Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Should aulde resolutions be forgot?

January is named for the two-faced Roman god Janus, who looks into the future with one face and into the past with the other. That's kind of where I'm at, too. On these dark days following the winter solstice, I look at the year ahead and resolve to be better in some small way, even as I look at the year past and realize how unlikely that is.

Was it just 12 months ago I was standing in front of this same mirror, vowing to hit the gym five days a week, cut down on the fatty foods and take it easy on the wine? I think it was. Those vows are too easy to make after the excesses of the holiday season. Suddenly the waistband is a little too snug and you've got some acid reflux going on, and a little headache just behind the eyes, and you realize that in a whole year all you've achieved is another trip around the sun with everybody else. It really is time to make a change, you think, and this time the change will extend beyond the first week of February.

Which no doubt why the Romans invented old Janus, god of gates and portals, god of transitions. In 21st-century America, the transition most sought is the one from fat to slender, or from obscurity to fame, but the idea is the same: If you want to be good-looking and get your own reality show, once a year it's a good idea to take a few minutes and see how things are trending.

Thus are born New Year's resolutions -- the temporary triumph of hope over experience. I make fewer of them than I used to, but I still do. They're mostly mundane: gonna get fit, gonna get better on the guitar, gonna be nicer to everybody. I don't write them down anymore, since it's better not to leave a paper trail, but I still try to convince myself each January that this time it will be different, that I will end the year a better man than when I started.

We'll see about that, won't we? For now, let's drink to the end of an odd year -- and the end of a decade that seemed not so great, even by my lowered expectations. Things can only get better, right? Happy New Year, all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Check your dignity at the gate

As long as they've got a limitless supply of credulous young males who don't mind cramming explosives into their underpants and trying to kill everybody around them, we're not going to prevail in this airport-security thing. Because all we've got are 50,000 TSA employees who are most concerned with preventing your grandmother from getting through security with an artificial hip. If you're a radical young Muslim returning from Yemen, don't have any luggage and are on a terror watch list, basically you're good to go.

If there's a bright spot in the Flight 253 incident, it's that one al-Qaeda-inspired idiot is today having trouble urinating, as the result of a badly burned schlong. Sorry, Umar Farouk Abdul-whatever: That's what happens when you don't pay attention in suicide-bombing class. If permanent disability is too much to hope for, then I wish you a long and painful recovery. Good luck with the 70 virgins. I guess we can also hope that this will be a setback for al-Qaeda recruiting.

Presumably, this means the rest of us will soon be exposing our privates, in one way or other, as a condition of boarding an airplane. Personally, I can't wait. But I wonder: At what level of indignity will travelers finally decide they really don't need to fly to that business meeting in Duluth? Sure, it's a long drive, but at least nobody's frisking you at rest stops, or deciding you've got too much styling gel. And usually you don't have to sit beside some mouth-breathing fanatic with a suspicious bulge in his BVDs.

Look: The terrorists are definitely winning. OK?  Their army of mind-numbed robots is apparently bigger than ours. And certainly more committed.  Anyway, they really don't have to blow up any planes; they just have to make us all disrobe and bend over at the command of somebody making $13 an hour. So far, that seems to be working.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The climate outside is frightful

This morning in Wichita, in the pale light of a low-rising sun, the temperature's not so far above zero. That's pretty darned cold for these parts, though it is December and the news stories today about winter storms "crashing" into the Midwest and "hammering" New England seem a little overwrought. People forget from year to year that a certain amount of cold and snow, in the few weeks surrounding the winter solstice, is not really remarkable. At least if you live anywhere north of Texas.

I've seen worse. I'd be happy to share anecdotes about the winters in Montana, the times it got 50 below and your spit, if you were a spitting person, would freeze before it hit the ground. It was way too cold to take a leak outside or start any kind of engine; you bundled up like the Michelin man to grumble through your chores and then you hunkered close to the stove and argued about who was going to bring in some more wood. By the way, if anybody needs advice on unthawing frozen pipes, I'm an expert on the subject.

Most of my weather stories are lies, of course, magnified and distorted through the murky lens of several decades, but I still say they don't make winters like they used to. Which brings me to the subject of global warning, and the idiots who weigh in on the comment boards of newspaper Web sites. Today on the Wichita Eagle's site, the daily weather story has devolved into the usual impassioned diatribes between left and right. One cold snap apparently proves that global warming is a sinister fraud perpetrated by the Trilateral Commission, or somebody. On the other side, it proves that people unsure of the science are creationist morons. As with all discussions among those who prefer to remain anonymous, it's a debate characterized by mindless certainty. Just a matter of time before the Nazi metaphors start flying.

A not-so-great man once said, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" I'll field that one, Rodney: The answer is no, as long as nobody's using their real name and every disagreement becomes a matter of faith rather than reason. Look, there can be no question that climate change is occurring, just as it has from the dawn of time. The question is the extent to which mankind causes it, and the extent to which mankind might make it better. There's also the question of weighing the cost of mitigation efforts against the benefits that can be expected to accrue.

Those are complex questions, and way beyond the ken of a man sitting in his bathrobe on a cold winter's day. I have my own opinions on the matter and I will vote accordingly, but at the moment I don't feel like trying to convince some other idiot in his bathrobe that my view is the only one with merit. I suppose that's why I never sought public office. I know it's why I don't attend church regularly. On Planet Dave, there are just too many things that can't be known.

Fortunately, the weather outside right now is not one of them. In a few minutes I'll have to go out in it. Nothing like a wind-chill factor of zero to clear the mind of extraneous details.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hundreds of candles in the wind

Every year I get more of these ghosts of Christmas past in the room. They don't say much. They don't have to. I already know that the best Christmas in middle age cannot match the least one of childhood. Then it was about things yet to come. Now it's about memory. But I have a feeling those ghosts expect me to pretend otherwise.

I think of them every year when my neighbors and I come forth to set out our luminaries. It's a tradition in my Wichita neighborhood: one weekend in December, we grudgingly honor a pact to line our ordinary streets with points of light. I thought it a little goofy when I first moved here, and kind of burdensome to keep those candles lit in a freezing drizzle. But I'm a true believer now.

You take one paper bag with a candle in it, it's not really much to look at. You take hundreds of them and put them in a row, and the effect is magical. That well-worn way to work becomes a runway to heaven. I guess it's that way with acts of kindness too. A single one can get lost in the shuffle, blown out by a passing truck. But multiplied they change the world.

I know; it's a clich̩. Peace on Earth, and all that. But our time here is short and contrary to popular belief, our opportunities to do the right thing are not infinite. If you've ever lost a loved one, you know this is true. Last year at this time I was talking to my sister on the phone. She wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be able to make it home for Christmas. I made a joke or two and told her I'd see her in the spring. And I did Рat her funeral. It wasn't the first time in my life I thought of all the candles I'd left unlit.

So, yeah: Do the deed. Put out your luminaries, and not just at Christmas. You're not going to get a pat on the back for each one, but maybe kindness without publicity is the most sincere kindness of all. And certain candles will burn all through a long December night. Maybe yours will too.

(This is a variation on a post I submitted to Do The Deed, a Wichita campaign promoting small, and great, acts of kindness. Check it out. And Merry Christmas. -- Dave)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Give me that remote control

I've been watching more TV lately. I suppose it could be another sign of creeping, slack-jawed sloth, but I prefer to think it's because there are better shows now -- even though I concede that crap like "Real Housewives" and "The Bachelor" and "Who Wants to be a Publicity Whore?" remain depressingly popular.

But doesn't it seem that TV sitcoms are finally reclaiming some of the territory so long despoiled by reality TV? That's my thesis. In a tough economy, a few good jokes can defeat a whole division of vacuous and venal blowhards. Paula Abdul's ouster from "American Idol" is a good metaphor for this. Market pressure hasn't yet killed the show, but it did force the replacement of one dim bulb. Let's hope it's a trend. America will be better for it. Sorry Paula. Sometimes, just being yourself is not quite enough.

My favorites at the moment are "Community" and "30 Rock." I still watch "The Office," although recent scripts have veered well afield of the milieu that made the show great. Now that the gentle tension between Jim and Pam is gone, the writers are forced to rely on increasingly bizarre and implausible behavior by Dwight and Michael. The best humor is rooted in recognizable reality. Take that away, and all you've got is slapstick.  "The Office" deserves credit for leading the sitcom revival, but it's gone on at least one season too long. Even so, I'd still watch the worst "Office" episode over the best "Everybody Loves Raymond."

I regularly watch one other show, although I'd prefer you didn't tell anyone. It's "Glee."  I like it not for the writing -- since the scripts rely mainly on each cast member developing a crush on every other cast member on a rotating basis -- but for the dance numbers. I love those dance numbers, love the choreography, love those lithe young bodies leaping through space. It's like "American Idol," only with high standards and a lot of rehearsal. You can't call "Glee" a sitcom, since Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester is the only funny thing about it, but it's great eye candy. And yeah, the music isn't that bad either.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A very "Seinfeld" reunion

In the annals of crappy television, nothing is crappier than the reunion show. And in the annals of crappy reunion shows, there can be no competition for "A Very Brady Christmas," wherein the kids come home for the holidays and Mike Brady ends up getting trapped in one of his buildings. (Nice job on the architecture there, Mike.)

Then again, "The Brady Bunch" was pretty bad to begin with. "Seinfeld" wasn't, and Larry David's mustering of the original cast for a fictional reunion show, in this season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is as good as it gets. Shows you what good writing, adequate rehearsal and great comedic talent can do in the fullness of time. It also shows, by comparison, how tired and lame the real "Seinfeld" finale was in 1998.

Speaking of comparisons, Larry David's current show begins to look kind of crass and clumsy too. Instead of honed scripts and comedic timing, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" relies on situations that are increasingly crude and implausible, with David and his cast barely containing their smirks while they ad-lib through each scene. The bit about the little girl's rash was just too much. Contrast that with the table read and the few scenes we saw of the fictional "Seinfeld" reunion, and you long for a return to a more sophisticated time.

That said, I loved how they handled Michael Richards' little problem with the racial epithets a few years ago. If Richards lost his mojo then, he's got it back now. The scene where he opens the door the guy in the Louis Farrakhan outfit is best in show.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fun in America: "Modern Warfare 2"

We've got modern warfare going on all over the place, but we still can't get enough of it. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has now made $550 million in about five days. That's a record not just for video games, but for anything ever offered by the entertainment industry. Suck this, Harry Potter. Last I checked, Half-Blood Prince, the biggest cash-machine in the world, had barely exceeded half that.

No, I'm not going to bemoan this American fascination with killing virtual people and blowing up virtual things. Or, in the case of Grand Theft Auto franchise, beating up virtual hookers. Fact is, violence is pretty fun when you factor out all the real-world misery, death and permanent disability. But when a video game devoted exclusively to military mayhem so completely eclipses any movie, book or long-running TV series, I suppose you have to ponder what it means.

Unfortunately, I have no idea. For me, the bigger mystery with games like this is why I suck so completely at playing them. There's an episode in The Office where Jim has his avatar stuck in a corner, trying to deploy a smoke grenade. Karen's avatar strolls up, waits until he turns around, and shoots him in the head. It's one of the very few ways I'm like Jim Halpert: not so adept on the virtual battlefield.

I do wonder if Call of Duty buffs don't occasionally speculate how they'd do in, um, the real thing.  You know: real guns, real carnage, real friends really dead. Really crapping your pants when it all becomes a bit overwhelming. Probably not. Video games have been around about 30 years now; most people are keenly aware of the vast distance inserted between reality and the monitor.

Maybe the popularity of Modern Warfare 2 isn't a great reflection of who we are as a society, but it does highlight a nice reality we tend to take for granted: As a population, we have no experience in war. None. Closest we came was Sept. 11, 2001, and like a video game the vast majority of us experienced it entirely through the small screen. We don't know much about war, and so we tend to view it as an athletic contest in which even couch potatoes might excel. 

Thanksgiving approaches, and we can enjoy all the combat we want in the comfort of our homes, without the mess or the mortality. Now that's something to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Just a little unfriendly advice

Now that the New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen unfriend as its word of the year, I guess it's official: all nouns are now legitimate verbs, and by extension so are their opposites. Like you, I somehow overlooked the intermediate delineation of  friend as a verb, but there's no sense being pedantic about it. Language constantly evolves. You  get on board or you get the hell out of the way.

New words arrive because there's a need for them. The concept of unfriending has been with us for centuries, but the explosion of social media has forced us to formalize and streamline the process. Used to be, if you became tired of a relationship, you had to be cagey about it: You'd see the person's number on the caller ID and not pick it up. You'd make up an excuse not to attend their dumb President's Day party. You'd be fortunate enough to spot them first in the frozen-food section of the supermarket, and you'd lurk in housewares until they were safely out to the parking lot. It was all about managing the gradual transition from friend to total stranger, and no ploy was too subtle.

Facebook and Twitter have rendered all that quaint and meaningless, not to say horribly inefficient. If you had to hone strategies for getting rid of every Facebook blowhard who came down the pike, you'd be tapping away at your iPhone 24 hours a day. (To those of you who already do that, I mean no disrespect.) Things are much easier now. If someone is posting too many random celebrity links, or is too frequently crowing about their Farmville accomplishments, they can be gone with a single tap. If somebody is re-Tweeting Rainn Wilson or marveling over the weather every few minutes, presto: they're banished for the foreseeable future. Unfriend and Unfollow: two essential tools for the busy online lifestyle.

It may sound cold, but it isn't. In the new calculus of social media, one physical friend who might have to use the bathroom is the equivalent of about 17 Facebook friends who won't; on Twitter, the ratio expands to one and 432. It's one thing to LOL at someone's retweet, quite another to feed them supper and laugh at their jokes and share with them your medium-quality wine. So don't be too reticent about it. In any garden, weeds will emerge. When they do, they're best pulled early.

Of course, unfriending is a two-edged sword. At some point, when you're conducting your weekly inventory of social-media buddies, you may notice that some of them have quietly decamped into the ether. Don't take it too hard; like you, they have a vast stable of contacts. Maybe you LOL'd at an update meant to be poignant. Maybe you misspelled the word lose too many times. Maybe that last "Which Horse's Part Are You?" quiz pushed them over the edge. No matter. Let them go. Facebook friends must be free, like Mediterranean fruit flies. Anyway, they're a dime a dozen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When bumper stickers become books

I have two rules in life: I never order the shrimp special and I never buy books written by former governors who would like to be president. So it's not really an ideological statement to say that I won't be standing in line tomorrow for a copy of "Going Rogue: An American Life." That Sarah Palin remains pretty easy on the eyes, but at this point I feel I know everything I want to know about her. Maybe a little more. In the parlance of our times, it's getting late in the day and it's time to move on, Sarah Palin-wise.

But every time such a book comes out, I always wonder: Who buys stuff like this? Who are these millions of people who immediately spring for the hardcover and propel it to the top of the New York Times nonfiction list?  What do they hope to learn from people like Newt Gingrich and Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck and Al Gore and Kate Gosselin? Do they not know that if they just wait a few months, they can acquire these tomes, unopened, for about 50 cents a copy on yard-sale tables all over town? And that the insights thus obtained will therefore be priced just about right?

I don't know. At a time when nobody's buying good books, it sure seems there are a lot of people buying crappy ones. They buy them despite knowing in advance, through blogs and infinite talk shows, every essential point the book might contain. In Palin's case, we can probably reduce it to a paragraph: "I'm quite a bit smarter than I seemed just a year ago. McCain's people and the Mainstream Media screwed me over big time. I'm an ordinary person who would prefer to remain extraordinarily famous -- with my own talk show, say, or the presidency.  And 2012 is coming right up."

Then again, I haven't read the book. And won't. Being an ordinary person myself, I guess I don't find them all that fascinating.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mac vs. PC? A pox on both their houses

I've never gotten sucked into the hoary Mac vs. PC debate. As far as I'm concerned, they both suck. They both keep us perpetually off balance, technologically speaking, and both leave a trail of obsolete peripherals in their wake.

This morning my wife got on the laptop I'd just loaded with Windows 7 and reported (I'm paraphrasing here): "This *&$^% printer doesn't work." I checked it out and was able to confirm her findings. Microsoft's own support site tells me that my little printer, about two years old, is not compatible with their latest and greatest OS. No apology, no hints on how to make it work. Basically, if I want to print anything from Windows 7, I'm going to have to take that 2-year-old printer to the curb and get a new one.

Just for fun, I checked on Apple's site, to see if a Mac running Snow Leopard might have better luck. Maybe it was time to switch. But nope. My printer's dead to Apple, too. But they'd be happy to sell me a new one that would work.

Home computers are wondrous machines, able to Hoover up hours of vitality and convert it seamlessly into useless butt time. You can play amazing games, watch streaming HD video,  play JibJab mashups and organize millions of crappy photos and videos into convenient libraries you will never use. But try to print a single black-and-white document after an OS upgrade, and things can get difficult.

I get it, OK? It's cutting-edge technology. The idea is that we upgrade everything on the same cycle and send our perfectly good stuff to the landfill with every incremental advance. But I've been doing that too long. I've owned computers since 1984 (the first was an Apple IIe) and I shudder to think of all the functioning hardware I've disposed of since then: printers and modems and headphones and monitors and mice and scanners. I love tech as much as the next guy -- maybe more -- but those landfills can only hold so much.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A family without grownups

OK, I'm going to recommend that Richard Heene, part-time "scientist" and full-time twit, be horsewhipped. And I'd be happy to throw in a good spanking for little Falcon Heene, the foul-mouthed brat who might have benefited from an actual balloon ride straight to Camp Cut-Me-A-Switch, where children learn not to curse at grownups and otherwise waste the valuable time of their elders.

Corporal punishment may seem harsh, but remember that the balloon stunt wasn't the first of their transgressions. There's also the matter of their "Wife Swap" appearances, where they took the show's unvarying theme -- free-spirit vs. control freak -- and drained it of even marginal interest because viewers hated everyone involved. The Heene clan came across as precisely what they are: pre-adolescent narcissists who will do anything -- anything -- to get on TV. Richard is the dad only by virtue of his age; it can't have anything to do with maturity or judgment.

Was the balloon thing a hoax? Who cares? The man named his son Falcon, for crying out loud, and that's a crime right there. Besides, anybody who calls the NBC affiliate before calling 911, as Heene did, clearly has bigger fish to fry than securing the safety of his son.

But this is what a decade of reality shows has brought us: A national stage for every quirky buffoon willing to up the ante in outrageous behavior. One of these days somebody's going to get hurt. Let's just hope they get it on tape.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Now that's some writing

I keep meaning to enter the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest, but I also keep forgetting to get my entries in. Still, it's always worth a look when the year's winners are announced. Yes, I know the announcement itself was several months ago, but that's in keeping with my general record of procrastination and partial recall.

Anyway, read this from the 2009 Grand Prize winner and see if it doesn't make you want to take pen in hand:

"Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests."
David McKenzie
Federal Way, WA

The runner-up is also inspiring, for those of us who like to make people laugh:
"The wind dry-shaved the cracked earth like a dull razor--the double edge kind from the plastic bag that you shouldn't use more than twice, but you do; but Trevor Earp had to face it as he started the second morning of his hopeless search for Drover, the Irish Wolfhound he had found as a pup near death from a fight with a prairie dog and nursed back to health, stolen by a traveling circus so that the monkey would have something to ride."
Warren Blair
Ashburn, VA

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The doctor will not see you

All this ink and air time being burned on the intricacies of health care in this country, and I'm no wiser on the subject than I was five years ago. I don't even care any more. Maybe all we really need to know is that nobody wants to make less money, and health care can't be cheaper unless somebody does make less money. Since the most influential voices in this debate are the corporations that make a huge amount of money, and the politicians who rely heavily on the trickle-up, and the dopey masses who can be mesmerized by a bumper sticker, I think we can see where this is heading: Things will stay pretty much as they are. If anything changes, it will be this: The usual cohort of scammers and venal swine will end up making even more money than they do now. I guarantee you that no insurance company will make less.

This is a cynical view and I apologize. But let's face it. The truth is, if you're worried about health care, your only realistic option is staying healthy. I suggest you work out, eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, quit tapping the little keyboard on your mobile device while you're rocketing down Highway 54, look both ways before crossing the street, floss regularly, avoid trampolines, lock up your firearms, get that mole looked at, and buy nothing under the warming lights at Quik Trip. Oh, and knock wood. Because Dr. Sanjay Gupta does not make house calls.

If you're already indisposed, if you're morbidly obese and your primary means of getting around is a power scooter with an oxygen bottle on the back, well, good luck. Have another Marlboro and remember what a great time the '60s were. If you have a weird growth on your neck, consider it benign. If you have symptoms of fibromyalgia or Crohn's disease -- hey, who doesn't? If you have leukemia or pancreatic cancer, take the long view: It'll be over before you know it.

And it'll be over way before anything gets through Congress. These people have little sense of urgency; they all have nice insurance plans and they all have supper waiting. The people they heed the most -- the corporate oligarchs -- prefer the precise opposite of urgency. The oligarchs' best strategy is to run out the clock. Fortunately for them, that's not so hard to do in a town like D.C. Even the charismatic Obama is a politician, and politicians don't get any points for falling on their swords.

What's to be done? Beats me. If I had any clue, I'd be having lunch with Sen. Max Baucus as we speak, maybe sharing my genius with Anderson Cooper. As it is, I must content myself with watching CNN and hoping I stay healthy for a good long while.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Riverdale, there's no need to choose

As a kid, I envied Archie. He had the easy life: the clever friends, the car, the adoration of beautiful girls. The number one hit song in 1969. He never had to grow up. The only thing I didn't envy was the stupid hair, but at 12 years old I guess that's a price I'd have paid.

Archie was different from my other comic favorites: Green Lantern; Flash; Sgt. Rock; Turok, Son of Stone. He was always in his street clothes, for one thing. Maybe that made him easier to identify with. He never faced down any fiends, never killed any Krauts, never tussled with any pterodactyls. The only problem he ever had was which nubile maiden would win his affections in the end.

Turns out he didn't even have to worry about that. Archie finally married Veronica in May, but next month he'll marry Betty too.  Archie Comic Publications is framing the story as an alternate history, calling it a meditation on Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Never mind that Frost was talking about the singular, irredeemable choices we make in life; in Archie's hometown, you get to have your cake and eat it too.

No mystery why the story line has brought a whole bunch of new fans to the redhead from Riverdale. We're tantalized by the idea that diverging roads at major intersections lead to distinct destinations -- and if only we'd taken that other one ...

But really, the few big milestones matter less than the thousands of small ones that multiply over decades. You stay too long at a party, you have another donut, you pick up an Archie comic when you could have picked up Dickens. You tell a lie or you text while driving. Or, in the case of Archie himself, maybe you shrug amiably and string the girls along for another issue, secure in the knowledge that none of you are getting any older. Or any wiser.

The places in the road that matter aren't really forks at all, just gentle curves in the yellow wood. Each step along it is a choice in itself, toward a destination you realize only when you reach it. Unless you're Archie, you have to live with that. But why he didn't pick Betty in the first place is beyond me.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trapped in the trite? Try these:

Facebook and its mildly retarded cousin Twitter have unleashed a huge demand for pithy remarks, single sentences so clever and incisive that they are instantly echoed around the globe. If one's worth is measured by the number of followers one has, then the exponent of that worth is the number of one's pithy messages that get re-Tweeted. Alas, the supply of cleverness has not kept pace with the demand.

Maybe this accounts for the proliferation of the phrases "Go figure" and "Just sayin'." If a tweeted observation seems particularly banal, just add the ironic eye-roll "go figure" and you've got the sophisticated air of one who's seen everything. "Just sayin'" works much the same way: It implies an amused exasperation with this absurd world, a touch of whimsy that is not immediately apparent in the trite thought that preceeds it.

If those don't work, there are always the "LOL!" "OMG" and "Snort!" These handy interjections -- employed in front of the re-Tweeted or linked item, not after -- show that your discerning eye has discovered something incredibly amusing. Almost as amusing as if you'd thought of it yourself.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Count abides

Can any book be considered truly frightening these days? Maybe not, what with an entire generation now conditioned to equate horror primarily with power tools and torture porn. But there was a time when certain books kept a lot of people awake at night, alert for a subtle creaking on the stairs, a scratching at the window. That time started in 1897, with the book Dracula.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was the first really scary book I ever read. I was 13 or so. I picked it up again a couple of days ago, since my wife bought a copy -- her book group has selected it for October in a nod to Halloween. I can report that the book is less terrifying this time around, possibly because its style and structure have been appropriated and diluted by so many imitators since. Stephen King, for example, in his first novel Carrie, used Stoker's idea of presenting the story as a series of journal entries, letters and news reports. It's a good trick, and it must have seemed doubly so in 1897.

So many other authors and filmmakers have based their work on Stoker's prototype that the original now seems trite. Stoker didn't invent vampire lore, of course, but he was the first to invest it with such authenticity. I can imagine how horrifying the book must have been 112 years ago, when science and folklore remained equal competitors. It's too bad readers new to the book won't get that.

Somehow, I don't think the ladies will like it. Bram Stoker was no Amy Tan. The characters, especially the female ones, might seem a bit one-dimensional. And the book, in 2009, seems longer than strictly necessary.

The newest edition of Dracula has a long, scholarly introduction, the usual claptrap about Victorian sexuality and repressed longings and the obligatory hints of homoeroticism. I say, who cares? If you read the book, forget all that. Forget Bela Lugosi, forget Dark Shadows and Anne Rice and especially forget the execrable Twilight series. Imagine a time when only guttering lamps lit the darkness. Imagine discovering the Count's true nature through a series of reports from those unfortunate enough to encounter him. In short, suspend your disbelief. You might find it a little frightening yourself, even all these years later.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Autumn and algebra

Autumn cometh. Snow in the mountains, leaves in the wind. Just kidding about the snow, since we're in Wichita and there are no mountains within several hundred miles. But the leaves really are beginning to drift up at the edge of the yard and and we've run the furnace a couple of times. Something about fall: this is the time of year some of us ponder the middle distance and reconsider our old best dreams.

My dreams never involved taking introductory algebra again. About 40 years ago I was happily certain I'd left that subject behind for good. And yet here I am, sitting a classroom every day, struggling through the little tricks involved in graphing polynomial equations. I don't hate it as much as I expected to. Algebra has an elegance of its own, not least because the correct answer is not a matter of subjective judgment. After working exclusively with English words for nearly all my life, with all their unruly ways, it's kind of refreshing to learn the precise language of mathematics. 

Anyway, that's what I've been reading lately: Introductory Algebra, 10th Edition, by Marvin Bittinger. The plotting is wooden and the characters nonexistent, and the used paperback version I bought cost $85 -- about three times what Dan Brown is getting for The Lost Symbol.  Let's just say it's not for everybody.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The dusty streets of Blog City

It's remarkable how quickly the blogging craze came and went. For awhile we were all out there panning the stream, sifting every aspect of our mundane lives and collecting page views and comments like flecks of gold. Some of us, I think, secretly fantasized that it might turn into something that would be beat working.

A year or two later and most of the personal blogs are ghost towns, the wind sighing down a dusty street, the occasional tumbleweed rolling by. That includes this one: Until today, the last update was about six weeks ago. I didn't make a conscious decision to pull the plug on it; it just happened. To belabor the ghost town analogy, the rail line never made it here, veering instead toward the more vibrant community of Facebookville.

Not hard to see why. You can only read a blog; on Facebook, you can take a quiz and easily determine which make of car or mythical creature you might be. And with a blog, you feel like you should write several complete sentences; with Facebook, a single pithy phrase will suffice. Good thing, too, since it's tiresome to do more than that on an iPhone keyboard.

Life hurries on. But you wonder what will become of all these abandoned blogs. Because they're mostly free, people have no incentive to take them down. I guess they'll last as long as the Internet infrastructure does, silent scrapbooks of days gone by. Look at these 2D pictures of frolicking children who are now adults, these quaint dinner parties from an earlier age, these reviews of long-forgotten books and movies. Ah, the days before the holographic monitor and the neural interface; I remember them well.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Raised on guns and dynamite

I was on the treadmill yesterday watching Rio Bravo on AMC. It's been called Howard Hawks' finest film, and that may be, but sweating through my fifth mile I was struck mostly by how cheaply life was regarded in the glory days of the Western.

In one scene, John Wayne and Ricky Nelson gun down three outlaws who have been distracted by a flower pot tossed out a window. The poor saps are just standing there, and then they're dead in the street without so much as a "drop your guns." When the Duke notices another man trying to flee on horseback, he kills him too. Fifty yards out and a moving target, that's pretty good shooting. But the guy was running away. Might want to review your guidelines on the use of deadly force, sheriff.

So we've got four men dead in about 15 seconds of screen time. By way of comparison, the actual gunfight at the O.K. Corral resulted in three fatalities, and we're still aware of it 128 years later. I swear, I watched dozens of movies like Rio Bravo during my formative years and I sometimes wonder today why I don't use more gunplay in my daily routine.

Or more dynamite. In westerns, dynamite appears only slightly less often than Colt revolvers or Gatling guns. Rio Bravo has a sequence where Walter Brennan is hurling sticks of it at an outlaw hideout. John Wayne and Dean Martin then detonate the sticks by shooting them as they land on the porch. The house gets blasted to kindling, of course, but the surviving outlaws stumble out with limbs somehow intact. Message: Dynamite is not just for contractors.

Dynamite has a starring role in another Western I viewed on the treadmill: Two Mules for Sister Sara. This one, starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine, also has a body count that seems a bit jarring in a movie billed as a comedy. As part of his scheme to steal a chest full of gold, Eastwood enlists the aid of Mexican peasants who hope to get rid of their French oppressors. In the climactic firefight, about 140 of them die horribly -- a fair number by running mindlessly (as extras so often do) into the business end of a Gatling gun. That's a lot of fatherless families to think about. But it's all good, as Eastwood and MacLaine ride wisecracking into the sunset.

I like old Westerns as well as the next guy -- maybe somewhat more than the next guy -- but I have to agree that movie-making has come a long way since then. Today even bad movies attempt to consider the consequences of gunshot deaths, if only to show how messy they are. And yet, somehow, guns get used in real life a lot more now than they did when the Western ruled the screen. Dynamite, thankfully, has been slower to catch on. I guess it's possible to overestimate the influence of pop culture on human behavior. It doesn't form us, after all; it only reflects.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Showing "Twilight" how it's done

I've grown disgusted with vampire movies over the past few years. Now that the simpering Gap models of "Twilight" have taken over, with their finicky diets and childish crushes, I'm about ready to put a stake in the heart of the entire genre. Bela Lugosi must be rolling in his crypt right now. Assuming he's still in it.

And yet, I come to praise a recent vampire movie that also blends romance and horror. Unlike "Twilight," it succeeds. It's moving, it's horrifying and it's somehow believable. "Let the Right One In," a Swedish film released last year, is the most engrossing movie I've seen in many months -- and that includes quite a few that didn't involve the undead.

Briefly, it's set in 1982 Stockholm, where the misfit boy Oskar has become the target of bullies. You can see why: He's a pale, sensitive lad who seems barely strong enough to lift his own limbs. He goes out at night to role-play some revenge, jamming his little knife into a tree and reciting the litany of insults his tormentors have just inflicted on him. When he turns around, there's a girl watching him from the jungle jim. It's snowy out, and bitter cold, but she's not wearing a coat. More importantly, she doesn't seem to need one.

Oskar's new friend is Eli, who turns out to be quite strong, quite a climber and quite adept at solving a Rubik's cube. On the downside, she can't stand daylight and can't enter a dwelling without being invited. When her true nature begins to dawn on Oskar midway through the film, he asks if she's very old. "I'm 12," she says. "But I've been 12 for a long time."

If the movie were only about vampire puppy love, it would get old a bit more quickly than Eli. But director Tomas Alfredson creates a cold, dark Stockholm where despair and foreboding seem to haunt every shadow. And Eli isn't one of those vampire vegetarians, like the dopey Edward Cullen in "Twilight." She needs to feed, and it isn't pretty. That's another thing I like about this movie: It remains true to the conventions of genre even while giving its vampire some sympathetic qualities.

Even if you don't like vampire movies, you might like this one. It's subtitled, but that doesn't matter, right? Dave Bob says check it out.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

We'll say goodbye -- just not right away

I'm not going to be one of those people grousing about all the Michael Jackson coverage. Yes, it's kind of remarkable that he's been dead nearly two weeks and he's still not in the ground, but that's up to the family and the promoters -- and of course the millions of fans, who seem a little too enthusiastic to be called mourners. Fact is, you can't jam several thousand people into the Staples Center and not have a casket there. Let's just hope they had the good taste to keep it tightly closed. I keep thinking of the Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral in 1989, where the mourning got so out of hand the cadaver actually fell out of the coffin.

To put things in context, it took just under one week to bury Princess Diana. But then she didn't sell 750 million records. Also, she was quite good looking and seemed to represent a sort of class and dignity that Jackson himself had largely abandoned. You didn't like to think of her being carted, 12 days dead, into a large sports venue; with M.J., you sense this is just what he would have wanted. Also, not to be crass about it, but his face in death could not be a lot less expressive than the odd face he'd crafted for himself over the last 15 years.

With Jackson, it's hard to know exactly what to mourn. The man himself? Maybe, but he's not been seen much anyway, apart from the footage where he's dangling the kid off the balcony or moonwalking atop a van after his child-molestation trial. His music? Well, he seemed to have quit that too, and it's safe to say the best of his music isn't going away -- ever. His incisive take on current events? Hmm. I can't remember M.J. ever saying anything that wasn't about his own celebrity.

I liked much of Michael Jackson's work. I wouldn't say, as so many have, that any of it changed my life. That's overestimating the power of pop. And it's not like he was going to write a lot more of it. I'm sad he died the way he did, but mostly I'm sorry he never got around to redeeming himself. Maybe that wasn't going to happen either, but I like to think he might have tried harder, if only he'd known what was coming.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bad choices equal hard times

I need some income. I'm not kidding. The writing thing has not turned into the major score I had hoped, and I'm pretty sure there won't be anything for me in Michael Jackson's will -- not since that day I saw him hitchhiking with his dog outside Winnemucca and slowed down like I was going to stop, then took off laughing just before he reached the pickup. In hindsight, that may not have been my smartest move.

I did have some money put away, but I'm starting to think it might not be enough. I mean it wasn't enough before the economy tanked, so I'm not kidding myself. Maybe I shouldn't have taken all my blackmail dough and invested it with this friend of a friend, this cat named Benji or Bernie or whatever. That was in November. I've been trying to call him to see where I stand, but nobody's answering the phone. He makes me show up there in person, he's going to be sorry.

Looks like all that cash and cocaine I funneled to the Norm Coleman campaign isn't going to pay off either. My fallback position has been always been landing a cushy job as a Senate page, maybe sell a little blow on the side. I thought my generosity would help them look past the fact that I'm 58 years old. Who knew Stuart Smalley had the stones to stay in the race for eight months and eventually pull it out? Hey, those are the breaks. You win some and you lose some.

But I am going to need some work. Something doesn't open up pretty soon, I'll have to start calling in some IOUs. I have plenty of them, believe me. There's that guy down in Honduras, I once took a bullet for him in a bar fight at this dive called Carmelita's just outside Puerto Cortes. I hear he's done pretty well for himself since, got elected president. Soon as I finish breakfast, I'll give Manny Zelaya a jingle, remind him of old times.

Monday, June 29, 2009

iOmelet -- it's the killer app

I am a petty, bitter man, especially when it comes to iPhone fanatics raving incessantly about the amazing capabilities of the device. About half the posts you see on Twitter pose some variation of the rhetorical question, "is there anything this iPhone can't do?"

Turns out you can also fry eggs on it. This amusing post describes the overheating problem being reported by some users of the new iPhone 3G S. "Toasty doesn't even describe how surprisingly hot it got," one user reports. Another put it under his pillow and awoke with a scorched ear.

Being petty and bitter, this is the sort of thing that brings a smile to my face. Not that I hate iPhones, of course, or those who wield them. I have an iPod Touch myself, which is currently at an undisclosed location in California, being scrutinized by a team of Apple techno-shamans who, like me, cannot fathom how I managed to brick it while trying to upgrade the firmware to version 3.

No, I'd step up to an iPhone tomorrow. Except I can never get past that immovable barrier of having to shell out a minimum of $1,200 a year to make it work. It's the pettiness thing again. Also, I hate talking on the phone, and never go anyplace requiring a GPS to find, and already have a little camera. Really, the only reason I covet one is because everybody else has one.

And how do I know that? Because the iPhone is designed expressly for the purpose of announcing one's presence to the world. It's the reason Twitter exists, the reason Facebook is thriving. It begs to be used in public --usually at gatherings where the people who aren't there become more tangible and interesting than the ones who are. Watching those little screens rule the room, even the most silent and cynical can't help but feel small pangs of longing.

And now that it's capable of making a grilled cheese sandwich ...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A study in hypocrisy

Every once in awhile, you run across a line you really wish you'd written. So it is with this lede by Maureen Dowd in her latest column:

As in all great affairs, Mark Sanford fell in love simultaneously with a woman and himself — with the dashing new version of himself he saw in her molten eyes.

That's almost poetry. I'm not one of Dowd's biggest fans -- sometimes she flogs her metaphors beyond endurance and comes off as simply sophomoric -- but her take on the two sides of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is brilliant. There's Mark, the penny-pinching prig; and there's Marco, the lying Latin lover. Her damning contrast between the two, between Sanford's conservative talk and libertine walk, should be required reading at the hypocrisy-prevention seminars the GOP must surely be planning by now.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The stuff that really matters

The King of Pop giveth, and the King of Pop taketh away. In his last official act, Michael Jackson batted poor Farrah Fawcett straight back to page A8 but also gave South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford some breathing room at a time when it really came in handy. The guy (Sanford) has to be thanking his lucky stars. Those erotic e-mails might have echoed for days had not the King succumbed to all his bad choices at such a fortuitous time.

When a major celebrity dies, it's bigger than World War II, at least for a day or two. The stars get realigned -- literally, because there's one less of them, and figuratively, because big stories have this way of becoming small when something bigger comes down the line. Who cares about Sanford any more? Who cares about Iran? We are talking Michael Jackson here, who has Touched Us All in ways we will still be discovering years from now. Personally, the coverage I've found most poignant is this piece about the time Michael Jackson inadvertantly dropped his sequined glove in the toilet. Hey, I've been there bro.

In the New York Times, there's this story about Shock and Grief Around the World. The former president of South Korea summed it up best: "We lost a hero of the world." A number of the memorials planned -- including one here in Wichita -- featured somber moonwalking. A stunned Paul McCartney, putting aside their petty differences over the Beatles catalog, called M.J. a "massively talented boy man." Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who normally shuns publicity, found time to show up at the family home in Encino. But then, we are the world. Maybe it takes a moment like this to make us realize what's truly important.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kicking Scientology in the shins

Most of my thinking on Scientology parallels last year's South Park episode, which nicely parodied L. Ron Hubbard as both a second-rate writer and a third-rate god. I also view the organization he founded as a church only in the sense that it exploits childlike credulity on a breathtaking scale. I know: Companies like Apple or Amway do that too. But unlike those companies, Scientology has grown fat servicing celebrity egos and selling nothing for something -- I refer here to the ludicrous but undeniably profitable concept of auditing. And unlike other successful companies, Scientology is tax-exempt.

Now comes the St. Pete Times to reveal a bit more about the organization. In a three-part series, its current leader, David Miscavige, emerges as something like Kim Jong Il in a better suit. Among other things, he is said to routinely abuse sycophants and conduct bizarre tests of loyalty. Readers might be reminded of other cults of personality -- Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, for example, or David Koresh's Branch Davidians -- but the analogy soon pales. Scientology is so vast that all the believers wouldn't fit in tiny Guyana, and if anybody's going to drink special Kool-Aid or perish in flames, Miscavige and his minions would no doubt prefer it be nonbelievers. He may be a raving megalomaniac, but as CEO of a profitable business, he needs to grow the market, not shrink it.

You have to hand it to the St. Pete Times. Scientology is a formidable enemy, powerful enough to make the IRS grab its ankles on the subject of tax-exempt status. Its litigiousness is legendary, and these days few newspapers see a percentage in paying reporters to afflict the comfortable. And yet, here's this series, carefully reported and solidly sourced, just like in the days of old. It may not hurt Scientology much, in the end, but it sure helps the case for professional journalism.

Friday, June 5, 2009

No rush to reunite

When I think of my high school years, it's always with a little embarrassment -- or a lot, depending on the memory. I committed a number of heinous acts for which there can be no redemption. I wore my shaggy black hair in the style now associated with Rod Blagojevich. I wore pants pegged so tight they looked like leotards. I was paralyzed by shyness. If I really liked a girl, my only strategy was to ignore her. I smoked unfiltered Camels in the belief it made me manly. I went along with any stupid scheme cooked up by friends, most involving copious amounts of beer. To the few good teachers who tried to rouse me from utter haplessness, I returned nothing at all.

You can't go home again, but people keep trying. This summer, the class of 1969 at the little high school I attended is having another reunion. If I go, it'll be my fourth. I say if because it's the first one I have doubts about attending.

I wouldn't have missed any of the others. Each was literally the party of the decade. In 1979, it was all about proving we were better than we'd been, grownups at last and on the way up. It was the kind of party where you had the urge to buy stylish new clothes or show up in a rented Cadillac.

Ten years later we were at the height of our powers, such as they were. We had our careers, our families. Some plain, unnoticed girls were now attractive women, some formerly boorish jocks were now brimming with bonhomie. Time again seemed the great healer. We all danced with abandon, as though celebrating the end of the cliques and classes that had defined us before.

Ten years after that, a kind of ruefulness had set in. We still got up to dance, but with a bit less exuberance. Mostly we wandered around trying to remember names, joking about getting older and exchanging remembrances that no longer seemed quite plausible.

They were all fun parties. They were also illuminating in an anthropological sense: A graduating class is a little control group, each personality a prototype for someone you'll meet after. Every 10 years, you can note the effects of time, the shifting tides of success and loss, the poignant impermanence of lustrous hair. On the long ride back home, there's some comfort in knowing that the erosion of time does not happen to you alone. That despite all the varying paths, you and your classmates are in it together.

Except that after 40 years, growing old together seems less of a comfort. The passage of a decade no longer seems completely benign. Now we've watched our parents get old and we know what awaits. All our youthful potential has been spent or squandered; from here on out the pieces start falling off. You're not sure you want to participate. You look in the mirror. You imagine the sultry cheerleader who was the object of so much teen lust, now a prim grandma immune to lust of any kind. You look at a poem you wrote then, its meaning now obscure. You look at the invitation to the 40-year reunion and think: The rest of you go on; I'll catch up later.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Inconspicuous nonconsumption

I own five digital cameras and three computers and an assortment of MP3 players. All became obsolete about 15 minutes after unpacking, displaced by newer models with more features. I've often wondered what I was thinking when I acquired all this crap, and now Robert Tierney, writing in the New York Times, offers an answer: It's my primal need to impress strangers.

Thanks for the tip, Bob. I still wouldn't be complaining if it worked -- there are worse things in life than the fleeting admiration of passersby. But Tierney points out that sending messages with material goods is futile. If I thought my 8-gig iPod Touch might garner adoring glances from the chicks at the gym, I thought wrong. And not because they all have 32-gig iPhones. Turns out it has more to do with social invisibity. And that derives from my relatively flat scores in the "Big Five" personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.

Hey, stability! One out of five ain't bad. But to raise my profile in the other four areas, I'm afraid it might take more than the latest iToy. Perhaps more than a BMW. Or a sailboat, or a place in the Hamptons. In fact, I've begun to suspect that acquisition of property is not 100 percent reliable as a path to self-transformation.

It's sad in a way, this weird idea that happiness can't be bought. But if Americans are beginning to question the benefits of rampant consumerism, at least the timing works for me. The lack of a steady paycheck curbs the means of shopping anyway, if not the urge. I still pore over the Best Buy circulars every Sunday, but I never buy anything. My car's eight years old and running a little rough. The last pair of decent sunglasses I acquired were a set of Ray-Bans I found during a walk in the park. A new camera? Forget about it.

Strangely, I don't feel much different than when I was impulse-buying like the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Life proceeds as before. Shopping doesn't make you happy, true, but here's my little epiphany: Not shopping doesn't make you sad.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A memorable morning in May

I started this blog with a narrow focus on crime fiction, but it's been all downhill since. I've since veered into inane mini-reviews of TV and movies, descended into celebrity mockery, then went down a couple more pegs with trite remarks about the weather. Roughly a third of my posts now are about how pointless it is to do a blog at all. Today, it has come to this: I'm down to personal recollections.

Because today is May 18. Anybody who lived in the Northwest corner of the nation in 1980 remembers that day pretty well. We were living in Yakima, Wash., where I worked for the daily newspaper. It was Sunday morning and we woke to the sound of an approaching thunderstorm. I went outside with the kids, and there to the west was a wall of gray, laced with lighting. A storm, yes, but there wouldn't be any rain that day. The radio informed us that Mount St. Helens had just exploded, and the ash cloud was headed our way.

I didn't know much about volcanoes, but I knew one had annihilated Pompeii. I hustled the kids inside and put our Honda Civic in the garage. I ran some drinking water. Then we huddled inside and watched in awe as night fell at about 9 in the morning. It felt like judgment day.

Naturally, the paper called shortly after to summon me to work. That was always the way with the newspaper career: When anything big happened, the last place you could be was with your family. It was an eerie drive to work, midnight at noon, the streets choked with ash, the few people outside wearing bandanas over their faces, wielding shovels or brooms to no great effect. I remember well my bleak realization that this stuff would never melt.

It was probably the longest newspaper shift I ever worked, right up there with the 2000 presidential election and 9/11. We came up with a paper we were proud of, which I hoisted for the camera the next morning during a break in shoveling ash. The Herald-Republic later put the page on souvenir coffee mugs, but the red headline quickly faded in the dishwasher. Now it just shows a tiny picture of the huge cloud that was inbound that morning. The page is gone too, lost in one move or another -- but newsprint is meant to last for days, not decades.

Anyway, who needs a souvenir for something like that? Seen in the rearview mirror, what is life but a collection of the days you remember without them? Come back in November and you'll learn what I was doing the day JFK got shot.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A bit more rain to prime the pump

I like rain in the morning, even knowing how much of it is going to end up in my basement. I like dark skies and thunder and the dog curled up at my feet, largely oblivious. I like the first of May, and the saturated greens of the grass and the trees viewed through rain-dappled windows. I like listening to NPR, at least for those fleeting hours before Diane Rehm comes on. Oh, and brown paper packages tied up with string ...

Which is my way of saying that I have nothing else to write about this morning. On the news it's all flash-flood warnings and swine flu precautions and Chrysler's collapse. Not much to say about that. I have a novel on a flash drive that will embarrass me if I send it to another agent and will embarrass me more if I don't. (One of the downsides of pretending to be a writer is that you're expected, occasionally, to provide some evidence of it.) But the rain precludes yard work and I've read all the news sites, so this will be a writing day. Or a rewriting day. And this is me warming up.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Before I go, some swine flu info

The rest of you should probably go ahead and panic, but it's too late for me. I already have swine flu. When I got out of bed this morning I had certain aches and pains, not a lot of energy and the vision in my left eye was a little fuzzy. Also, that large bowl of popcorn I consumed before bed was not setting too well. These symptoms are eerily similar to the ones I experience every morning, but given the national news it seems clear that swine flu has arrived in east Wichita.

I just wish they'd come up with another name for it. "Grim Reaper" would be good, even if it seems a slight exaggeration at this point, with U.S. lethality hovering around zero. "Captain Trips" is not bad either, assuming the World Health Organization can wrest the rights from Stephen King. I'd even settle for "common cold." But "swine flu" is just so '70s. And I'm really not comfortable dying from anything related to pigs.

Anyway, while I'm still well enough to type, here are some quick answers to frequently asked pandemic questions:

Q: I need to run to the store to pick up some pork rinds. Should I wear a surgical mask?
A: Pork rinds? Are you sure? The "experts" say you can't get swine flu from eating swine-based products, but why take a crazy chance? And yes on the mask, especially if you supplement it with a big Target bag, as in the picture. If you can afford it, a full set of scuba gear offers the best protection of all.

Q: I need accurate, up-to-date information as this deadly pandemic brings the world to its knees. Where should I turn?
A: I use Twitter, which can instantly echo and amplify all data on the disease, pertinent or not. It's the most trusted source of information on what somebody's brother heard on the radio that one time. If you're not on Twitter, try Glenn Beck, who should be bouncing off the walls right about now.

Q: Is diarrhea a symptom of swine flu?
A: Yes. But it's also a symptom of too many bean burritos, so keep that in mind when Tweeting.

Q: Can I have your stuff when you're dead?
A: No. I'm putting it on eBay as we speak.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Something to be said for staying put

It says here that Americans are moving less, another one of those symptoms of the crappy economy. It's also a cause, since Bekins and Mayflower and U-haul and Ryder could really use the work right now. But maybe it's not such a bad thing if people stay put for awhile. Maybe they'll get to know the neighbors. Maybe they won't have to face how little the house is worth if they give up trying to sell it.

I've moved a couple dozen times in my life. It was almost always for better job, although once it was for a better view and the time after that it was because of the divorce. I always thought it made sense at the time. There's something invigorating about moving on, packing up what you really need and getting rid of what you really don't. There's also something poignant about it, looking around the empty rooms for the last time, aware of the echos and the memories and the knowledge that you won't be back. Like a funeral, a move concentrates the passage of years into a day or two. It reminds you again that all things pass.

Thanks for the tip, right? At certain age you don't really need to change houses to make that point. It's gotten so I can't wrestle a mattress or a dryer into a new place without picturing the day I must wrestle it back out. If the bad economy postpones that day, fine with me. I'd rather have this couch in the living room than in the truck.

But move on we must, sooner or later, good intentions and bad economy notwithstanding. No doubt there are few more ahead, before that final move to the big gated community in the sky. For that one, fortunately, there's no need to pack.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In spring, an autumnal point of view

If you're looking for an excuse to stay in shape, consider this: One day a truck might pull into your driveway and two taciturn men will unload tons of compost, mulch and shrubbery. And then you'll have to haul it all into the backyard and plant everything.

Trust me, in a situation like that, it helps to have a little upper-body strength. Or at least I'm assuming it does. My own upper-body strength appears to have gone the way of disco and drive-in movies. Not sure how that happened. Hard to believe, but I once was capable of bench-pressing something larger than a clock radio. Back in the day, I'd be toting these bags of compost three at a time, instead of dragging them individually across the lawn with a rest break along the way.

I know: The older we get, the better we were. Those of us with gray hair like to brag about the glory days, even if they weren't so glorious. Why not? Nobody can prove we're lying. And sometimes it seems important to emphasize that we weren't always this way, that we were occasionally up to it when muscle mattered. Youth goes, but vanity sticks around.

Too bad vanity tends to disregard the evidence. This morning a number of long-dormant muscles have lodged formal protests. I'd be happy to give them a break, but I notice that the rest of those shrubs have not yet planted themselves.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Music for a song? That's theft

I'm not outraged that Apple has bumped the price of its music downloads a cool 30 percent, a move followed a day later by Amazon and then by Wal-Mart. I'm not sure why they don't raise the price 50 percent, or 100 percent, or 1,000. The music industry is on the ropes, after all, and it needs every extra freaking dime you people can spare. Screw Darfur; let's step up for Sony and EMI.

All these music retailers have taken pains to point out that not all songs will cost more. Some will cost as little 64 cents -- really great songs by Yoko Ono (above) and assorted American Idol alumni who did not make it to the top 10 in season three. It's quite a bargain. Just think: Under this new pricing structure, you can have 100 tunes nobody wants for the low price of $64. Pennies, really -- 6,400 of them.

I'm for anything that helps this beleaguered industry survive. I'm for anything that will put food on the table for Madonna and Britney Spears and, to a lesser extent, Kanye West. These people have to eat too, and occasionally adopt Africans, and a 30 percent raise is certainly not too much to ask of you, the consumer, in these economic times. Same for the suits at Warner: think it's easy having no talent and being forced to feed on the lifeblood of those who do? Think again. I think we should all show some genuine compassion -- and fork over the extra 30 percent without grousing.

I know, this isn't going to go down well with a lot of people. A lot of them might turn to sites like, which offers a comprehensive catalog of completely DRM-free music for about 14 cents a track. Some of these people, who shall remain nameless, having been buying music that way for years. Some of these people roll their eyes and smirk when they see other people buying iTunes gift cards, which are now worth about 30 percent less than they used to be. Some of these people rationalize their behavior by noting that nearly everything they buy this way is something they've already bought numerous times in now obsolete formats: LPs and cassette tapes and CDs. I mean, how many damned times must I -- that is, these people -- buy the Beatles' White Album or Fleetwood Mac's Rumours?

Forget that last part. Buying music through our Russian friends is stealing from the American music industry. And if there's any stealing to be done, far better that the industry steal from you, rather than the other way around.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Anna of the two religions

Turns out even the Episcopal Church, widely known for its tolerance and understanding, can get a little impatient when its ministers can't make up their minds about the religion thing. Just ask the Rev. Anna Holmes Redding. She's been with the church for 30 years. When she converted to Islam and accepted Muhammad as the prophet in 2006, it raised some eyebrows. But she kept showing up for work, so the church waited to see how this thing would play out.

And waited -- for three years. Talk about tolerance. But even Episcopalians have their limits; Redding was finally defrocked this week. Tough break. Losing a fulltime job is going to hurt in this economy, even if you've got Allah pulling for you. Redding expressed regret at such narrowmindedness. "It simply hasn't been my experience that I have to make a choice between the two," she said.

I wish her all the best. But maybe she'll want to rethink the career track. I don't darken the doorway of a church very often, but when I do I like to think the person up there preaching knows exactly what she believes. I've got enough vagueness and doubt to fill every pew; I don't need any more of it emanating from the pulpit. If you believe everything, after all, you really don't believe anything.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hancock, we hardly knew ye

Yesterday I sent the movie Hancock back to Netflix unwatched. Sorry, Will. But I've had it laying around here for about a month and the time just never seemed right to spend two hours with a surly superhero. It appears Knadler's Law applies to Netflix movies the same way it applies to things decomposing in the refrigerator: They never seem more attractive the next day. You think that potato salad is a bit iffy now, wait until Monday.

Sending a Netflix movie back unopened usually means it's time to cancel or suspend my subscription. I do that about once a year, after realizing I've seen all the newer movies I care to see and crowding the queue with stuff I might not pick up if I saw it lying on the sidewalk. I've got a few of this year's more obscure Oscar nominees on there, but they're all marked "Short wait," or "Long wait," or "releases sometime in the distant future." I wonder: Do I really want to see Doubt or Milk? And if I have to wait, why not wait without the inconvenience of a subscription fee?

Which, incidentally, has just gone up. Netflix recently notified me that they're bumping the cost of getting Blu-Ray movies. It's just an extra three bucks a month, but since I'm not watching the Blu-Ray movies I'm getting now, maybe there are better uses for the dough. Donuts from The Donut Whole, for example.

I'll think about it. The question is always whether to run out the queue or just go cold turkey. If I quit now, it'll mean a very long wait indeed for such films as Quantum of Solace, Hard Candy, and, way down at the bottom of queue, Help. If I stay, it's probably hurting the environment somehow and is certainly depriving me of much-needed donut money. Not to mention the guilt I'll feel when I send them back unopened.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

These errors are starting to add up

A year and a half ago I got a letter from the IRS. They wanted more money. The letter pointed out that while I had declared as income the few hundred I'd made from selling a story, I'd neglected to pay the self-employment tax. The upshot was that I'd better remit another $70 posthaste, or there'd be trouble. I got the letter not long after filing my return. And I hadn't even been nominated for a cabinet post.

I always think about that when I hear about the little tax problems of those who have been nominated: Tom Daschle and Tim Geithner and, most recently, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Between them, their unpaid taxes come to well over 200 grand, but only Geithner managed to raise eyebrows at the IRS, and that was well after the fact. Stories like these are beginning to add up. You wonder: Does anybody pay the taxes they owe? Have I been a sucker all this time?

No, I don't think any of these people are crooks. No doubt all of them made understandable mistakes, just as I did when I inadvertently cheated Uncle Sam out of his $70. But there's something wrong with a system that detects tiny discrepancies and lets the big ones slide, a tax code that even the political elite can't seem to figure out. My $70 mistake triggered a red light somewhere at the IRS; Gov. Sebelius' cool $8,000 went unnoticed. There's the whole appearance-of-fairness thing. Of course the system's not designed specifically to screw the obscure and coddle the connected. It only looks that way.

Finally, can we retire the phrase "unintentional error" in connection with these tax stories? Sebelius used it again yesterday. Kathy: If it's intentional, it's not an error. It's a crime.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Nice, but where's my f***ing profanity?

I was an early and unlikely fan of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Normally I go in for hard-nosed crime fiction where at least five people die horribly before the denouement. In Smith's books, a very kind and overweight woman goes around solving mysteries of a less-menacing nature. People do occasionally die in these books, but never at the hands of depraved serial killers. If you like curling up with a writer like Thomas Harris, A.M. Smith takes some getting used to.

He has a finely tuned ear for West African English, which makes every character sound both simple and profound. Even the antagonists can be charming. This charm comes across very well in the HBO series of the same name, which we watched last night. The series is perfectly cast and perfectly written -- which is to say it matches the expectations of longtime readers like myself. As in the books, the pacing is pleasantly sedate, driven more by character than plot. If you have HBO, it's definitely worth a look. Smith now has 10 books in the series, each as good as the last, so we're assured of good writing for this debut season at least.

As an aside, during last night's show I was struck by another thing: This is an HBO series, but not one character referred to another as a m*****f****r. What's up with that? In fact, I'm pretty sure the writers didn't deploy any f-bombs at all, neither as verb, noun, adverb, adjective or interjection. Ditto the C-word. After years of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Deadwood, this is a jarring omission. I predict a writers' strike at some point: Think how much harder you have to work when you can't pad the dialogue with obscenity. There were places in The Wire where the only words that didn't start with F were the conjunctions.

It's kind of refreshing, but this could be a risky route for HBO. After the suits fine-tune it we may yet see Precious Ramotswe beating up hookers and cursing like a drunken sailor with Tourette syndrome. What's the point of an HBO show if its scripts could pass muster on network TV?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A morning without power

Guess it's a storm after all. The power went off at 3:30 a.m., and didn't come back on until around 10 a.m. In the meantime, our good friends were good enough to have us over for a nice hot breakfast. Thanks, D & D!

Now everything is covered in ice and certain branches are hanging dangerously low, and wet snow is coming down hard. But the furnace is on and I'm going to take a nice hot shower while I can -- day like this, you can't take continuous power for granted.

As the picture at left suggests, we won't be barbecuing for dinner tonight. Good Lord willing, we'll be tasting wine and eating pizza instead. Speaking of which, here's a poem I wrote at the request of tonight's hosts, in praise of tonight's featured grape:

I think that I shall never know
A wine so useful as merlot,
A modest grape that won't offend
When crowds of people must attend.

Though other wines may have more fame,
The alcohol is much the same;
It's not too heady, nor too light,
And usually the price is right

And though we gather just to taste,
To spit it out would be a waste
And though it's just a tiny pour,
It's never wrong to have some more.

But so that you will not seem dumb,
Pretend to note "a hint of plum"
And give your lips a thoughtful purse,
Allowing that you've tasted worse.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stocking up and hunkering down

The big news here is that a major blizzard is on the way and it's going to hit this city but good. Forget Fargo and its 112-year flood; we've got a half-inch of snow on the ground and now it looks like some sleet. This could be rough. I expect to see CNN vans on every block of this city by the close of business today. It doesn't look too bad in the picture, but just you wait.

People here love bracing for a winter storm, particularly at this time of year when tornadoes are more likely than a foot of snow. I love it too, monitoring the situation from the relative safety of command central. I left the house just once today, to pick up some stew fixings at the grocery store. Evidently I was the last one to think about stocking up: there wasn't much left in the meat aisle and all they had for milk was some 2 percent that was very close to the sell-by date. Would have picked up some guns and ammo too, except you can't find that stuff around here either, what with Obama in the White House. I just hope the snow is deep enough to deter all the looters and cannibals.

Of course, it could happen that the blizzard doesn't quite meet expectations. The magnitude of events often correlates inversely to the hype about them beforehand; if the forecast is for a Force 5 tornado, for example, you can pretty much count on light wind and partly cloudy skies. Remember that Y2K catastrophe? Neither do I. Perhaps because it never came to pass.

Then again, this really could be the big one. We'll see. Whether we get two feet or two inches, I guess we can be grateful that it's only snow.