Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Borrowing a bit of good cheer

The New York Times runs a blog called Proof, wherein various contributors hold forth on the meaning of booze in their lives. As you might guess, a fair number of them are alcoholics or the children of alcoholics. Their posts smolder with the pain of a drunken past and austere pride at having taken a better path. I salute them. That can't be easy. In fact, I propose a toast ...

I started drinking at 16. Vodka and 7-Up in a paper cup. It tasted like kerosene; in retrospect, maybe it needed a bit more 7-Up. But it made an impression, the magical way acquaintances became friends, mundane thoughts became profound, sophomoric jests became uproarious. I didn't get sick, didn't black out, didn't even have a hangover the next morning. I was a shy person who'd stumbled on to a reliable way of becoming less shy. Imagine if you had a bad case of acne and you could apply something that would make the zits vanish, if only for an evening. That was how I felt.

I've been drinking ever since -- socially, as they say -- even though I learned early on that booze has a tendency to take more than it gives. Through the rest of a misspent youth, it smoothed out some embarrassments and created a few new ones. As I became an adult -- somewhere around the age of 27 -- I realized that drinking at a party was like taking out a loan: you always had to pay it back, with interest. Sometimes being the life of the party was worth it; sometimes not. But the loan analogy came to moderate my consumption. I don't like waking up in the morning with Jose Cuervo hammering at the door, demanding payment.

New Year's Eve is the high holy day of drinking, but I've passed as many stone sober as I have under the influence. Blame my newspaper career -- it always meant working nights and certain holidays. Where New Year's was concerned, I didn't much care. If I got home early enough, I'd go outside at midnight and listen to the sporadic car horns and fireworks as another year rolled by. Being sober and slightly melancholy at such a time isn't a bad thing. And the moral superiority you get from watching drunken revelers on the street below is something everyone should experience.

Tonight, well, we've been invited to a great party. We'll go. Presumably drinks will be served. I'll partake. Any luck, I'll make a joke or two and people might laugh. I might imagine myself as a lot more witty and attractive than I am. Such are the modest gifts of the bottle. Thanks, Mr. Cuervo. The check's already in the mail.

Monday, December 15, 2008

If you have an outfit ...

We flew back from Vegas on the Galoot Express, an Allegiant Air flight packed with guys in cowboy hats coming home from the National Finals Rodeo. All were identically arrayed in tight Wranglers and oversized snap-button shirts and belt buckles the size of turkey platters, and all swaggered onto the plane braying about their drunken exploits in affected drawls taken from movies and crappy country music. They all wore cell phones, tilted forward for a faster draw. This is the vanishing breed of rugged individualist that made this country great.

Even after four days of galumphing around Vegas in painful cowboy boots, they were an ebullient, self-satisfied bunch. They had accomplished much in a short time: guzzling gallons of Bud Light and making lewd propositions to dozens of cocktail waitresses and keeping awake countless tourists unlucky enough to have a room on the same floor. As one guy on our flight yelled to his companion: "Life's too short not to have a good time." Boy howdy. Straitlaced Las Vegas, which doesn't see a lot of boorish hedonism, never knew what hit it.

I was reminded of Bike Week in Daytona -- another event built largely on apparel. There it's all Harley Davidson regalia, even down to underwear and earrings, and people wandering around reveling in the conformity of the tribe. At both events, people sport clothing commemorating the event while it's still going on. That's just in case you don't get it.

There are no real bikers, of course, just as there are no real cowboys. You need a real-world job to pay for all the merchandise and travel to these annual bacchanals. That means a real-world life in the long months between party time, selling auto parts or insurance or shuffling papers or any of the other prosaic pastimes that can't be expressed in the clothes you wear. I don't blame anybody for donning a different persona once in awhile. I do wish they'd give it a rest on the packed flight home.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Justice delayed: O.J. on ice

So O.J.'s going to jail and nobody much cares. It's about time. We've come a long way since 1995.

I remember the first O.J. trial. Every white person in the room was stunned, not so much by the verdict as by the ensuing images of black people celebrating the acquittal. I was struck then by how clueless I'd been about race: A black man skates on a double-murder rap and people are dancing in the streets like he's just won the Super Bowl. I was thinking at the time: OK, I get it now.

It looks like O.J. will be on ice for about half as long as long as he's eluded responsibility for the two killings he so obviously performed. That's long enough to write another book. But maybe he won't want to. His last one, If I Did It, might have had something do with his last diehard defenders finally folding their tents. Before that, if you squinted just so and discarded all the evidence, it was possible to believe he'd been the victim of a racist conspiracy. But there he was confessing for cash, and any pretense of victimhood went right out the window.

O.J. was a lucky man, until just recently. He was a brutal, sloppy killer who got off by somehow becoming the poster child for every racial injustice committed in this country since the Civil War. But there's a saying: Luck never gives; it only lends. The day he rolled into a Vegas hotel room with a coterie of thugs, the bill came due.

I won't miss O.J. Simpson. I won't miss Fred Goldman, whose hair and outrage seemed more synthetic with each passing year. I sure won't miss the knee-jerk racial sensitivities of the '90s, which made a sociopathic millionaire a cause celebre.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tis the season to suck it up

After a certain age, Christmas becomes a season of regret: The loss of loved ones over the years, the loss of friends, the loss of youth. The loss of all those Mattel toys that would now fetch a fortune on eBay. The sad truth is that the best Christmas in middle age cannot match the least one of childhood. But the important thing is to pretend otherwise.

I go back and forth on this, but today I figure the holiday is bigger than I am. It's not really my right to succumb to cynicism and say to hell with the lights and the tree and the travel and the shopping. I figure Christmas has lasted this long because guys like me see a little bit of ourselves in Ebenezer Scrooge, and each year take small steps to minimize the resemblance.

So this weekend I'll again be up on the ladder, cursing lights that in 12 months have become a Gordian knot. I'll be setting out luminaria, as is the custom in my neighborhood, and cursing the candles that won't stay lit --also a custom. I'll wander dazedly through a discount store, trying to intuit the tastes and sizes and color preferences of those I count close. I'll resist the urge to curse the crowds.

Yes, it's a tremendous hassle and you wonder if it's worth it. An Old Navy sweater can't perfectly express what someone means to you, but it's better than a gift card, and a whole lot better than nothing. My holiday lighting may tend toward the austere, but when families drive by at night, the house won't be dark. I am prone to introspection, but I guarantee I won't be passing up any party invitations.

You lose a lot over the decades. You don't want to lose your traditions. December's a dark month, a cold season. Christmas is the crackling fire, and only a foolish man would foreswear the wood to keep it going.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

If you don't Tweet, you ain't sheet

Perhaps signaling the imminent demise of Twitter, the Wall Street Journal has posted a guide for using it. The guide runs 1,200 words and does a good job of explaining why this is something you may not want to bother with. Whenever I see the phrase "social-networking tool," my eyes glaze over.

Not that I mind Twitter. I've been on it for a couple of months. I now follow 13 people. I am being followed by 33, which is weird because my "updates" tend to be non sequiturs, and infrequent enough to render my ranking just short of nonexistent. I never look at my Twitter ranking, of course. I'm much too cool for that.

My own guide for using Twitter is this: Don't follow anyone you haven't had dinner with. But know that following friends will make you immediately and exquisitely aware of every party to which you've not been invited. Finally, while it's easy to follow someone, it's not so simple to quit. Thanks to a dopey service called Qwitter, anyone you discard can be instantly notified of the fact. Thanks, Twitter! Building strong relationships, and ruining them too!

I'd add a few guidelines for what makes a good Twitter post, but unfortunately I have no idea. Mine run to to unfocused musings that are not very clever and vanish into the Tweetosphere like little farts in the wind. I see a lot of updates about about dining out, or funny things the kids say, or traveling, or plans for the holidays. Over Thanksgiving, one guy appeared to be Tweeting right at the dinner table, mocking his dotty relatives while shoveling in the mashed potatoes. It's only 140 characters; what you lose in sober reflection you gain in spontaneity.

Want to follow me? I didn't think so. But daaronk is the name and Tweeting's my game. I don't use Qwitter, either. So we'll both be spared the pain.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Be sure to wear some flour in your hair


You've heard of live blogging; this is dead blogging, where I scrawl my ruminations longhand and transpose them into my computer later with only minor editing. I left the laptop at home on our trip to San Francisco, feeling vaguely virtuous about it, wondering if maybe the organic process of putting pen to paper might somehow awaken some inner muse. So far, mostly it's awakened a dull pain in my writing hand and forearm -- a reminder of years of disuse.

The modern ease of putting words on a screen and rearranging them at will -- does that make you a better communicator, or a lazier one? You still hear of writers who prefer longhand, who claim it makes one more careful with composition, the way shooting film requires more thought than shooting digital. I don't know. It's hard to imagine writing a full novel this way. But then, I haven't quite written one the new way, either.

I'm sitting close to a gas fireplace which is operated by remote control. This beautiful, cavernous rental house is a bit chilly now that the rain has arrived. It's a lovely home but it feels a bit too spacious, designed for a larger life than the now-divorced owners could quite fill. The furniture has been selected and arranged more for appearance than comfort. Our house in Wichita seems small and shopworn by comparison, but it is probably more livable. Whatever that means.

One of the good things about living in Wichita is that when you travel out of state, you can look around at your new surroundings and invoke the timeless phrase: "We're not in Kansas anymore." Ha ha. I've used it a hundred times, but that doesn't preclude me from using it again.

You get used to Kansas. And it's only when you travel elsewhere that you realize what you've gotten used to. I grew up in Montana and used to roll my eyes at tourists who would prattle on about scenic grandeur. I see what they mean now. The first thing that struck me driving north on Highway 101 from SFO was the sight of hills with houses on them. Real hills, bulking up against the urban lights -- not the barely perceptible changes in elevation that are christened hills in Kansas. Hills everywhere, and soaring bridges in the distance, and water that glows when the sun goes down.

It's a beautiful place, but I don't think I'd live here even if I could afford it. Too much traffic, too many windows looking down on you from those scenic heights. Here you spend too much time on the freeway, an anonymous obstruction to the Mercedes and Jags and BMWs flying by on either side. In Wichita we had to adjust to the phenomenon of always arriving early for our engagements; in San Francisco it was back to always arriving late, drifting along for hours in a sluggish river of taillights. You'd think the gorgeous views might impart some serenity, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Maybe it's just me.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's the Somali pirate's life for me

Often overlooked in the hand-wringing over the slumping global economy is continuing growth and upbeat outlook in the piracy sector. Just last year, Kenya's foreign minister reports, a band of hearty swashbucklers, led by the mischievous Captain Farrah Adid Sparrow, extracted at least $150 million in ransoms from hapless ship owners. As they say in Mogadishu, that's a lot of shillings.

And it'll only get better. Governments and shipping companies whine about it, but $150 million is still chicken feed in the global marketplace. International conglomerates have a lot of money, but not many destroyers. The last time piracy flourished like this, it took about 30 years before the U.S. government got it sorted out. If Farrah Adid Sparrow's men don't start grabbing Carnival cruise ships, they've got a good future ahead of them.

This is African aid you can believe in. No doubt most of the pirate's profits have been earmarked for infrastructure, AIDS prevention and higher education, but if these roguish buccaneers are smart, they'll also take a hard look at the theme-park and movie angle. Fat oil tankers are one thing, but nothing beats a multi-picture deal with Disney.

Monday, November 17, 2008

And now, more about me

My wife Tess has asked me to play along in a game of blog tag. Because I'm a fun, agreeable guy, I'll comply. Basically, the rules are these:
  • Write 6 random things about yourself.
  • Link to the person who tagged you.
  • Post the rules on your blog.
  • Tag 6-ish people at the end of your post.
  • Let each person know he/she has been tagged.
  • Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

So, here are six things about me:

1) I am not, technically, a high school graduate. Two weeks before graduation, I was arrested at the senior kegger. Normally this kind of thing was punished by probation or community service, but the kegger was held on some forest land owned by the mayor, who was also president of the school board. The primary bonfire at the kegger somehow spread out of control. Owing to some previous infractions, a close friend and myself spent a night in jail and were denied our diplomas. We later viewed the ceremony from outside the gym doors without much regret. I ended up acing the test for the prestigious GED certificate the following fall. But this will be our little secret. (Not pictured: Yours truly.)

2) I'm a regular Cossack in the saddle. Or used to be. I grew up on a ranch at a time when you handled cattle with horses rather than ATVs. I became good at it, and could actually throw a passable lariat. My proudest moment as a teenager was hearing an uncle remark, after watching me and my stepbrother race our horses downhill through heavy timber, that he'd never seen a kid more easy in the saddle. It helped that I had a great horse, whose name was Breeze. (That's Breeze on the right.)

3) I have a pilot's license. It's lapsed now, but I used to rent airplanes and fly them around Montana just to look around. My best memory of flying is circling above a rural school in the Flathead Valley, watching the kids out for recess look up and wave. I attempted to waggle the wings in reply, and almost achieved a power stall in the process. Note to self: When waggling wings, it's best to be in level flight. (I learned in a Cessna 152 a lot like this one.)

4) My former wife and I once rode the train from El Paso to Mexico City, just on a lark. It was not as much fun as we'd hoped. It was summer and there was no air conditioning. Just before arriving, the porter appeared in our compartment and proceeded to lift up the floor, from which he removed several bottles of bootleg liquor. A few minutes later, a couple of surly federales moved through the train, apparently looking for . . . several bottles of bootleg liquor. When they got to our compartment, we were keenly aware that the floor panel had been improperly replaced. We were thinking hard about that movie Midnight Express, but they only frowned and moved on. We ended up flying home. (That's us at Teotihuacan.)

5) I'm a crappy guitarist. I've owned guitars of one sort or another since I was 16, but I've sometimes gone years without playing and am no better at it now than I was then. Big mystery. I keep meaning to teach myself new things, but always end up strumming a tortured version of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Or "House of the Rising Sun," but I think it's now illegal to play my version within earshot of any sentient adult. If not, it should be. The only tune I can really pick is the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run." (That's the guitar my brother built for me)

6) At last count, I own six digital cameras -- seven, if you count the one I gave Tess for her birthday. None of them take the kind of pictures you see in National Geographic. Maybe I should get a new one. The cynical might say I'm just not a very good photographer, but the cynical would be wrong. That's my story, anyway. (All my DSLR gear is Olympus. Don't ask.)

Since I don't know that many people with blogs, particularly people who would be interested in this sort of thing, I'll include some who probably have already participated. And I can only think of five. Sorry.

David
Denise
Lori
Peter
Maxine

Friday, November 7, 2008

As seen on TV: three for $22

So it has come to this for print journalism: selling souvenirs.

Most of the time, the Wichita Eagle has trouble giving away its print product. Drive down any residential street late in the afternoon and you'll see plastic-wrapped Eagles still lying in the driveways where the carrier tossed them that morning. Then you get an historic event like the one we've just witnessed. Then people realize they don't have a hard copy of what they've just seen unfold via the magic wall and the fake holograms of CNN. On that one day, they're kind of glad they subscribe.

As noted in the New York Times, most newpapers saw a huge spike in demand for their post-election issues. Demand remains robust: the Eagle is charging $10 for a paper that normally goes for 50 cents -- or three for $22. Other papers are peddling T-shirts with the front page on it, and framed copies to hang on your wall. They'd probably sell you some earrings, too, if the headline could remain legible. Some idiots on Craigslist are shelling out $200 for a single copy of the New York Times, demonstrating that while the Times may be hurting, the pain is not yet universal.

There's something undignified about this, but face it: For print journalism, dignity has become a luxury. When an industry is drowning, you can't blame it for latching on to the first thing that floats. It's a shame that historic events don't come along very often -- guess that's what makes them historic. For some reason, people don't want to commemorate stories about budget shortfalls and downtown development. And they damned sure don't want the T-shirt. Too bad. Something like that could keep the industry alive.

How about this: instead of waiting for earth-shaking news to stimulate souvenir sales, why not go hyper-local? Maybe Karl Peterjohn and his immediate family would like coffee cups emblazoned with the story of his triumph in the county commissioner race. Maybe the guy whose house was shot up in southeast Wichita would like a decorative plate to remember it by. Maybe the folks losing their jobs at Hawker Beechcraft would treasure the moment more if it were on a T-shirt.

Or maybe not. Just thinking out loud here. It's just that newspapers need something to sell. As I can attest, the news itself is not quite getting it done.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Free coffee in the free world

Here in Wichita, the lines started forming as soon as the polls opened, so it's probably going to be a long day for those poor election officials. I'll just laugh when I drive by on my way to claim my free Starbucks coffee and free Krispy Kreme donut. I laughed at the wife too, when she suggested we stand in line to vote early last week, but now it seems like a stroke of genius. The coffee's free and so is the day. Tonight will be the first presidential election in 30 years that I don't have to work through the night at a newspaper. I'm taking it easy. It's the Super Bowl, and I'm making nachos.

Last night everybody talking about the election on TV seemed giddy, even those who lean Republican. But why not? It's been two years of endless campaign blather and eight years of specific ineptitude at the top. Everybody needs a break once in awhile. The good news for Republicans is that they'll have a lot less to be embarrassed about. I get the sense all of us believe everything will be different with Obama in the White House, just as we believed as kids that everything would be different when we got that new bike under the Christmas tree.

Problem is, there's no new bike -- just an envelope containing a bill for the one we got last year, and the year before that. Obama's first challenge as president, as the nation's new old man on Christmas morning, will be explaining to the kids that there won't be any more new bikes for awhile. This will be hard news for certain of the siblings, the tight-lipped idealogues with tears of joy in their eyes and lengthy wish lists in their pockets. But if Obama's half the president I hope he his, he'll tell it to them straight.

If he's not -- well, it's hard to see how he still wouldn't be twice the president we have now. He's a messenger of hope arriving with a dump truck full of disappointment, and his great task will be to spread it around in a judicious manner.

But that's for tomorrow. Today, we congratulate ourselves for having voted, and sip our free Starbucks, and witness the autumn miracle of certain red states turning blue.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Fun while it lasted. Kind of

Seems like only yesterday that blogging was considered hip and cool and thoroughly modern, not to mention a force that would transform the world and probably lead to many lucrative offers. In fact, it was only yesterday. Today, I read in Wired, it's become quaint, as dated as shouting into a mobile phone the size of a refrigerator, the way Michael Douglas did in the movie Wall Street.

As Wired's Paul Boutin explains, blogging peaked in 2004 -- about three years before I got into it. Now it's all Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and YouTube. Video clips and crappy cell-phone photos speak louder than words, and 140 characters is all the text anybody has time to peruse. Nobody cares to read a few deft paragraphs; it's about phrases, baby, and the shorter the better. Nobody cares about your thoughts; it's about your impulses. What you feel right this minute. I got a kick out of this quote from longtime blogger Robert Scoble: "I keep my blog mostly for long-form writing."

When I think of long-form writing, I think of a book like Anna Karenina, not three or four paragraphs about Windows 7. Of course, when I think of a cutting-edge band, I think of the Strokes, who peaked about seven years ago. I've made a career out of being a day late and a dollar short. I'll finally spring for an iPhone on the day they become obsolete. Hell, maybe they are already.

Not that I'm denying reality or complaining about it. Blogs are obsolete, particularly unfocused vanity blogs like this one, run without the guidance and generosity of corporate donors. (Oligarchs: I'm on PayPal.) Fact is, these are post-literate times. Words, rendered in ink or in pixels, don't quite cut the mustard. Sad news for those of us enjoy the craft. But time hurries on.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I have done my civic duty

Today I voted. It was remarkable for two reasons: It's the first time I've voted anything close to a straight Democratic ticket, and it's the first time I've voted in a presidential election when it wasn't the first Tuesday of November. Let's hope I don't have to do anything so radical again.

It was a beautiful day here in Wichita, Oct. 28 and the lines were snaking through the corridors at the Presbyterian church. We all showed up thinking to avoid the rush, and thereby created the rush a week early. No matter. We were mostly in good spirits. Long lines are bad, but this wasn't the DMV, we didn't have to be there. We showed up because we're good citizens, doing our duty, and it doesn't hurt to have friends and neighbors seeing us do it.

We shuffled forward every minute or so, looking at our watches and thinking back on all the TV ads and debates and all those cards and fliers that have come in the mail. We thought about who was the terrorist, and who was the crook and who was soft on crime and who twice declared bankruptcy and who failed to pay taxes and who has been guilty of unseemly behavior. We thought about who supported the Iraq war and who sat down with a '60s radical and who spent way too much on a makeover and who reacted the wrong way to a dumb question.

Then we got in front of that touch screen and we voted on the issues. Well, except for those judge races, where they could all be closet jihadists or John Wayne Gacy and we'd never know the difference. You see the name, and you see the space below that says "Write in," and you think, write in what? We'll give them a shot. If they were pure evil, we'd have heard about it, right?

So now I've voted, and now I'm tuning out the presidential race, and all the state races and all the local races too. I'm just tuning them the hell out. I'll tune back in next Tuesday.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

We've seen these skits before

We went to see W. last night. It was entertaining if not illuminating, and for anybody who still sees the need to defend George W. Bush, it was about as fair as you're going to get from Oliver Stone. If I were Roger Ebert, I'd give it about two-and-half stars.

I say entertaining because the various gaffes perpetrated by the Bush administration over the last eight years do add up to absurdist comedy when assembled by a competent director. The movie plays like a succession of Saturday Night Live parodies, some funnier than others. The central joke is not that Bush is a fool; it's that we elected a fool. Twice -- the second time long after the depth of his foolishness became manifest.

I say the film is not illuminating because all of this stuff is well known, thanks to a succession of Bob Woodward books and Bush's own press conferences and speeches. Oliver Stone isn't adding anything to the body of knowledge, just stirring in some imagined conversations between Bush and his parents, and a succession of dream sequences featuring the current president lifting his arms to wild applause in an empty baseball stadium.

Nobody ever accused Stone of being too subtle. He applies symbolism with a trowel. In one scene, Bush and his advisers are walking on his Texas ranch, discussing when to start the Iraq war, when the president realizes they've wandered off the road. Hmm. What could that mean?

Finally, it's risky business to make a movie about people who are not only still alive, but in some cases still in the administration. If a portrayal doesn't ring true, it becomes obvious. Condoleezza Rice might want to consider a lawsuit when she sees how Thandie Newton played her: a muttering lapdog whose every movement telegraphs submission. This is not the Condoleezza Rice we've seen on TV, and it undercuts the authenticity of the film. That said, Richard Dreyfuss has managed to make Dick Cheney even more smug and sinister than we've all imagined. And we've imagined quite a bit.

I don't think W. will have any impact on the election, and I can't believe that's what Stone intended. Those who support the president won't see it; those who loathe him were never going to vote Republican anyway. I'd say it's worth a look; just check your politics at the door and don't expect to learn something you didn't already know.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Just in time for Christmas

You read all the time about images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary appearing in frosted windowpanes and moldy sheetrock and certain fast foods, but when a doll starts babbling about Islam, suddenly it's news.

I have to admit I laughed when I saw this story in the Wichita Eagle, about the woman returning her Little Mommy Cuddle 'n Coo doll because it appears to be endorsing the views of the Prophet Muhammad. In the video accompanying the story on the Eagle's Web site, the little tyke does seem to be saying "Islam is the light."

Then again, if you keep listening you can imagine all sorts of alternate phrases: "Please turn off the light." "I am not too bright." "Palin is alright." Play it backwards and you might hear "How about those Phillies?"

I don't know. Hard to imagine that Mattel, whose talking-doll business presumably relies on non-Muslim markets too, would knowingly mass-produce a proselytizing doll. Why not also dress it in a burqa? No, what we have here are some random syllables that just happen to sound like the doll wants to hand you a pamphlet. Too bad for Mattel, but it's comedy gold.

In any case, I want one. These things are going to be collector's items.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

If you build it, they won't come

Talk about a sign of the times: The managers of Golden Gate Bridge have decided to go ahead with plans to install a $50 million suicide net. Given the anguish among erstwhile high-rollers in the Bay Area, it was either that or install turnstiles at either end to accommodate all those wishing to make the leap.

A suicide net is a interesting paradox: Just by having it, you guarantee that it will never be used as intended. For those really interested in killing themselves, a 20-foot jump into wire mesh will have limited appeal. Might as well hurl yourself into the plastic balls at Chuck E. Cheese. Certainly you wouldn't look any more ridiculous when the authorities arrive to fish you out.

If they build this thing, I hope there's some oversight. I know that if I were a suicide-net contractor, I'd be tempted to cut corners here and there. I'd build, say, a $35 million net and pass the savings along to myself. Nobody would be the wiser, right? Except for the occasional "Jackass"-style thrill-seeker, of course. But that's just all part of natural selection.

Friday, October 10, 2008

In times like these...

So the proud airship known as Wall Street is going down in a billow of flame. Evidently there was a leak in the gigantic bag of hydrogen that was the U.S. economy, and nearby stood some short-sellers and derivatives traders lighting up their cigarettes. Oops.

Things are getting bad and intend to get worse. Time magazine leads with a photo of Depression-era guys standing in a soup line. GM stock is about the same price now as the year before I was born. There's a minus sign in front of the most important number on my 401(k), and that number is close to what used to be my annual salary. Worse, my friends in OPEC are barely making ends meet, now that oil has gone from $147 a barrel to $78. Might be a slim Christmas even in Qatar. Ha ha.

Times like these, you need to take a deep breath, look at the big picture. I look out the window in Wichita, and the sun is shining and there's a young couple in a new Jeep Liberty cruising by to take a look at the house next door -- on the market two days and already under contract. Guess their bank didn't get the memo about the credit crisis. The dog is curled up on the couch, untroubled by the rising price of Purina. Our bills are modest and payable. We still have ways to cut back. We still have our health. We knock on wood.

I'd hate to be on Wall Street now, one of those guys with a headset and a cell phone, clutching my head and grimacing in agony as red numbers scroll by. For them, this is all visceral and immediate, even though they'll punch out at the end of the day and go home and eat dinner like they always do. When things change on a global scale, those changes take a long time to arrive at your front door. Yes, the airship is coming down and we may yet end up with bones broken and clothes alight. We may yet engage in mortal struggle. But for now there seems ample time to stretch.

Times like these, you turn off CNN and look up at the sky. Maybe you also turn to the poets. Robert Frost, for example:

We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last to-night.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Not amused in Wichita

I'm trying to remember the last time I heard of someone doing a skit in blackface where it didn't provoke a certain amount of outrage. I think I have to go all the way back to 1993, when Ted Danson tried it. Oh, wait: People got mad about that too.

So really, Arkansas City Mayor Mell Kuhn should have seen this coming. Perhaps during early rehearsals for the skit featuring "Smellishis Poon and the Red Hot Poontangs," he might have reflected that comedy relying on racism ceased to be funny about 50 years ago. And that's the bigger crime here: Yeah, it's racially offensive, but what's worse is that there are still people out there who laugh uproariously at this kind of crap. It's a crime against comedy. This is where I need to point out that Mayor Kuhn's skit was named the winner at the fundraiser where it was performed.

The Wichita NAACP is predictably annoyed about this, and they've wrung an awkward apology out of Mayor Kuhn. The mayor, in his defense, cites movies like Norbit and The Nutty Professor as his inspiration. Fair enough. But Mr. Mayor: Eddie Murphy is black. And I shouldn't have to mention that those films weren't funny either.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A debate I can't bear to watch

Think of the stupidest thing you ever said. Now think if that stupid thing had been captured on video and replayed about a thousand times a day, usually to the sarcastic asides of late-night comedy hosts. Sarah Palin may botch tonight's debate too, but I'll give her credit for just showing up. It can't be pleasant, going from powerful woman to punchline in the space of a couple of weeks.

I'm not sure I'll be able to watch this debate. I hate seeing people humiliate themselves, even if they should have known what they were getting into. Gov. Palin never came off as one of those pompous, bombastic poseurs who cry out for a pie in the face and a kick in the ass. She's just a happy woman who always got by on a smile and a cheerful stubbornness about having her way. She thought it was enough to know a thing or two about cracking the whip. Who knew they were going to get all specific?

This has been a terrible presidential campaign, not so much vicious as utterly vapid, and too long by half. Gov. Palin's mangled and meaningless sentences invite mockery, but Obama, McCain and Biden have not been much more incisive. Have they? Taken at face value, the central message of both campaigns -- change -- is about as vague as it gets. Note to Gov. Palin: the key to saying nothing is to say it in sentences that can be diagrammed. You might stay below Jon Stewart's radar that way.

Just one more month to go. I don't think I need to watch any more debates. I'll be voting for Obama, unless it emerges that he once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. It won't be because I think he'll accomplish even half of what he promises. He'll disappoint us; they all do. But beyond the high-flown rhetoric he strikes me as a patient, thoughtful man, and the times call for such men. Boy, do they. Women too. Too bad Gov. Palin does not qualify.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An instance on Old Manor Road

When you wake up to a steady car horn at 3:45 in the morning, a lot of possibilities suggest themselves, none of them good: A petulant drunk punishing a long lost girlfriend; a particularly inept car thief, a dead body slumped against a steering wheel. I got up and looked down at the darkened street. No lights came on; no furtive footsteps could heard receding down the block.

The horn went on and on. Three minutes, then five, then ten. No cops came; nobody but me peered out the door to investigate. The brunette was a little worried, but the dog wasn't. Finally I shrugged, made sure the door was locked tight, and went back to bed. I wondered how long it would be until the car's battery was as dead as its driver.

The horn stopped after awhile. The abrupt silence was mysterious too, but I figured I could rule out the dead-body scenario. I picked up the book I'd been reading and finally drifted back to sleep. It didn't take long. Yeah, I might read a lot detective stories, but that doesn't make me a detective.

This morning I walked the dog and didn't see any police tape in the neighborhood, didn't encounter anybody who could shed light on the Case of the Curious Car Horn. I could probably go door-to-door and eventually find out, but I have a feeling that would alarm the neighbors more than a 10-minute blast of a horn in the wee hours.

So I'll put this one in my cold-case files, one of those mundane mysteries that will remain that way. The old saw is true: Fiction has to make sense; real-life doesn't. I guess that's the biggest reason that when stupid things happen, I pick up a book. It's been that kind of year. Let's just say I've reading a lot lately.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

No time to go wobbly, John

Maybe John McCain is being totally altruistic in his decision to suspend his presidential campaign so he can concentrate on fast-tracking the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Maybe he really thinks the bailout will save us from a depression, and that it won't get passed if he and his opponent are not in Washington scrambling for mike time. I am a simple man, with little understanding of high finance or Beltway politics, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. I mean, it's not going to break my heart to miss out on a few days worth of cheesy political ads.

But trying to pull out of this debate with Obama -- that's a little harder sell. McCain's people have tried to cast the debate as a frivolous campaign event in a time of national crisis. Right. We've got better things to do than judge the qualifications of the two men would be commander in chief for the next four years. These men belong in Washington, damn it, so they can help throw cash at those who, in a less enlightened country, would be getting stoned instead.

I'm glad Obama's people are having none of it. Far from it: They're delighted at the opening. It's only the need to project presidential decorum that keeps them from tucking their thumbs in their armpits and walking around clucking like chickens. Best sound bite of the day goes to Obama himself: "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once.''

So it is. I'm no fan of the heavily managed debates we've seen so far, but having both men restate their goals and resumes on the same stage seems like a better use of their time than towing camera crews around the halls of Congress. If the Wall Street crisis has come at a bad time for McCain, tough. Nothing could be less presidential right now than ducking a showdown when he finds himself at a serious disadvantage.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Beauty isn't everything. Right?

American political campaigns are all about celebrity. The essential objective is to become more famous than one's opponent in a short amount of time. You do this with sly commercials, and pithy put-downs, and three-word mantras chanted by supporters, and, if you're lucky, by sheer personal attractiveness.

That's why I first thought the not-so-attractive John McCain had made a shrewd choice by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate: She's a great-looking woman with a wonderful smile. And if there's a single tenet upon which all Americans can agree, it's that great-looking people rule, particularly if they smile wonderfully.

But there's another tenet: Smart-sounding people also rule. Sometimes they rule even more -- say, after eight years of a president who has trouble putting a sentence together. Barack Obama's defining advantage has always been that he sounds very smart, even when his oratory soars into ephemeral realms and does not quite cohere. Hey, at least he's trying. Joe Biden always talks like he shouldn't have had that last martini, but his sentences hold up even when they're not strictly on message.

It's been a few weeks now, and I'm finally ready to conclude that Sarah Palin, good-looking as she is, doesn't sound very smart. She might have the brain of Steven Hawking behind those designer specs, but I have my doubts. Every speech is nearly identical to the one she gave at the convention; if I hear that "thanks but no thanks" line one more time, regarding the storied Bridge to Nowhere, I'm going to vomit. She doesn't give many interviews, and after the Charlie Gibson debacle, you can see why. It's as though memorizing that convention address didn't leave a lot of room upstairs for more facts. That's not a good sign. It wasn't that long a speech.

Now the McCain campaign is shuttling Mrs. Palin around to meet with various international figures, evidently deciding that if she's a little fuzzy about NATO or the Bush Doctrine, these guys can fill in some background. There she is with Henry Kissinger, of all people, whose mind seems to be elsewhere. Perhaps Paris in 1973. I don't know, perhaps his prostate.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can't hurt. If something sidelines McCain and she gets that phone call at 3 a.m., no doubt the chats she had with Hamid Karzai or the president of Colombia will be a source of inspiration. But there's something a little childish about it, too. It's as though she's cramming for finals, trying to get up to speed on the Magna Carta before being called upon by grumpy professor Biden. That debate is coming right up (Oct. 2), and he'll eat her alive if she once again shows up without her homework.

If I were going on national TV, I'd be cramming too. But then most of us wouldn't accept a vice presidential nomination if we really had no clue and no curiosity about U.S. foreign policy. This is what troubles me about Sarah Palin: I think she knows what she knows, and she doesn't deem it necessary to know more. Basing every decision on personal moral conviction may sound admirable, but as we've seen, it's no way to run a democracy. And it's no way to win an argument with Joe Biden.

It will be an interesting debate. I expect to cringe a fair amount. I'll go out on a limb and say it could be the defining point of the election.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Wall Street and Willa Cather

I've been reading My Antonia, Willa Cather's 1918 novel about growing up on the Nebraska prairie. It's a beautiful book, poignant and uplifting, full of characters who reflect the truth of life in all its joy and pain. It's also an instructive portrait of the time in America when explicit toil was required for mere survival, never mind success.

I've been reading it against the background noise of Wall Street's collapse, men and women on CNN droning gravely about the consequences of greed, and the need to ensure that the greediest of all do not, in the end, go broke. It's a complex issue. It takes someone like Yale business student David Bledin, writing an op-ed for the Washington Post, to put a human face on the unfolding tragedy. You think you have it tough; think what it's like for Masters of the Universe-in-training who now rue the rigors involved in chasing a seven-figure salary:

"... once I could afford to splurge on a Zagat-rated "$$$$" dinner, I didn't have any time for it. I frequently spent 90 hours a week shackled to my computer. ... What bothered me most, though, was the way I couldn't plan anything. When I was foolish enough to try and sneak in a Sunday matinee, my BlackBerry would inevitably vibrate before the movie's climax, forcing me to scamper back to the office to tweak a pitchbook that had to go out to the client within the hour ..."

Oh. The humanity.

I know, there were venal snots running around in Cather's time too, most of them in New York. And it's foolish to romanticize a time so fraught with hardship. But the clarity of prose in My Antonia, and the importance of the landscape on which it's set, invite reflection about the stark contrast between the America that is and the one that was:

"If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."

This is the country we've made. No starlight at all, just streaming video and freeway exits and BlackBerries buzzing during matinee showings of Righteous Kill. It's a country where we pay guys a lot of money to tweak pitchbooks on a Sunday afternoon. Or used to. Maybe that'll seem poignant 90 years from now, the way My Antonia seems now.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another classic from the Coens

Well, the Coen Brothers are back. Burn After Reading returns to the sardonic and sophisticated dark comedy I missed in last year's No Country for Old Men. I'd say it ranks close to my personal Coen favorites, The Big Lebowski and Fargo.

In fact, it borrows quite a bit from Fargo, generally in a couple of graphic deaths, and specifically in a scene involving a hatchet. The plot borrows from Lebowski, with its use of a highly dubious MacGuffin -- some CIA files -- to send a cast of highly self-absorbed characters careening into each other in unexpected ways. You've seen the TV ads, so I don't need to mention how good the cast is. Personally, I think Brad Pitt's role as a bumbling gym trainer is drawn a bit too broadly, but I won't quibble. You've got to hand it to him for taking that sort of a role. John Malkovich has a character he was born to play. The writing elsewhere is absolutely precise, and absolutely funny.

Dave Bob says four stars, even as he acknowledges that the movie's black wit and occasional violence might not be everyone's cup of tea. It's the Coen Brothers, after all. As Walter so aptly observed in The Big Lebowski: "These men are nihilists."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ahh: British fiction in a British voice

A few more thoughts about audio books: When listening to books set in Britain, a narrator with a British accent is just the thing. I recently checked out Ngaio Marsh's Last Ditch from the State Library of Kansas, and the last couple of nights I've been listening to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I've read all the Sherlock Holmes stories many times, of course, but hearing them narrated in the stage-trained British voice of Edward Hartwicke added a certain dimension of drama and humor. Same with Last Ditch. Narrator Nadia May is not just reading the book; she's performing it. So it's quite true what an earlier commenter noted: When selecting audio books, the narrator is just as important as the author. Let's just say you wouldn't want Joan Rivers reading Anna Karenina.

I still have problems with audiobooks: I still tend to fall asleep before making the conscious decision to shut off the player. And with my non-iPod player, there's still no way to fast-forward or fast reverse in small increments, to review paragraphs I might have missed while my attention wandered elsewhere. On the whole, though, I prefer them to reading the actual book when I'm on an exercise machine or walking the dog. They'll never replace printed books, but they're a nice complement. I have spoken.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The age of Camels and Cadillacs

I've been slow to embrace Mad Men, AMC's drama about ad executives in the early 60s, but I think I'm ready now. I loved the scene in last night's episode where anti-protagonist Don Draper drains his beer and casually hurls the non-recyclable can across the park. And seconds later, when his wife Betty cleans up the family picnic by simply lifting the blanket and letting the litter tumble to the grass. In a couple of minutes, that scene captured the spirit of the age better than 40 pages of dialogue: it was the American way to use it up and move on, preferably in a '62 Coupe De Ville.

For me, the charm of this series is not the stories so much as the period detail. I was around 10 years old when people were driving cars the size of PT boats and tossing their trash out the window, but I vividly remember it was a time when that sort of thing was acceptable. I remember when every adult worthy of the title smoked a pack a day, when those Maidenform bra commercials were so titillating and when Rubenesque women like Joan Holloway were the feminine ideal. I don't know if they still make Vitalis or Brylcreem anymore, but checking out the gleaming men's hairstyles on the show, you can see why it was the stock to own in 1962.

The writing is good too, although I don't a get sense these are stories that are heading anywhere in particular. Mostly this show is a series of sharp character studies, placing timeless archetypes in a setting that is both much more and much less forgiving than the world we know today. I laugh at the rampant sexism on the show, even while I cringe.

The Sopranos and The Wire have moved on to that big DVR in the sky, but for me, Mad Men looks like a worthy successor. Anybody else love this show, or hate it? Let's discuss.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The man with the short gray attention span

Until recently, my only experience with audio books was through the cassette player in my old Subaru, listening to some Louis L'Amour tapes my mom loaned me for the long drive from Montana to Philadelphia. Maybe it was the road noise, or maybe it was Louis L'Amour, but somewhere on a particularly tedious stretch through Indiana, I concluded that audio books were not really my cup of tea.

Listening to books, my attention tends to wander. Sometimes half a chapter will go by before it returns. By then I'm not sure who's shooting who, and trying to rewind to just the right spot when you're driving is sort of like texting when you're driving -- the sport of fools. Also, I have this problem when male readers do women's voices, and vice versa. It just seems faintly ridiculous, and takes me out of the story.

But recently my friend Yvonne showed me the wonders of the New York Public Library's audio book collection. For a flat fee you get access to thousands of titles, including some very popular authors, that can be downloaded and played on any MP3 player -- no iPod required. I downloaded Lawrence Block's The Girl With the Long Green Heart and have spent the last couple of nights listening to it before drifting off to sleep.

This turns out to be a problem. With a print version, I know know I'm done reading, generally by the sound of the book hitting the floor. With an MP3, I might wake up at 2 a.m. and the guy is still rambling along as though I've been hanging on every word -- and he's just wrapping up Chapter 18. Yeah, I can skip back, but that would involve knowing precisely when I drifted off.

And again: the reader has a nice hardboiled baritone, but I always wince when he pitches it up to voice the willowy redhead who is central to the plot. Let's just say my suspension of disbelief gets unsuspended in a hurry.

That said, I do like the idea of having books around when I'm in no position to read them: walking the dog, say, or the running on the treadmill at the Y, or staring moodily into the middle distance. I'll probably try a few more titles.

Anybody else have anything good or bad to say about audio books? Check out the New York Public Library site and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Can Mrs. Dyer have her freezer back now?

So little is certain in this crazy world. But one great truth remains as constant as the stars: When two rednecks say they have Bigfoot in a freezer, they don't.

I mean, this is pretty basic. And yet for a week or so, even reputable news services were covering the claims of Ricky Dyer and Mathew Whitton as news. Some even ran the ludicrous picture supplied by the pair, showing what appeared to be a Planet of the Apes mask, a couple of doormats and a platter of link sausages jammed into a freezer. Not sure what the garden hose was for. But that's Sasquatch alright. I'd recognize him anywhere.

Now it falls to a web site devoted to Bigfoot-related dumb-assery to set the record straight. "I observed the foot which looked unnatural, reached in and confirmed it was a rubber foot," wrote Steve Kulls of the Sasquatchdetective site. Science triumphs again. You'd think this sort of thing might somehow embarrass Mr. Kulls, but I guess if you run around calling yourself a "sasquatch detective," you're already largely immune to feelings of shame.

Anyway, we see again that without Bigfoot hoaxes, there can be no Bigfoot enthusiasts. Which is ample reason to lock up Dyer and Whitton and throw away the key.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Here's a clue for Hasbro

It is with great regret that I learn of Hasbro's plans to market the game of Clue without the revolver. That little gun was one of my favorite game pieces of all time, second only to the iron in Monopoly. (I'm not talking about the lame card at left, by the way, but the little metal gun that looked like you could load it with little metal bullets).

Getting rid of the gun is a puzzling choice by Hasbro, since statistics indicate that firearms remain a favorite means of homicide among Americans. Certainly guns figure in more slayings than trophies, dumbbells and poison, all of which Hasbro has seen fit to add. If the company really wanted to bring the game into the 21st century, it might have changed the gun to a Glock 19 and added a pimped-out Escalade as one of the rooms. Now we're talking murder, baby.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A dark morning of self doubt

They say that when your plot starts to flag, you should kill somebody. In the story, I mean. Fine. But if I did that, pretty soon I wouldn't have any characters left. Now I'm in the last stretch of this book I started a year ago and about the only thing I can think of is a large meteorite wiping out all my characters except for the protagonist, who is left to wander away contemplating vague epiphanies.

That's fine too, except it's not really a meteorite type of book. It's more of a Fried Green Tomatoes type of book, without the lesbians. And, I'm beginning to understand, without the sales potential. I'm really not sure what I was thinking when I started it. But now it's acquired a life of its own. A crude sweater has taken shape, missing a hole for the head, and still I keep knitting away.

But such is the glamor of the writing life. You hammer blindly at the keyboard, hoping there's an invisible muse out there leading you along by the nose, and that she's not rolling her eyes at the awkward turns of phrase, the particularly egregious cliches. And you pray she takes a more active role in the second draft.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The boy is back in town

Finally home after a 3,600-mile road trip, with a new resolve to post here more frequently, finally finish that damned novel, and mow the lawn, which has gone primitive during my two-week absence. That last will have to wait, since it's raining now. You can mow a lawn when it's wet, or you can mow it when it's a foot high, but you can't do both.

So, to the blog. I renewed ties with a lot of friends and family and was lucky enough to catch my home state of Montana at its best: dry sunny days and cool nights scented with hay or lupine or alpine fir, depending on where I happened to be. The only bad weather to be seen was in Wyoming. No problem, since I was just passing through. Back here in Wichita, where summer is not the gentlest season, I'm thankful to have missed the past couple weeks of 100-plus heat and the woolen humidity so common in the Midwest. September can't come soon enough.

Above is a picture of yours truly at the stick of a Dimona motor glider, soaring high over the pine-studded slopes and dun prairie around Flathead Lake. I'm only pretending to fly it; let's just say my rudder work is rusty after a few decades out of the cockpit and I was all over the sky during the few minutes my friend Mike Stockhill let me have a go. But as a way to see Montana, I highly recommend it.

A motor glider is a wondrous machine. No need for a tow-plane; you climb to altitude under power, then shut down the engine and ride thermals ever higher, looking down the long wing at the scenery below. Quiet, too, except for the wind rushing by. If this aircraft didn't cost about as much as my house, I'd buy one tomorrow.

Of course, you can still experience Montana the old-fashioned way, slipping on a day pack and gaining your altitude one step at a time. My brother Ed and I put in a 12-mile hike (round trip) to visit a couple of lakes below Hollowtop Mountain in the Tobacco Root range. Yes, we may have been hobbling a bit when we got back to the car, but it was worth it.

The whole trip was worth it. Venturing out on the road always is, gas prices notwithstanding. I'm afraid to total up the charges on my credit card, so I probably won't for awhile. But in the meantime I've acquired some more good memories: lifting hay bales in Eureka, plying the waters of Flathead Lake on a pontoon boat, picking huckleberries up Blacktail, digging for crystals north of Polaris, strolling through the ghost town of Coolidge, harvesting lettuce from my Mom's garden in Sheridan. All stuff I've done before, but the older you get, the more poignant these things become. Life's short. So damn the expense.

Above is a building in Coolidge -- or perhaps an example of the kind of house you can get for a quarter million these days in Montana. They say the state's real estate boom is slowing down, but I didn't see much evidence of it.

Here are a couple more photos of the hundreds I took during the last two weeks. I don't claim they're art, but I'm posting them here just because I can. The one at left shows Ed and family mining the glittery earth at Crystal Park. That day we discovered a few good-sized amethysts and lesser crystals of no particular value -- but beautiful nonetheless. Below is a sprinkler head on an irrigation line in the Tobacco Valley. The few folks still haying in the valley prefer wheel lines because no kid in his right mind is willing to take the job of changing pipes by hand. Anybody's interested, I've posted a few more pics from the trip here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Flathead Lake and deep summer


No disrespect for Wichita, Kansas, but there are better places to be at the end of July. Surely the best of them would be here on the west shore of Flathead Lake, watching the placid water under a dome of pale blue sky, the mountains a somewhat darker blue in the distance. The morning air is as smooth as a silken pillow, cool as the underside of it.

This is why those lucky enough to own a piece of the Flathead shore are mostly millionaires now. When I was a kid, we'd come to the lake all the time in summer, splashing around a place we called Sandy Beach in Somers. It's where I taught myself to swim. Now Sandy Beach is someone's private paradise and my rare visits to the lake depend on the hospitality of friends. That's fine. If you lived here, you'd probably take it for granted. Or you might begin suspect ulterior motives when friends and family started dropping by in the summer months.

Some things it's better not to own: this view, these friends, this fine morning. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Out on the open road


Today I drove through Kansas and Colorado and much of Wyoming. Nothing like a road trip, even with gas north of $4 and the knowledge that each dollar I spend is not being replenished by a regular paycheck. Hey, this is why we save our money in the good times: so that in the bad times we can still brave through a thunderstorm outside Douglas, Wyo., sheets of hail horizontal across the pavement and visibility limited to the erratic taillights on that 18-wheeler just ahead.

Brief weather tantrums like that can kill you if you're driving I-95 from Philly to New York, or I-76 from Philly to Harrisburg. Back East, there are just too many drivers on the road, and they all become aware of peril at precisely the same moment, so that even minor problems reach critical mass in nanoseconds. One minute you're shouting your exact location into your iPhone and the next you're skidding sideways into a dozen jerks in Volvo SUVs who braked abruptly to ogle somebody changing a flat.

Western weather can be cruel, but the roads are forgiving. There's a car about half a mile ahead and another about the same distance behind; you could drive with your bare ass out the window and it wouldn't distract anybody. Even getting in that position wouldn't pose much of a problem -- you've got both lanes, baby, and nobody's worried if you swerve a bit.

I elected to keep my ass in the seat, and was able to log 800 miles for the day without undue discomfort. It's about the same as driving 150 miles on the I-95 corridor. Now I'm ensconced in the last available room between Cheyenne and Sheridan, here in beautiful Casper. FYI: if you come to Wyoming in July, you might want to look into when Cheyenne Frontier Days is scheduled. It's the reason it took four stops tonight to find a vacant room. Evidently it's popular enough to fill up rooms in a 150-mile radius.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Jolie-Pitt twins resemble neither parent

Here are the photos of Angelina Jolie's new twins. I could have sold them for millions, but money means nothing to me and information should be free. That's Billy Bob at the upper left, Jennifer at bottom right. I know, it's been reported elsewhere that the babies were named Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline, but Mr. and Mrs. Jolie are not idiots and they only put that out there so they'd know who the mole was. I guarantee you that as we speak, some staffer at Nice Matin is having his chestnuts roasted over an open fire.

And look: if you were doing a search using the terms "Jolie Pitt twins and their stupid names" don't blame me if it brought you to this blog. I can use the hits, sure, but the last thing I want to do is waste your precious time when you're mining the Web for the latest celebrity news. For the record, the only star I care about is Chuck Connors. And I'm pretty sure he's dead.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sure wish I'd thought of that

As a writer, my problem is this: When I have a good story, I can never come up with a good title. And when I have a good title, it always seems to arrive without the story.

Well, that's one of my problems. The others include writing at about the same pace as the Ice Age and producing prose that is frequently less lively. But we must all do the best we can with the tools we have.

I love good titles, so much that I've bought many books just on the strength of them. The latest of these is This Night's Foul Work, by Fred Vargas. I assume it's a line from Shakespeare, just as her earlier Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, but if there was ever a title to grab a mystery reader by the throat, this is it. You've got to love the Bard, and you've got to love Fred Vargas. I'll post a small review after I've read it.

This Night's Foul Work, by the way, is the first of hers that Random House has published in hardcover. Maybe we'll start seeing some of her stuff at the big chain stores here in the U.S.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A bit of heaven, a bit of hell

Tess likes to observe that the bigger the room rate, the fewer things you get for free. Which is one reason we ended up at the The Latham Hotel in Philadelphia's Center City. We got a great rate (about $130 a night), free Internet and every amenity that matters. Also, the maid service was the best I've seen anywhere. We'd leave the room at 8 or 9 each morning, and it was invariably made up by the time we'd wander back around lunchtime. I hate coming back to an unmade bed, because you just know that the maids will come knocking soon -- but there's no telling when.

This is a boutique hotel, with a small lobby and small staff who do not hover around smirking at your shoes and waiting for tips. It's clean, it's quiet and it's tastefully appointed. It's also within walking distance of all the city's sights. No need to pay for a cab. Comparing it to similar places I've stayed in New York, it's definitely a bargain. Highly recommended.

Not recommended: the Atlanta airport at 1 a.m., after a lot of flights have been canceled and all standby seats have been claimed by those less deserving. You stand there unshaven and sweating and try to come to grips with your choices: ride out the night in Concourse D with floor waxers shrieking by like taxiing 747s, or stampede to the exits with the other maddened beasts and try to find shelter in the urban jungle of greater Atlanta.

Option B, assuming you raise somebody on one of the sticky courtesy phones and extract from them a vague promise of accommodation, isn't for the timid. Outside where the hotel shuttle buses come by, everyone's clamoring for one of the Titanic's few lifeboats, reaching for the skid on the last helicopter out of Saigon. All pretense of courtesy vanishes; people are grasping and cursing and shoving their overstuffed bags into a van that in all likelihood is not the one they want.

This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with naked self interest and a desperate battle to get aboard the last bus to the Sleep Inn. It's not unlike one of those Heironymous Bosch paintings, except the airport people are mostly fatter, and, thankfully, fully clothed. My next trip will be by car.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I got them old airport blues


It's futile and tiresome to complain about the wretched state of air travel in America. You might as well complain about the law of gravity. But since our flight out of Philadelphia appears to be canceled, and wireless Internet access is free here on the weekends, allow me to hold forth for a few paragraphs.

When you drive around a big city, nothing inspires sorrow and rage quite so much as the sight of all the taillights in front of you suddenly lighting up. It means that traffic will soon slow to a full stop, and that whatever plans you had at the moment must now be reconsidered. You get a similar feeling in an airport, when you arrive three hours early for your flight, and clear security without difficulty, and enjoy a nice lunch in a far concourse, and at last wander down to your departure gate to find a long line has formed. The line keeps getting longer because it's not moving. It's not moving because the two women at the gate are powerless to do anything but tap at their terminals as though at work on the middle chapters of a Norman Mailer novel. So the line stretches away past Yummy Pretzels and Chickie & Pete's and everyone waiting tries to simulate forward motion by shifting their weight from one leg to the other. Occasionally they will think of someone else to notify by cell phone that their plans have inevitably come undone.

The good news is that we had a nice time in Philadelphia. The bad news is that our stay here will extend beyond the time frame we considered optimal. We can blame thunderstorms in Atlanta, the PA informs us, which means that we can't blame Delta. Which means that, should I be forced to bide overnight in Atlanta, it will be on my own dime.

Ah well. They say Atlanta is not so lovely this time of year. I'm inclined to believe them. But at least the temporarily free Internet access here at PHL lets me vent to the ether, as opposed to the harried women at the Delta counter. All part of life's rich tapestry. And more evidence for my evolving theory that air travel in 2008 is more trouble than it's worth.