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.