their screwed-up world. The video made for the suite "Jesus of Suburbia,"  (NSFW I guess) doesn't feel like actors playing confused and untethered teenagers, but like real kids opening the dented door to their messed up lives.

I feel their pain, and attach the sound to my own frustrations, however different.

I appreciate the energy with which Green Day delivers its message. YouTube®™ has put me close to the concert stage I wouldn't get near in person, and I get to see the manic drive as Green Day performs, all rockstar poses, windmill arms and ridiculously wide stances and twisted faces. I couldn't tell you whether lead guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre´ Cool are personas or their real selves, or some of both, but they don't hold anything back. You paid your ticket, they're going to give you a show.

American Idiot is written like a rock opera, its songs tracing a story thread of young people in the time of George W. Bush and Iraq War II and the toppling economy, all of its dislocation and anger and hopelessness and redemption and resignation.

Which may be why it's still being performed as an actual rock opera, Green Day having turned its collection into a Broadway musical (where the actors do feel like actors, play-acting as disaffected young people).

The song-story suits me at the moment. The CD rests in my car stereo, ready to blare when National Public Radio recycles a story for the third time, or sports talk radio waxes eloquent about the 3-4 defense. Or when I just want to swing the windmill arms of my mind.

It'll be there until something new accidentally comes along.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Artist's rendering

It came as quite a shock last week when one of open-water swimming's leading voices — and most thoughtful critics — announced he was quitting the sport.

He is Donal Buckley, though most know him as LoneSwimmer, the moniker under which he blogs about everything swimming. Who knew there was so much to say about one subject, but Buckley does did with great energy and eloquence.

An accomplished marathon swimmer, Buckley wrote how-tos about swimming in pools and oceans, reading tides, nutrition for different purposes, training for marathon swims, equipping properly, swimming safely alone, acclimating to cold water, you name it.

He wrote with poignant self-deprecation about his own swimming misadventures, and with piercing scorn about aspects of the sport he found distasteful or dangerous, including the fairly new sport of ice swimming.

He wrote so gorgeously of his home waters off County Cork in southern Ireland that I'm sure swimmers have flocked there to see for themselves. I certainly want to go, based on what he's written.

But last week the swimming writer who tags his blog with "Who dares swims," dares not to swim any more.
"My days of being an open water swimmer are over," Buckley began. "The sea is lost to me now and I don’t think I can ever go back."
I may have given away the reason with my illustration.

Long story short — and you really have to read this, swimmer or no — Buckley was ending his swimming routine for the season anyway. It was dark, the swells gave pause, and he was swimming alone through a sea cave one last time before fading day kept him out again until spring.

Maybe he had become complacent to the dangers of the cave, swimming by himself as he often does, but told of still being aware of how precise he must be, how mindful of how the water plays through the entrance, even with heavy chop, so that he can get in without hurting himself on the reefs.

Once in, he told of going through his usual routine to calm himself, of planning his exit, of taking account of factors in the dark waters and dancing dim light of the cave:
"The faint light bouncing past two outcropping rocks knocked out the dark adaptation of my eyes as I looked back to the cave And in front of the table rock, into a pair of eyes.
"It wasn’t a seal. I tell you I know it wasn’t a seal. Some people are terrified of being in the water near a seal, and I’m not one. I’ve swum past rocks with seals on them, had them pop up in front of me or seen them behind me or behind others in the water, seen them from kayaks and boats and land. A seal is as recognisable (sic) as a dog.
"Seals don’t have large faintly luminous eyes and no obvious nose. Seals don’t look long and thin and scaly and somehow hard. Seals don’t have a head that tapers to a bony ridge or crest.
"Seals don’t have eyes that evaluate you. That do more than see you, that look at you. That judge you, and find you insufficient.
"Seals don’t have hands."
Next he described the terror of trying to escape this being, of the water like so much sand under his flailing arms, giving him no traction to the exit through the other end of the cave, before the being could overtake him.

You'll just have to read what happened. It is something Ray Bradbury might have written. Buckley invokes H.P. Lovecraft by name.

This thing I drew may not be what he saw, but it's what I saw through Buckley's words. Illustrations are bound to ruin things for others' imaginations, I know, but I just had to draw what Buckley had conjured in me. I just had to.

One of Buckley's blog followers, who shared this post with various online swimming communities, noted the date of the post, Oct. 31.

We'll just see, the follower said, if LoneSwimmer ever posts again.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Influence peddler

Five hundred hashmarks, it turns out, takes a very long time to make.
This is blog post No. 500.

High time, then, to examine how I've done in changing the world from my little virtual outpost these last five years.

Not all of these posts have been phoned in. Not even most. Oh, they comprise so much navel gazing, of course, but almost always in thoughtful consideration of the fuzz therein. Occasionally I have looked beyond myself, out into the crazy beautiful stinking tragic foregone world, rolled this blog into a megaphone and used it to shout at the world: Hey, fix that!

And how did that turn out?

Let us review: I, in chronological order:
It stands to reason all this saving the world stuff can be overwhelming to process, which is why I peppered the blog with bits about swimming and Giants baseball and paid doodles.

Now, if you'll excuse me, time to work on No. 501. But really, what problem could possibly be left to solve?

That is, except for determining if this counts as a blog post.