Friday, August 29, 2003

Appeal to My Readers

Dear Readers, I need help.

"Yes, you do," you might be thinking.

But I need *your* help. Yours. You.

You see, I need to arrange my Netflix queue before my wife gets to it. No more "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" or Shackleton documentaries for me. No more coming-of-age stories featuring abandoned aboriginal children or abused, terminally-ill women. Her tastes are impeccable, of course, but they often diverge from mine when it comes to movies.

Here's what I need: your list of "Bestest, most awesomest flicks *ever*".

I need this list because people constantly tell me which movies are just so great that if I don't immediately run out and see them, I might as well dip my head in phosphorous and hope somebody mistakes me for a match [at which point they will strike my head repeatedly against a solid object and...well...never mind, you get the point...] Problem is, I forget these recommendations almost as fast as I hear them.

Here is my usual criteria, but don't constrain yourself based on my prejudices. I'm looking for *your* recommendations based on *your* experiences, not mine:

1. Nothing with depressed, dying, uncomically neurotic, abused, abandoned, marginalized, or otherwise oppresively tragic characters.

2. I liked "Kingpin" very much. That's the kind of guy I am. "Dumb and Dummer" was also amazing. Leslie Nielson is god walking on this earth.

3. I'm a sentimental shmuck at times. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was great. "Pretty Woman" was great. "Notting Hill" was good, etc. (Yay "Chocolat")

4. "Unforgiven", "Thelma and Louise", "Barton Fink", yes yes yes.

5. "Steel Magnolias", "Waiting to Exhale", "Leaving Las Vegas", no no no.

6. Kung fu movies (minus poser Jet Li) rule. I'll take Jackie Chan's comic humility over Bruce Lee's violent narcissism any day.

7. "Dead Alive" and "Army of Darkness" are geeky in a good way.

8. "Dark" super-heroes are geeky in a bad way.

9. I don't like movies where people spontaneously burst into dancing/singing. Not even when Mel Brooks does it.

10. I have foolishly avoided many classics -- especially ones in black and white.

11. I love horror movies that actually scare me. Anything where the monster has fangs and green skin and/or drips slime isn't scary. Psychological terror is the best. I'm an unrepentant adrenaline junky.

So help me, readers: send me your lists.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Over the years I have tried to learn the difference between different types of trees. I have memorized leaf shapes and counted needle clusters. I've sniffed bark and tasted sap. Still, I've never gotten very good at telling one tree from another. In my world, scientifically speaking, there has always been only "pine trees" and "not-pine trees." Last week I added another tree to that list.

The tree I added was near the archive cafateria which I frequent nearly every day. I suspected it was either Sycamore, Oak, Pine, or some other variety. What I do know for sure is that it was BIG and obviously very old. It looked like a chimpanzee with fists raised heavenward. Each of its limb/arms is as thick as many trees ever get. Most trees require water and sunlight to grow big and tall. This one required those things, but it had had a specialized diet as well that might have contributed to its enormous bulk. This tree ate rope.

It ate at least three separate ropes and one strand of quarter-inch cable. They entered its weathered trunk near the crotch of the "V" and exited near the base. It looked wounded and mean with these ropes in it, like an injured giant broken free of its chains.

I decided that when I grew old I wanted to eat rope, too, just like that tree. When someday the lilliputians sneak up on me with their hooks and vines, I want to let out a roar and slurp their tethers like spaghetti. What a bad tree I would be as an old man. I even concocted a blog entry saying very much the same things I have said today. I postponed writing it for some reason.

That grand old tree fell down yesterday. Wind from a fast-moving thunderstorm ripped it apart like a giant chimpanzee wishbone. Newly liberated ropes dangled from the shattered boughs. On its side, it is still taller than many trees.

Consider this a eulogy, you old survivor. May your broad leaves feel rain and sun again beyond the far woodpile.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

This past weekend I went to my family's cabin in Yosemite. Folks reading this sentence will assume that I spent my weekend warming my toes by a fireplace in some piney wilderness, quietly reflecting on life, solitude, and family. They might have a vision of me slowly stirring a cinnamon stick into hot chocolate, or maybe playing a quiet game of pinochle at a card table or a hiking to a waterfall. Not so. With no electricity, no water, and windows which cannot be closed, the cabin is less of a cabin than a shack, and its not actually in Yosemite itself, but is in the scrubby foothills. Its the so-called "gold country" which stretches from there to the Sacramento and American rivers. The Merced river falls out of Yosemite valley and flows past the place. Once it was the headquarters of the Portland Cement Company which had a quarry up above the "cabin" on a hillside choked with poison oak, rattlesnakes, and collapsing gold mines. The "cabin" itself is now basically a porch with rusted bunkhouse beds, a propane stove, and some ancient ice boxes we use to hinder the progress of rats. The water stopped working long ago when a bear died in the cistern. Since the flood in 94 took out the swinging footbridge (a true terror of a contraption) the place has only been accessible by water. Basically, going to the cabin is like camping except with a greater than usual chance of contracting lockjaw from the multiple piles of junk, Hanta virus from accumulated rodent droppings, severe dehydration, amoebas, reptile bites, scorpion stings, scabies, broken bones, ticks, mites, and various other assorted conditions, agues, and ailments. The various hermits and baha'i extremists who have taken up residence on the property over the years are sometimes an additional source of trouble, but they tend to disappear as calamities pile up. Even old Jenny, a broken down, nicotine addicted burro, finally gave her last hee-haw and vanished into the hills some years ago. Except for the hotel which burned down this spring, and the former bridge (now just a tangle of rusted cable and jagged steel at the bottom of the best swimming hole), the cabin and its environ remains basically the same from year to year.

Needless to say, it is my favorite place on earth.

It is not simply the assorted kinds of fun that can be had amid the chaos and decay (swimming, rafting, fishing, hiking, playing music on the porch), but it is also the fact that I have had so many great times up there with family and friends. But anyway, this weekend...

Sunday morning I awoke from a full day of binge-drinking, lunatic raving, bluster, shtick, hymn singing, photographing my ass, and shooting firearms. Somewhere in there I offended astrologists everywhere, ate bacon, and (accidentally) dropped Unbreakable's knife into a latrine. All in all, it was a fairly typical day with my friends at the cabin. Upon waking, I did a quick survey of myself and my companions and, applying my usual yardstick, I determined that all was well. My standards:

1. Nobody was dead or bleeding overmuch.
2. I had not soiled myself.

Unfortunately, the place was a disaster and I had a 2:00 plane to catch in Oakland, which was between four and five hours away. With a surplus of groaning, holding our aching heads, and ruing the continuing existence of whiskey in the universe, we managed to collect our things and stir up the mess well enough to consider it clean enough to make our escape. By 9:30 myself, my Attorney, and Captain Natty had slogged back across the river to the cars and were ready to break a speed record to get back to the Bay Area. Others would remain to swim and clean before going home, but we had to get the hell out. I was in a hurry.

So the three of us, filthy from river mud and dust, spilled beverages, dripping trashbags, and some mysterious oily slime that I suspect oozed its way out of the toxic waste barrel we'd discovered the day before and shot full of holes. With a filthy $2 Hawaii tourist hat cocked jauntily upon my head, blue slacks sporting such a large crotch-hole that my wife shuddered when she ordered me not to return from California with them, no appreciable undergarments except sopping wet socks, and sandy Tevas, my appearance was somewhere between that of Ted Kazynski and a garbage barge. As such, I, in my depravity, was relegated to the back seat where I managed to produce such a steady stream of uncivilized noises and unwarranted aspersions that my Attorney and Captain Natty (who were, in reality, little better off than I) exchanged worried and meaningful glances. I could tell from the looks in their eyes that they were cracking. I was pushing them into making a decision as to whether they should kill me and throw me in the river immediately before the authorities showed up, or stop in Mariposa for a bite to eat. Fortunately for the prospect of my continuing existence, the latter instinct proved to be the stronger of the two and, against my feeble protests (issued through mouthfuls of a partly eaten apple from the day before I had located in one of my pockets), we stopped our dash for the airport by pulling in to the "Red Fox Cafe".

I'll admit that at this point my inclination was very much against any pause in momentum, but both my Attorney and the Captain had decisively resolved the issue by confirming to their own satisfaction that there was no possible way I was going to make my airplane anyway. Breakfast would offer the best chance of salvaging the situation and we could figure out what to do after we'd eaten. Besides, the sign on the cafe said "Best food in the High Sierra. You'll be Glad You Stopped." That sign, coupled with the fact that I (in my primitive, near-animalistic state) had squandered the remainder of my limited persuasive capital, forced me to accept the facts: I was in the company of animals far more ruthless than I could ever hope to be. Hitching my waterlogged pants up, I bravely accepted my fate.

Breakfast was delicious. Conversation was polite. The coffee was good. An hour later we were back on the road. My energy level returned as we got closer to the city. With it, my sense of shame and self-consciousness also returned like some sort of Hobbsean parable.

"Hey, what's this greenish fluid on my hand? You guys got any of that?" I said, suddenly worried.

"Its probably from your apple," the Captain said.

Suddenly reminded of my apple, I fished through my pockets and found it again and happily munched it in silence.

Except for a daring and well-organized orchard raid near Modesto, in which I secured a single, raw almond, we managed to attain steady progress.

"I gotta drop a deuce," my Attorney said after awhile.

"I am going to use 'Ass Clown' more often. Its a good phrase," the Captain said, glancing back at me in the rearview mirror.

"'Jackass' is also a good word," my Attorney said, also glancing at me.

"Dude, pause the car. I think I see some olives on that tree," I said.

"We can't let momentum flag, man," my Attorney said. "Besides, we gotta get out of Gustine. This place depresses me."

Momentum didn't flag, until we hit the traffic jam in the Bay Area. But against all odds, with a healthy dose of optimism, aggressive driving, and an extreme desire among all concerned to minimize the liklihood of my having to remain an extra night, I made the airport. With 23 minutes to spare. Tires screeched. Goodbyes were said. I was on my own.

With the flop flop of wet sandals, clutching little besides a horribly dorky (if exquisite) wargame from the early 80s, and an overnight bag stuffed with assorted fingernail clippers, flammable aerosols, and pharmaceutical poisons, I begged, wheedled and pushed my way to the front of multiple lines. I think most of the state of Ohio hates me at this point and I nearly had to T-bone someone's righteous grandmother before she got too bent out of shape at my sudden, sheepish (if still undeniably rude) line-cutting behavior. Still, one must do what one must do...

For the next seven hours I found myself sandwiched between two exquisitely coiffured businessmen. I stank horribly of river-grease and whiskey-sweat. My teeth were fuzzy and unbrushed. My beard required constant scratching and I had to avoid putting my cup on my lap, lest it slip into my pants. Despite all of this, I still, somehow I managed to attract the attention of a gay steward, who flirted with me for a few minutes until I removed my wedding ring from my bag (interred there safely after a slight mishap involving the ring and the bottom of a river). Noting his crestfallen look, I reached into my pocket with a look of sympathy and proffered him a conciliation prize,

"Want an apple, dude?" I said.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Today I am neck-deep in papers relating to horrid industrial toxins. My mind is troubled by liquids and fumes that shrivel glands and scald lungs.

Tonight I will be 30,000 feet above you in a tiny crystal of titanium, electronics, and foam.

Tomorrow I will be neck-deep in the Merced river, troubled only by the pleasant toxicity of industrial beer. My glands and lungs will puff with mountain air.

Hello, California.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Too Cool to Dance

I'm picturing a party I was at a few weeks ago where the superior, studiously aloof D.J. (who subscribes to the Utne Reader, owns microframe glasses with lenses the size of dimes, watches "films" and never "movies", you know the type) stood on the sideline and spun ultra-hip jazz and funk records. That's cool.

I guess.

I mean, its alright if you do that now and again, you know, hook your friends up with slick tunes to groove to. Its never alright if you use it as an excuse to avoid dancing yourself, which was the feeling I got from this guy. Its never alright to get to a point in life where you're saying:

"Ok, you kiddies go out and have your fun," while you're standing at the edge of the mosh pit, sipping your pinot griggio and hoping somebody will stop what they're doing to acknowledge your calculated misery. Better for you at that point to go home and gouge your cheeks with melon spoons for being so pitiful. And if you're just afraid to dance, well that's sad but it is entirely understandable -- and 100% correctable.

One thing people consistently forget is that dancing isn't about how you look. It certainly isn't about the moves your melanin facilitates (or prevents). Dancing is about *feeling*. Its about motion. Its chaos-yoga. Its about being alive. You don't have to "know how" to dance at a party. You tap your feet in time until something else losens up and starts moving. You follow that until something else starts going etc. Nobody's going to laugh at you for it. They're going to be grateful that you joined them.

Even when you meticulously sculpt your image, when you spend the extra $100 to buy the hippest wire frames, you cultivate the proper politics, do the extra sit-ups, say your prayers before bedtime and never so much as dance a step in your life or drink a drop of liquor (or hurl into a wire trashcan at your bosses X-mas party)... Even then, after all that artful control, you will eventually fall into the same obscurity as everybody else. The same forgetfulness. The same loss of bowel control or ability to tie your shoe or boil an egg. There is no shame in that. We all got a rendezvous with worms. I hope mine crackle like bacon so when my mind has the mnemonic faculties of cherry jello, I can be reminded of how much I love BLTs. No, the shame comes when living people are afraid to feel life or share themselves, or express emotions, or be fallable, which is what dancing is all about. It is not simply enough to be able to express your feelings abstractly, like a painter or a DJ with exactly the right records. You must share yourself. Risk yourself. Let yourself be part of the throng.

So there you go, kiddies. Live it up. Smoke whatever they pass you. Drink a few, too. Then shut your eyes, bite your lower lip, and get the fuck out on the floor.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Lately, I've been getting back into New Order. After hearing "Bizarre Love Triangle" at a wedding a few months ago, I was inspired to obtain their "best of" album from 2001.

You remember New Order? Mysterious pop act from the 80s. Vanished into thin air before anybody realized that they had never been there. They were among the first bands I ever listened to.

I went off New Order after years of listening because, well, they aren't intrinsically evocative, at least not emotionally. Their lyrics are either nonsensical (i.e. packaged to rhyme) or just plain stupid. As a budding rock n' roller myself at the time, it dawned on me that New Order was less wunderkinder than wonder bread.
Band like Floyd and U2 could both play *and* be present for their own performances. So I eventually stopped listening to New Order and never looked back. Until now.

Now when I listen to this CD I remember why I always liked New Order. With glistening verses and hummable hooks, they are an easy band to listen to. They don't require me to reconcile my hypocritical political philosophies, or score 95% on a MENSA quiz. They sing vaguely enough about love, and vaguely enough about life that it might be me or it might be someone else they're talking about. Their simple guitar lines pick up and dissappear with perfect timing, never overwealming anyone, never grating.

More than simply rediscovering New Order's grace, however, I am reminded of a part of my life that I rarely think about anymore. The period in which New Order predominated is a distinct-enough slice that my associations with the music are clear and uncluttered by years of subsequent listening and change.

It is 8th grade again, I just moved from Long Beach to the Valley. I'm staring out the window of my room toward Van Nuys and the far away Hollywood Hills. The carpet has insulated all sound until the tape player (a single speakered 7" wide silver colored "boom box") starts up with "Age of Consent" or "Love Vigilantes"...
My thoughts as the sun goes down, as I glance in a certain direction toward a particular house, are, of course, on Her. Always on Her. Her at youth group and Her at a particular intersection in the hallway at Junior High. Her name carved in desks, written in cipher. Her identity breathlessly whispered to friend's at an age when friends are judged more by the secrets you can safely reveal than the ones you can safely withhold. New Order's words were my words to her before I learned to sing.

Her name, by the way: Kim. Kim E__. The name comes easily now, of course, but it is not because my love for her then was not as strong as any I have felt since. Of course it was as fugacious and ultimately dissappointing as all early love, yet for me it was a point of hope and joy in an otherwise hopeless and joyless year. I had moved to a strange city at perhaps the most vulnerable point in a teenagers life, and somehow through the greyness and solitude I found love. Of course, at the point where I could finally bear it no longer, when the tormented nights became too excruciating and every moment without her seemed like a whole lifetime consigned to uselessness, she rejected me. Yet she did so with such sensitivity and grace that, despite my initial devastation, I have long admired and even emulated her poise whenever circumstances demanded it.

It was with perhaps greater sadness that I, with the benefit of years and eventual experience, watched her enthusiasm (and with it her beauty) dull. She eventually ended up in a place where conservatism and hypersuburbia combined to squeeze away all residual hope and inner-light, that great Southern California centrifuge, San Diego.

But here's to her anyway (San Diego could have happened to any of us) and especially here's to New Order, the band whose music was the soundtrack of my life seventeen years ago and many thousands of miles away.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

All you materialist, free-market, yuppie, elitist, bourgeoisie scumbags out there, put away your tired arsenal of half-baked "proofs" of capitalism's superiority. Sweep the devastated environment and the child laborers back under the rug and listen:

America needs more socialism.

I'm not talking about reviving the authoritarianism and kangaroo courts of Stalin. King George the W and his jowl wagging free-market-fascist advisors have carried on well enough without him. Neither am I talking about socializing America's healthcare system, ruined by privatization, outsourcing and predatory litigation. (On this one I tend to agree with Fox News that conditions are "not right" for socialized medicine in America. This is a nice way of saying that until lobbyists relinquish their gold-plated grips on our legislators' respective balls/labias, we cannot expect greedy capitalist predators to stop ass-raping us and our ailing grandmothers whenever we need to see a doctor or get a flouride treatment).

No, what I'm talking about is mild, innovative European style socialism.

Why, exactly, do we need this? Stick with me for a minute, I'll explain.

Take tic-tacs, for example. Tic-tacs, Breath-savers. Listerine. Mentos. Binaca. Certs. Altoids. Etc. They come in rolls, tubes and little plastic boxes. They come in dollied-up titanium snuff boxes. They come in pills, droplets, waxy strips, tongue-sprays, and chewable toothpicks. You know all this stuff. You grew up on it. Only freak dieters indulge in them one at a time (as dessert). The rest of us guzzle, chomp, and consume them as rapidly as possible, recognizing them to be what they really are: yuppie crack. But my beef is not with their addictiveness, nor with our consumptive habits. My beef is with the conservatism of the manufacturers of these products.

Audience participation time. Get out a pencil and a piece of paper. Do a quick survey of the most common breathmint varieties you know. What flavors predominate? Here's a hint:

Winter mint.
Pepper mint.
Spear mint.

Now, do a quick survey of breath freshening gum flavors. I'll give you a hint here, too:

Winter mint.
Pepper mint.
Spear mint.

One more survey. List the major flavors of breath-freshening toothpaste produced by the biggest national brands. Hint time:

Winter mint.
Pepper mint.
Spear mint.
[not even cinnamon, but Aqua Fresh has "bubblemint" for kids...]

Notice any similarities between these lists? I'll give you your fourth and final hint: they profoundly resemble one another. More than that, they have resembled one another for over fifty years. All throughout the Cold War, in fact. It is a historic irony that in order to prevent Mother Russia collectivizing our children we had to give the country away to giant conglomerates.

Giant corporations don't profit from innovation, they profit from ignorance. Ignorence and consumer loyalty. Don't believe me? They market hardened balls of toothpaste -- probably discards from the Colgate factory -- as breath mints. Worse, they sell them at 10x the price per weight and don't even offer a free screensaver download (see for details). Yet we gobble them down anyway like the herds of swine we are.

But American capitalism is nothing if not jealous of its self-perceived glory. It noted how quickly Mentos sales rose in the U.S. when they replaced their nasty cinnamon pastilles with fruit. It saw that the curiously humble English Altoid had a lucrative niche in the mega-menthe category. It knew that Swiss Ricola had orange and eucalypt and lemon and sage flavors. It, too, could have scoured the world for creative alternates, perhaps from the 1.3 billion Indians who chew roasted anise as breath freshener, or the Native Americans who eat sprigs of sage, cilantro and dried buffalo chips. But it didn't. It simply buckled down and applied good ol' American know-how to the task of producing...REALLY REALLY STRONG versions of the same old shitty flavors: mint, winter mint, pepper mint, spear mint, and cinnamon. These new mints are so powerful that, when eaten in the usual quantities, they risk making Vince Foster's exploding cabeza seem like a fairly mild headache. These are "X-treme" mints for a generation so unXtreme that we dutifully parlayed our best chances at free love, rioting and LSD into MTV, Mickey D's, and foolish dot-com schemes.

What is more humiliating for patriotic Americans is that, even while the Europeans were taking the creative reigns away from us, while they were enjoying lengthy vacations, an American MX-missle shield, higher standards of living, and double-digit unemployment (at full pay), we ended up working 60 hour weeks producing toothpaste-flavored pills. Sure, we might have achieved some pale facsimilie of "consumer choice" in that we can choose between mint flavored Crest or mint flavored Colgate, but that's hardly more substantial than having a choice between two virtually identical brands of cola. No, friends and future revolutionaries, the free-market panacea of of "consumer choice" has been sadly humbled by Europe's genteel and innovative socialism. We must not sit idly by and let our mouths suffer the endless humiliation of mint and cinnamon.

Join me brothers. Join me sisters.

To the barricades!

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

[Roll theme music. "Price is Right" meets "Brady Bunch"]

Hey, you guessed it. Another installment of the "Insomniad." (The Insomniad, for any of you who don't know is an unapologetic anthology of all of the wierd, wacky, and grouchy musings that come into my head when I have not gotten enough sleep.)

At the moment I am at work, blinking my eyes very very rapidly. The theory is that the more I blink, the more my eyes will be shut. If I blink enough times the sum total of shuteye over a given period might be a close approximation of the sleep I lost last night. I will be able to, in essence, "sleep while I'm awake". If I add the 8 hours I am at the archive to the 2 hours I am commuting, that's 10 hours of potential sleep. Wait. Maybe its only half that, because my eyes will be open a lot, too. Ok, forget that. Its inefficient. New plan. If anybody needs me, I'll be under my desk taking one long blink... (nobody ever got fired for blinking on the job did they?)

Hey, there's a purple bunny in here. Cute little guy. (Who gave him a reader card? )

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

It is vanity that leads us to believe that we can intuitively understand the highest aspirations of paper. One might suspect that in the continuum of all things papery, a Shakesperian folio or the Dead Sea Scrolls might rank at the top. Likewise, toilet paper and various feminine hygiene products (Prince Charles' opinion notwithstanding) would probably occupy the low end of the scale. But I'll let you in on a little secret: paper can't read and therefore could never appreciate whatever genius it bore, nor would crushed clay and mineral oil ("ink") probably seem less filthy than most organic wastes. To boot, the "low end" paper products have the added functionality of being transportation devices between the body and various romantic destinations (like the Jersey shore). I guess all I'm saying is that it is impossible to guess what paper really wants out of life. Instead of guessing, if we're ever going to (finally) get it right, we must *listen* to paper and let it reveal itself to us. That is my conclusion after making an unusual discovery in a file box yesterday. The circumstances were as follows:

I came across a piece of carbon paper pressed for decades between a letter to the Secretary of Labor and a brochure entitled "How to Put the Occupational Safety and Health Act to Work". The paper itself contained nothing of substance and would have remained unremarkable except that whatever invisible hands had stuffed it into the file long ago had done so with such a lack of care that it had become wrinkled. Those carbonized wrinkles had formed, over the course of time amid the great pressure within the box, a shadowy impression of dark, crustaceous rock akin to a mountain chain. It was more of a silhouette or a photographic negative, with details left to the imagination. At first I thought that the image represented some kind of latent memory locked away at the fiberous core of the paper itself: remnants of some ancient mountain forest it had once called home, or a lost graphite mine. But then it dawned on me that perhaps I was witnessing something even more remarkable.

Perhaps ithe imprint was a message of sorts -- a kind of wish. A single hopeful expression meticulously crafted over the decades at the deliberatively slow pace of inanimate objects. Those mountains represent some rugged and inaccessible place free from the oppressive manila and ink stink of the file box, or the humiliation of bearing unfathomable messages for all of eternity. Up in those mountains, the carbon paper could blow freely in the wind, drift in and out of snow cups at 11,000 feet, and let the sun bake it and tree roots tear at it until it was hopelessly ragged and unusable by anyone ever again.

Maybe I have stumbled upon the true dream of paper. Or maybe it is just the carbon in *my* body speaking to me as I while away the hours in this archive. I guess the lesson is the same either way: never have a dreamer do a robot's work.

Monday, August 11, 2003

What I learned this weekend: You can't go back. You just can't. (I'm talking about time here, and not Duluth or wherever you're from. You can always go back there.)

Friday evening, Butchy Garfield surprised his new bride with a pinata for her birthday. Ordinarily Butchy's birthday surprises are accompanied by disaster: plans gone awry, feelings injured, fire.

Last year for her birthday he tried to assemble us secretly for an Afghan dinner downtown. It was a logistical mess. In order to "maintain the surprise" all of her friends had to pretend that they had already made other plans that night which did not include her.

[typical phone conversation last year on her birthday]

Her: Hi, I just wanted to see if you guys were free tonight.
Us: Um.
Her: Its my birthday.
Us: Oh? Hm. Happy birthday.
Her: I thought maybe we could all go out and catch a bite to eat.
Us: Well...
Her: If not that, maybe we can just go out and get a drink.
Us: I guess not. We've got, um, other plans.
Her: I'll drink very quickly...
Us: I don't think so. When is your next birthday?

This year the party had a Mexican theme, which meant: margaritas, homemade mexican food, and mariachi music. After dinner and drinks we retired to the living room, where a pinata dangled from the rafters. It was an expensive looking one resembling a dog with green, red and orange feathers.

I haven't hit a pinata since I was in elementary school. We used to make them on Cinco de Mayo. Our pinatas were invariably small, shapeless things carefully pressed together out of newspaper, starch and milk cartons. If I remeber correctly, they were more starch than anything, which gave them the hardness of baked adobe. We'd fill them with raisins and peanuts and typically "wholesome" snacks. Then we'd knock the crap out of them with puffy red bats. It took an average of 45 hits and 87 misses to break open one of those bad boys, if it broke at all. Someone always had to be ready with a saw or a crowbar just in case the bat cracked.

Friday night. Pinata adangle. Mariachi music in the stereo. The birthday girl dons an orange blindfold. Someone hands her a nightstick and spins her. She pauses to collect herself, then takes a swipe. Her first swing is tentative, but the next two are solid. She passes the stick to the next person. Two or three more people get a few good hits, but the pinata is imperturbable. It swings merrily away up into the rafters and back again like a rockinghorse.

Then comes Justin.

Justin is built like our early experimental pinatas: solid and heavy. He has been drinking. He staggers up, puts the blindfold over his eyes, takes the baton, spins himself three times, roars, and proceeds to take a mighty downward swing...

...which kills the pinata instantly. Decapitates it, actually. Slices it neatly just above the shoulder, flinging the body in one direction and miniature bottles of booze in another. The carcass falls lifeless to the floor. The head (meanwhile) just bobs back and forth in its noose, trailing streamers and trying to demonstrate its continuing utility.

We all roar with applause. Justin roars again. He picks up the body and poses for a photograph.

After the initial elation, a strange and barely perceptable lull falls over the scene. Whereas ordinarily there is a flurry of grabbing and clawing to collect the contents of a pinata, no one makes a move toward the scattered contents on the floor. It is as if we are held back by a desire for the fun to last longer as well as a mutual realization that it is already eleven thirty at night on someone's twenty-ninth birthday. Finally, someone makes a move to pick up the carcass, but thinks better of it and it slips halfheartedly from their hands. A suggestion is made that we re-affix the head so we can continue beating it. This is clearly crazy talk. You just can't go back.

Within moments the requirements of the situation become obvious to all. Casting sly and meaningful glances at one another, we collecitvely shrug and make calculated dives for the booze on the floor. Blissful chaos ensues.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Lately, I have had several occasions to consider just how rusty I have become at casual conversation. Take Wednesday evening, for instance.

Wednesday I was walking to my car on my way to see some friends when I happened upon my upstairs neighbors getting out of their car. Neighbor #1 is a friendly, somewhat remote, and clearly overworked young woman. Her mother, Neighbor #2, is a bit grouchy, and equally overworked. The reason I know this is because I regularly hear them tromping around on my ceiling (their floor) at 3 or 4 in the morning. I think that they work double shifts in a nearby factory. Both are Persian, which is neither here nor there, particularly, other than that the absence of a man in the family strikes me as a bit odd. I suspect that these two ladies are recovering from some recent upheval: messy divorce, illness, death of a loved one. In any case, I rarely see either one of them, and even then our interactions are generally consigned to a quick wave or a smile.

So Wednesday I'm plodding along to my car when I notice these two getting out of their car. Realizing that I have hardly seen either one of them all summer, I concluded that their insane work schedule must be to blame. The obvioius remedy to insane work schedules is, as far as I am concerned, time off. They both needed long, relaxing vacations. I decided to relate this conclusion to them, and follow it up with a gamely promise to inform their respective employers of the importance of immediately giving them time off. Perhaps a pay raise was in order, too.

Reviewing my plan and finding it seemless, I walked up to the two of them, smiling.

"I have hardly seen you all summer," I meant to say, "You are obvioiusly working too hard. I should tell those bosses of yours to give you some time off for a vacation."

What I *actually* said was this:

"You look tired."

Perhaps it was the look of dismay that clouded the young lady's ordinarily radiant face. Or perhaps it was a sudden understanding of what such a poor turn of phrase might sound like to a single, thirtysomethingish woman who works double shifts and spends her free time caring for an ailing mother. Whatever it was, I was suddenly abundantly aware that my inability to engage in even the simplest of neighborly banter would be of no assistance in helping me to recover the situation. In fact, continuing the conversation was entirely pointless, for my single, uncareful pronouncement had rendered all three of us instantly speechless. With a careful consideration of my options, I opted for the only choice that would afford me a modicum of dignity: I muttered some hollow, incoherent thing and bolted to my car. As I peeled out of the driveway, my two neighbors stood at the mailbox, regarding me with looks of stunned amazement.

This is but one recent example of what I mean about losing the art of conversation. I must find it again, somehow. If I ever had, that is. I suspect I did. To all of you who might parcipate in this much-needed rejuvination, radical therapy may be required -- as well as copious quantities of wine, time, and general hillarity.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Although many of you are aware of my deep impatience with religion, I must say that I was touched to hear yesterday of the confirmation of Gene Robinson to the position of bishop within the Presbyterian Church.

As many of you probably know, Robinson is gay.

Thirty years ago I would have given you a moment to collect yourself at the mere thought of this, but in today's climate this hardly comes as a surprise. However, the election of an openly gay bishop to a mainstream Protestant church does certainly represent a major victory for civil rights within an institution that has been both a force of progressivism *and* regression on this issue over the past century.

Christian churches were on the front line of the earlier Civil Rights movement and have continued to be on the front line of the struggle over the status of homosexuals in our society. Progressive churches have tailored special programs to the needs of homosexuals, provided AIDS education to high-risk communities, and sought to shift attitudes in the broader society by demonstrating that gay people have an equal place in the church body politic. Yet while progressive churches were courageously ministering to people as they are, rather than how they might prefer them to be, there has been a far more vocal component within Christianity seeking to actively repress homosexuals. These elements pervert Jesus' appeals for universal love and inclusivity into patronizing attempts to "reform" homosexuals into accepting their sinfulness and adopting heterosexual lifestyles.

As both a Methodist minister and a veteran civil rights activist, my father has been a leader on this issue within the Pacific Conference. I have witnessed firsthand both his frustrations and his triumphs involving fights about church doctrine and homosexuals. It is no stretch to say that no single issue has so polarized the church this past century, including event the heated debate over accepting women clergy or allowing divorce among spiritual leaders. The debate is so fierce that it seems likely that the United Methodist Church will split over this issue as well. Lately the conservatives have used their power base in the South and the East to directly ban gays from service in the church (whereas before there was just an unwritten exclusion of gays). It is difficult to fathom how a church can remain solvent if it is divided over fundamental issues of morality.

Mainly I think the reason many parishes are loathe to adopt more modern standards is because gays are easy targets, having always been a traditional "other". It takes no great leap to denouce gays as "lost souls" and maintain that they receive earthly salvation from righteous heterosexuals prior to their ultimate judgement by god. Many churches take cues from the least sophisticated (and yet often the loudest) members of society which, collectively, have the social consciousness of a small sun-dried tomato. The common excuse that church traditions all over the world have *always* excluded gays and therefore they should continue to do so smacks of the worse sort of backward reasoning. If we applied that standard, religious folk would still be bowing down to mud-spackled godheads and slaughtering infants to satiate vengeful rain spirits. People did such things for thousands of years without feeling a need to change.

Another, uglier, reason why sanctimonious homophobia in the Church refuses to die is because bigots hate gays more than they hate women, and they hate gays more than they hate things like the sinfullness of divorce among heterosexuals. Unfortunately, bigots are not as rare as people with courage and true compassion for human beings.

All this is to say that at least one church had the courage to stand up for the underdog, to stand up for inclusion and humane-ness, to fight against regressive forces of pre-modernism and subliminal hate. The election of Gene Robinson gives me cause to believe that there is some hope in the world after all. Even for Christians.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Elevator Conversation with Tina, a Strange Girl who Often Talks to Jesus

(Clay Sails walks up to the elevator. Tina is standing there already, tapping her feet. Having spied Clay sauntering up to the front door, she has made a circuit around the building and entered through a side door.)

Tina: I just walk faster than you, that's all.

Clay: That so.

Tina: I'm just saying, its because I've walked overseas. You are taller than me but I've walked all over.


Tina: I've walked in Paris, and in Rome.


(Clay bursts from the elevator, rushing to his desk where a mountain of paperwork awaits like a blessing in disguise.)

Tina: I've been to the Holy Land. You should go sometime.

Clay (shuffling papers): I've been.

Tina: I'm just saying they don't mention St. Matthew in the scripture.


Tina: Except once. Clay.


Tina: My father works for Lockheed Martin...


Monday, August 04, 2003

Hello, readers, friends and strangers...

Hello, Monday...

If you are anywhere at all you might be in a place like I am, sealed away in a frigid pink chamber, surrounded by yellowed paper and capless pens. Like here, your nearest windows might be obscured by vapour, exposing only the fuzziest outlines of greenery and moist jungle drainage beyond. You, too, might half-expect to see a brontosaurus rear out of the fog, eyes barely curious, jaws dripping spinach.

Perhaps where you are, out beyond your windows, where the air is warm like India, there are, as here, great gatherings of geese along every stretch of green. These formerly sublime birds, once the graceful heralds of Fall whose voices carried reedlike on woodsmoke and wind (and whose stately "V"s seemed to point toward the timelessness and predictability of seasons), now spend their days waddling fatly in circles, honking madly, and skiing in their own greasy shit. Gone are the glimmering arctic lakes of the Yukon. Gone are the mouthed O's of every toddler along the way, with their soft, jelly-sweet fingers tracing question marks against unknowing down. All of that has been traded for the roar of traffic and dark, slurry ponds full of rushes and slow fish. All of those wobbly, skyward faces, once rapt and envious, gone now to be replaced by grown-ups at windows peering dully through the pink and the mist.

Friday, August 01, 2003

Portrait of My Day:

I am currently looking through a particularly choice file box. No no, wait, don't go away just yet. I promise its not as bad as it sounds...

Take for example this file here called "Kellog Mine Disaster". What a great name for a file. Isn't that a great goddamn name for a file? If I was a file, it is exactly what I would want to be named. The contents of the file are predictable in a goulish sort of way. There was a mine. It filled with flammable gas/exploded/collapsed. 91 men died. Survivors blame Owners. Owners blame God. Everybody blames politicians. Obviously nothing meaningful gets done.

Ooh, wait. This box gets better.

Just in front of this file is a file called "Man and his Environment".
That just about says it all, I think. It has all the tension and drama of a good survival story, all of *everything* for that matter. Unless of course you happen to be a root or a kidney pie (or a woman).

Behind "Man and his Environment" is another brilliantly named file: "Middle Snake, Mountain Sheep, Nez Perce". Its like file-clerk Haiku. The typewritten label has to say it all in 30 characters or less.

I think I will spend the remainder of my day perfecting the now-obsolete art form of file label poetry. (note: nowdays we still use labels, but we shrink the font to make room for more letters. This elasticity ruins the uniformity of 10 pt. Courier)

Here are my first attempts:

"the airlock, kazoos, Mr. Reyes"
"Convention, Toledo, Sleeping Pills"
"Candy Stripers Tied to the Radiator"
"Olestra Promo/TP/Concert Litigation Fund"
"Slipping the Sheriff PCP...Run"
"Help, I'm trapped in a file"

Hmm. My form obviously needs refinement. Ooh, icky. Here's a file called "Farm Policy". That's a dozer.

Yesterday I came across a letter from a now-deceased union boss to another now-deceased union boss. The subject of the letter was "Concerns About Hiring Aliens". I kid you not. No wonder the union movement has been on shaky ground lately.

But anyway, I've got to get back to my files. Can you believe people are *paying me* to do this kind of work?