Sunday, April 30, 2006

x-bay transit

For the last week or so -- ever since I came back from New York -- the most inane of Simon and Garfunkel's musical offerings has been flitting through my mind. Delicately flitting, but flitting nonetheless. At the Zoo, I think it's called, and it starts something like this: "It's a light and tumble journey from the East Side to the Park, just a fine and fancy ramble to the zoo." There's more about the lyricist's transit adventure, which inexplicably involves no crazy people or auto-conversationalists. Then in an unbearable burst of poetic liberty, Paul Simon goes on a tear about the insincerity of giraffes, the reactionary nature of zebras, pigeons plotting in secrecy, and hamsters turning on frequently.

Frankly I think he must've been smoking too much pot. Those are some goofy lyrics.

But I have no such excuse. Why can I not banish this song from my mind? Why do I find myself humming it on my way to Berkeley? I'm temporarily blaming the recurring melody on the cement lion that I see when I'm in transit from here to there. In honor of Easter, it's been festooned with a bunny headdress. The ears are made of a translucent pink material that catches the light just so. Even under the best of circumstances, the lion can't look very dignified. Look at it -- always issuing that stream of drool from its agape mouth. Then you put bunny ears on it: no wonder I'm mumbling the lyrics of At the Zoo. "The zookeeper is very fond of rum." Paul Simon's a fine one to talk.

But it is a light and tumble journey from our house to Berkeley. What makes it a light and tumble journey, while my walk down the hill to the most expensive bad grocery store in the known universe most certainly isn't? Likewise my drive down the peninsula to my double-secret office in Mountain View is neither a light nor a tumble journey.

I've decided that what sets my weekly commute to Berkeley apart from my other infrequent excursions away from the house is that my ears pop on the way to Berkeley.

That's right: It's a light and tumble journey because my ears pop. It happens when BART enters the tunnel that takes the train under the bay. It's not unlike the pressure change you feel when your flight takes off -- if you're lucky, your ears pop, as do the ears of the baby across the aisle from you. It's easy to tell if either or both of these things don't happen. It's important that they do.

The Transbay Tube is the tunnel's official name. I'm given to understand that most people spend the entire time that the train is under the San Francisco Bay thinking about earthquakes and now terrorism. I know I do. So in addition to my ears popping, I also sweat a terrible, sick, nervous sweat, the kind that comes from abject fear. It was worse this last Friday, since just before the BART train was about to enter the transbay tube on the way home, it came to a halt. Over the PA system, we passengers could hear a muffled explanation, "police... blab... blab... system closed... bleb... bleb... Embarcadero... blob... blob... we'll be underway as soon as... blub... blub..."

I thought to myself, "Maybe I should ask to be let off the train here, on the wrong side of the bay. Just like those unnerved airplane passengers that make the plane taxi back to the gate so they can get off. Then I'd be off BART and I could walk home. But there's the bridge. That wouldn't be safe either, because surely whatever's closing the subway would have some bearing on what's going on above it. Yeah. I could walk home... by going around the end of the bay! I'd get home by tomorrow morning if I didn't dawdle." By the time I was through ruminating about how I'd get home if I didn't take BART and, for safety's sake, didn't take the bridge either, I'd almost missed the 24th Street station, where I'm supposed to de-BART. The long escalator was out of service, but besides that, everything appeared to be normal top-side.

I walked my zig-zag route to 22nd Street, intercepting 22nd in time to check out The Green Cross. Sure enough, it was gone. Just an empty storefront. It's sad. I'm not sure whether the neighbors' hysteria ("The Children(TM)!") was real or a disingenuous attempt to keep their rising property values high. The children didn't walk by The Green Cross so much as they were chauffered past it in Mommy's Range Rover; I doubt they gave it a second look unless their folks told them not to. We'd gone to several of the Appeals Board hearings, and I was convinced that Kevin, the GC's owner, was sincere in his willingness to work with the neighbors to make his medical cannibus dispensary into a neighborhood business. No such luck. So instead of The Green Cross, I'll probably see another nail salon next time I walk by. Or a bar.

Makes it a little less light and tumble, the departure of The Green Cross.

The cool thing about the remaining light and tumbleness of the journey is that it gives me an opportunity to check up on my flowers. I've planted wildflowers in other peoples' gardens all along my usual route to BART. Mostly they've been pulled up: when garden space is as cramped as it is in San Francisco, gardening's all about control of the territory. If you don't recognize a plant, you pluck the offending flora from the ground.

Mom has commented on the uptight (her word) attitude of San Franciscans. This would be evidence. Can't even let a few flowers be. And these are by the street, mingling with their plantings of South African grasses and lavender.

But there are a few survivors and they've grown in the recent rains. They're a foot tall and their serrate leaves are vibrant green. I'll take a photo for you if and when any of them bloom. If there are any left.

Stray flowers blooming will make it the most light and tumble journey of all.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

tiny pills

Originally this entry was about spam: how the ads in the back of magazines have a remarkable resemblance to the spam that shows up in my junk email.

I'm not complaining. I like my spam.

I don't get very much email these days. Some of my long-time correspondents no longer use email. They don't trust it. They don't want to leave a written record. Or they just don't speak to me any more because I'm anti-social and never leave the house. For whatever reason, spam's as good as it gets some days.

I was going through a copy of Movie Life -- dated November, 1956 -- to prove my point. I found some fabulous ads, very much the analogs of what's in my Junk E-Mail folder today. There was also ample coverage of James Dean's death, Rock Hudson's dating habits, and how Marlon Brando fights the "Nobody Loves Me" blues

But never mind the articles; in 2056 no-one will care about Brangelina. One of the standouts among many fine ads, hidden near the back of the magazine, occupying about 2 column-inches, was a cryptic ad for Chi-Ches-Ters.

Chi-ches-ters. Turn "problem" days into party days.

I misinterpreted the ad the first time around. I was thinking, Pamprin masquerading as some kind of have-a-party painkiller. Naturally I wondered what was in this medical marvel, what the magic ingredients were. What was in over-the-counter "prescription-like" formulations in 1956? Codeine? Aspirin? Caffeine? laxative? sugar? activated charcoal? puma urine? Was it just another Chaser-Plus?

My glued-to-the-chair research strategy turned up little in the way of a satisfying answer. But I began to get an inkling that maybe there was something interesting to pursue here. A reprinted article that discussed how abortion became illegal in the Oregon Territory in 1845 included several anecdotes about Chi-Ches-Ters tiny pills:

Virginia Proctor of Canyonville graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1937 and recalled her sorority sisters used Chi-ches-ters.

"The girls used them to bring on their periods or induce abortion if they could," Proctor said.

"Not only that, but they used them when they knew they were going to a prom and they wanted to get their period over with early. Girls are like that, you know. They're no different today than they were 50 years ago," she said with a laugh.
Ah, so that's how 'problem' days are turned into party days. Neither the author of this article nor I could find out much about what the magic ingredient was. Patent medicines weren't regulated and there's no good record of what was in these party pills. Pennyroyal is what I suspect. It must've worked, at least some of the time.

Much like the spam I read with relish (or other lunch-worthy condiments available in packets), manufacturers and distributers invented creative ways to advertise what they had to sell. AMBtExN. V v I e A g G p R i A h. Chi-Ches-Ters.


Will my spam start advertising Chi-Ches-Ters? I hope not, although there are plenty of indications that we're headed back to a Chi-Ches-Ters era. In junior high, girls -- bad girls, good girls -- would disappear for a term, then they'd be back. We knew better than to ask.

Other advertisements are much easier to interpret from today's vantage point. The spot-reducing massage. The model demonstrating the device looks awfully happy for a girl who's simply after a graceful figure. Even more to the point is the Marvel Whirling Spray Syringe for Women. Certainly the message is not as obscure as Chi-Ches-Ters.

The real fat reduction -- so much like the current spate of Hoodia ads -- comes in the form of an "improved formula" chewing gum. What does it have in it? This time they're not so coy. It has the miracle ingredient Kelpidine. Yum. Isn't that in the periodic table? Wasn't it an amino acid at one time? I bet it's almost as effective as Hoodia, which my buddy Bolstering T. Flagships assures me is backed by the endorsements of doctors and celebrities alike.

Here's a 1950s novelty item that's inexplicably missing from my spam: a holy water font. How can something that's so decorative be so truly useful? The ad suggests that a pair of holy water fonts may be used as bookends and that "deep religious significance makes the 'Pontiff's Font' an ideal Christmas gift." A holy water receptacle! What a great Christmas gift! Long after the family has tired of the animated singing Big Mouth Billy Bass novelty plaque, they'll still be enjoying the holy water receptacle bookends for all their holy water needs. Which are? I'm not sure what in-home holy water is used for, but perhaps it's something akin to the ubiquitous Evian bottles that you see tucked into the side pockets of backpacks. No water needs to be consumed to receive maximum hydrating benefit from having it at your side (or on your back) throughout the day. Those holy water fonts are a useful and beautiful way of setting in earthquake supplies.

In 50 years, someone'll be wanting to get ahold of spam circa 2006. Just you wait. Someone'll be looking for Marietta Le's enticingly-titled message Hey that unravels the mystery of why Cialis Sof Tabs are better than V.i..2a.g.1.r.a6. There'll be scholarly monographs investigating the meaning behind Russsian superb Slut haardcore actiion. What's with all those sibilant s's and prolonged vowels? Surely there's significance to this purposeful misspelling. There'll be plenty to puzzle over.

Tell you what. I'm going to keep all my spam. Just in case we need it later. It might be exactly what we need in 2056 to remind us of what was on our minds in 2006.

Chi-Ches-Ters. Spot reduction. Holy water. At least.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Marx in Lennon

There's a little Marx in Lennon. Groucho, that is, and maybe a smidge of Harpo. In Lennon, John.

That's why I didn't quite know what to make of that séance reported by various News of the Weird stories. For $9.95, the Pay Per View audience could hear what was purportedly John Lennon's voice saying, "Peace... the message is peace." Naturally the reports focused on what Yoko Ono was likely to have thought of it. Tacky, was the consensus. It wasn't clear what aspect of the experience she would find tacky -- the Pay Per View price, the showy supernatural element, the medium’s profit motive, or the message itself. But the televised séance, held in a New York restaurant, was roundly condemned as tacky. Maybe it was the PRAWNS. The prawn amuse-bouche was tacky.

Now I think $10 is a good value for contact with someone from the Great Beyond (GB), even if it's just one-way broadcast contact, interrupted by a few 30 second spots for the Ab Lounge (AL). You'd pay -- what? -- $40 to watch a heavyweight boxing championship televised from Las Vegas, even if it only went one or two rounds and no-one lost a portion of his ear in the process. You'd even pay $10 to watch a dreadful Meg Ryan movie or American Pie 7.

I have no quarrel with the price; Yoko shouldn't either. And what could be more convenient than Pay Per View?

I don't believe Mr. Lennon himself would snub a broadcasted séance as tacky; nor would he view such a media opportunity without assessing its ironic possibilities. As he noted in that oft-cited 1966 interview, the Beatles were indeed "more popular than Jesus," a chance remark that revealed more about his sense of humor than, say, "Give peace a chance." C'mon. We're talking about a viewing audience that would willingly watch Mel Gibson's blood fest, Passion of the Christ on PPV; surely they'd pony up for a long-awaited message from John Lennon, who (in a perverse application of transitivity) must be more popular than Mel Gibson and would no doubt see the fun inherent in this séance.

And that's where my credibility is stretched thin. "Peace... the message is peace"? John Lennon was committed to peace, but I don't think he'd take his brief PPV spot and make that statement the centerpiece of his communication from the GB. He'd have some fun with it.

When my brother was very young -- two or three, as I recall -- I taught him to recite one of John Lennon's poems from A Spaniard in the Works. It's one of those things sadistic older siblings do to their younger brothers and sisters, teach them to say precocious things from memory, things that are not wholly appropriate. The older sibling invests the time in this exercise with the understanding that the younger sibling just might take it upon himself to recite the piece, unbidden, in front of the perfect audience of adults. My brother understood the poem well enough to chortle happily as he performed it on cue.

The poem was called The Fat Budgie (p. 99 of my tattered paperback edition "2 COMPLETE BOOKS *NOW IN 1 VOLUME") and it made much better recitation fare than One Fish, Two Fish. Good thing Bukowski was still writing for the LA Free Press, because that would've been fun too.

I can still remember most of the words to The Fat Budgie:

I have a little budgie
He is my very pal
I take him walks in Britain
I hope I always shall.

I call my budgie Jeffrey
My grandads name's the same
I call him after grandad
Who had a feathered brain.

Some people don't like budgies
The little yellow brats
They eat them up for breakfast
Or give them to their cats.

My uncle ate a budgie
It was so fat and fair.
I cried and called him Ronnie
He didn't seem to care.

Although his name was Arthur
It didn't mean a thing.
He went into a petshop
And ate up everything.

The doctors looked inside him,
To see what they could do,
But he had been too greedy
He died just like a zoo.

My Jeffrey chirps and twitters
When I walk into the room,
I make him scrambled egg on toast
And feed him with a spoon.

He sings like other budgies
But only when in trim
But most of all on Sunday
Thats when I plug him in.

He flies about the room sometimes
And sits upon my bed
And if he's really happy
He does it on my head.

He's on a diet now you know
From eating far too much
They say if he gets fatter
He'll have to wear a crutch.

It would be funny wouldn't it
A budgie on a stick
Imagine all the people
Laughing till they're sick.

So that's my budgie Jeffrey
Fat and yellow too
I love him more than daddie
And I'm only thirty two.
See what I mean? "Peace... The message is peace" just doesn't cut it. It's not what John Lennon would say after 25 years of silence. If the subject were peace, he'd have something caustic to say about Mssrs. Bush and Blair, wouldn't he? He'd speak his piece about the US's threatening stance over Iran's nuclear program (and he'd pronounce "nuclear" correctly, I'm betting). Or maybe he'd say something off-the-wall about religion, informed no doubt by his post-death experiences. He’d make a sly, damning reference to another musician, perhaps Bono or the sanctimonious Mr. McCartney.

He would not waste this swell opportunity with a platitude, even a good one.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

the Davos of barbeque

Screwed again by my own tardiness!

I'd timed it perfectly: I'd leave my office in Silicon Valley at exactly 8pm, dead-on to hear City Arts & Lectures -- R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin in conversation. Yeah. That's right. I'd scrap my principles and listen to KQED, the middlebrow fare of the airwaves. But it was R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin: how could I resist? Principles are frequently trumped by pleasure, especially among the weak. And I am weak. Apple and Trillin. They might say anything.

They might even talk about prawns. Three years ago or so, I read a piece in the New Yorker about R.W. Apple written by Calvin Trillin that recounted the following insider story:

On a Presidential visit Bill Clinton made to Africa, Apple had dinner one night in Kampala, Uganda, whose restaurant possibilities he had, of course, researched in some depth before leaving Washington. "We go to what Johnny has found out is the best Indian restaurant in the country," Maureen Dowd, who was in Apple's party that evening, told me. "We're the only ones in the restaurant. That would worry some people, but Johnny knows it's the right place because he's there." After tucking in his napkin, she went on, Apple said, in stentorian tones that seemed to be addressed to no one in particular, "No prawns at this altitude!" That remains a phrase that Apple watchers occasionally use to greet each other -- "No prawns at this altitude!"
This was an irresistable piece of reporting, because not long before, I'd heard my boss at the time (who reminded me quite a bit of R.W. Apple already) leaning over his admin's desk as she called in a lunch order for him at a local Chinese restaurant and shouting, "NO PRAWNS! NO PRAWNS IN THAT DISH!" He did not wrest the phone from her hands to order the food himself; instead he shouted "NO PRAWNS!" His voice was most certainly audible to the person at the other end of the phone line. It sounded like he was choosing food for a meeting, but when I heard him add, "one order of rice," I knew the truth: all these dishes, some plus prawns, some sans prawns, all modified in subtle ways, were for him. It was his own lunch that he was so passionate about. Of course.

So -- without knowing the Apple lore -- I was already steeped in the appropriate terminology:


What I heard of the conversation on the radio, which to my frustration is not available in the audio archives, did not tilt toward crustaceans, but rather was about Southern cooking, which is a fine topic. Especially when they got to barbeque.

Paul Jones has already told me that emotions run high when it comes to barbeque in the South. It's brother-against-brother when it comes to the vinegar question, not to mention what kind of meat is best. In Texas, it's all with the brisket; in Memphis, it's all with that pulled pork. In North Carolina, the pig prevails as well. In California, we are ignorant of the ways of the Q and might even sanction the meat that borders on that featheriest of vegetables, chicken.

Mssrs. Apple and Trillin had apparently attended what they referred to as the Davos of barbeque in Oxford, Mississippi, the Southern Foodways Symposium. Better than Davos, in fact, Mr. Apple opined, because there are no boring investment bankers. Investment bankers don't know squat about barbeque.

I'm intrigued by this conference. I'm used to attending conferences with paper titles like A Hierarchical, HMM-based Automatic Evaluation of OCR Accuracy for a Digital Library of Books. But last year's Southern Foodways Symposium featured papers with titles like Parsing a Moon Pie: Commercial Southern Sweets and A Short History of Sweet Tea. The presenter of the second paper shares a name with my grad advisor; I can't help but wonder if Fred found a clandestine second career. In any case, this sounds like a conference well worth attending.

From the sound of it, the year R.W. Apple and C. Trillin attended was 2002, a year with the symposium theme, Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce and History. I see that Calvin Trillin is listed as a speaker, but R.W. Apple is not. That figures; it's rude to talk with your mouth full. There's a session, Aberrant Barbecue Supper, which most certainly featured a prawn or two. The conference highlight was apparently a paper beguilingly titled, “We Didn’t Know From Fatback:” A Southern Jewish Perspective on Barbecue. Damn! This looks fabulous. Looks to be cheap too, $185 to register.

Where can I sign up for 2006? They haven't announced a theme yet, but I'm sure I'll leave Oxford satiated. And perhaps with some new contributions for a special issue of Lunch.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

chewing chick lits

If I cut and paste the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article aptly titled Plagiarism into the Google search box, I can find the same words in quite a number of other Web pages with varying degrees of attribution. For example, the blog Contraband Bayou seems to lift wholesale from Wikipedia and an artists' resource called YourArt in explaining the controversy that's emerged about Dan Brown's bestselling potboiler The Da Vinci Code. Why bother putting new words to old ideas? Dan Brown might've been better off plagiarizing more, not less, given the quality of his writing.

Plagiariasm is almost too easy these days.

Too easy to cut-and-paste and too easy to identify the cut-and-pasted text later when you're running a plagiarism detector. Ask any academic. They'll tell you that students are way too busy downloading music to come up with their own essays these days; instead they risk ready exposure by copying material that's way better written than their own puny efforts would be. They don't even bother going to the library to find an obscure source to copy: like me, they are loath to leave the comfort of their chairs and the convenience of their computers.

^C^V. Save As. As if.

I remember carefully copying Jeff (not his real name) Klein's physics homework sets as a freshman in college. Although we weren't graded on the problem sets, and technically what I was doing fell within the realm of trying to learn physics well enough to squeak through the midterm and final on partial credit, it was still out-and-out transcription. I just hoped that by re-writing all those equations, I'd somehow assimilate freshman physics. Sort of like putting your history book under your pillow. By sophomore year, I knew that wouldn't work, but as a freshman I was, well, DESPERATE. No way would I be able to come up with that shit myself. No way. Those gradients, those contour integrals, those second-order partial differential equations. Not me.

So I have to be careful when it comes time to point the finger. I've been there.

There's nothing new under the sun, after all. And 82,400 writers seem to agree with me, according to a search on the trite truism, "There's nothing new under the sun."

What invariably follows from plagiarism that seeks reward is outrage, and possibly tears, failing grades, dismissal, and other non-resume-worthy accomplishments. But the article in this morning's New York Times was more fun than the usual "she stole my screenplay/sitcom idea/plot line/hit song/term paper" riff. It was about a young woman, a sophomore at a certain well-regarded Ivy League University, who'd published a first novel that fit neatly into a genre dubbed chick-lit.

The Times photo shows an attractive young Indian woman, sitting in a casual Joyce Maynard-style pose in her dorm room (see the dust jacket of the first edition of Looking Back -- it should be noted that Ms. Maynard attended a different highly regarded Ivy League University). According to the Times (and before that, The Harvard Crimson), Ms. Viswanathan had appropriated certain language, plot, and style from another wildly successful chick-lit author. She claims -- and I have little reason to doubt this is true -- that she'd simply internalized the other writer's works and inadvertantly copied them out of wholesale admiration. Fair enough. It's not a term paper. This is a genre that's populated by highly derivative works. How many ways can a cute, brainy, but socially backward girl be speechless when she encounters her hottie crush? How many of these girls apply to prestigious Ivy League universities and deliver triumphant validictory addresses, amazing and moving their now-envious peers? A lot, it seems, a lot.

As Moon Unit Zappa would have it, gag me with a spoon.

But here's what got me: the 500K advance. It brings me right back to the Bret Easton Ellises and Jay McInerneys of yesteryear (the early eighties, to be more specific) who commanded enfant terrible advances at the beginnings of their careers, and proceeded to sink into cyclic decline, producing novels about models, Peruvian marching powder, and misogyny for the next several decades. What's funny and fresh tapped out on the keyboard of a twenty-two year old is less well received by readers two decades down the road. The last time I read anything by Jay McInerney, I was in Mexico and being punished for my inability to read Spanish; his was one of the small selection of English-language novels. Sitting on the beach with a Marguerita tasting of powdered mix and gazing at the azure waters of the Gulf is not enough: I must have a novel, no matter how skanky.

But a 500K advance? For a girl who has hired a consultant -- sorry, a private counseling service -- to apply to college? A 500K advance for chick-lit?

Did those Scholastic Books star authors command advances like that? I'm thinking Donald Sobol, author of the terrific Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective series that you could buy through Scholastic Books' in-school purchase program. Kids who conned their parents into a Scholastic Books order would get a big stack of popular paperbacks, which these days would surely include a smattering of not-too-racy chick-lit. My parents knew better than to fall for the Scholastic Books gambit; to the library with me. Hemingway wrote short sentences; surely I could at least be reading Hemingway.

Nor did I get 500K advances on my physics problem sets, even when I stopped copying Jeff (not his real name) Klein's homework. I did, however, make it all the way up to a "B" third term sophomore year (quantum mechanics). Not a 500K advance.

But it's all part of the current flap: first we over-praise writers, then we slap 'em down for cheating. We don't do this to our elected officials, only to writers (who are marginal characters at best, I'm given to understand). We've got James Frey conning Oprah with his poorly-cribbed memoirs (I've heard I'd find a treasure-trove of drug addict cliches within), then outed, then permanently punished. That wasn't really even plagiarism; it was merely a case of representing bad fiction as bad non-fiction.

Then we have the more complicated (and tragic) case of good fiction parading as non-fiction. About seven years ago, a supposed Navajo writer published a moving story in Esquire about his kid, Tommy Nothing Fancy, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. I even remember it. Not trite in the least. Now we see an apology in the May issue; the story turns out to have been written by a white guy who also writes gay leather porn. A guy's gotta make a living and the story's still as moving as it was in 1999. It's just that it was fiction. The young editor, David Granger, turned to mush and after telling us that Oprah had been too easy on Frey, he wrote:

It was with a weird combination of anger and helplessness that I realized we had been duped and that we had, in turn, duped our readers. Especially when we thought back to how the story came to us-- through the mail and into the massive pile of unsolicited manuscripts we receive each month. The chances we would notice it, let alone publish it, were infinitesimal. This is hardly how I would expect to be defrauded.
Unagented writing? The horror, the horror!

But we should note that Ms. Viswanathan had an agent, one who seems to have been unfamiliar with the genre she was handling. That's how the young writer got a 500K advance.

At this point, I'm not sure what to say. You might say I'm jealous of writers who receive unseemly advances for genre fiction. You might say I'm a little grossed out (a chick-lit term of art) by editors who are quick to fall on their rubber swords. You might observe that I'm angry that Shrub, Rummy, Dick, and the gang aren't held to the standards of popular writing. You might even say that copying Jeff (not his real name) Klein's problem sets indicated that I had no future in physics. And you could certainly say that today's students shouldn't be so quick on the draw with the ^C^V-Save As sequence.

You could say all of these things. But you can't copy them. That'd be plagiarism.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

memo to self

People have informed me the corporate memo is not dead as a genre, that it's still alive and well and has simply turned into email. That's just a difference in transmission mode, right? Just take off the routing slip, type the text into Outlook, and you've got what you had before. Corporate memo = corporate email.

I beg to differ. I realize it's so 20th century -- which is to say, trite and clueless -- to invoke McLuhan, but here's a case where the medium is most definitely the message.

I've tried to set aside the greatest hits of my corporate email, the messages from facilities or security that would've been in the Memos file I keep in my hulking black Steelcase lateral filing cabinet. But they're really not the same. They're homogenized and democratized and don't have nearly the presence.

Look. Here's a memo dated March 23, 1979 that I saved from my short career at Tymshare, Inc. The topic? HVAC, one of the trickiest aspects of facilities management. The subject of many a fine corporate memo. Note the corporate logo and that it's been typed from dictation, a lost art. The language is practically poetry.

To wit:

"I would like to remind all of you that the building was architecturally designed for the draperies to be closed at all times. Not only do they keep out the hot sun, but they deflect the air coming from the ceiling so that the temperature is kept at an even level. Unless the draperies are kept closed, Milt will not be able to control the temperature, because he will be unable to balance the systems.

Your cooperation in this matter will be appreciated."

When's the last time you received an email quite this concise, correctly spelled, appropriately punctuated, and emotionally evocative? We are witness to Milt's god-like powers in controlling the temperature, in balancing The System. We learn at the knees of our corporate mentors that drapes are not meant to be opened (and naturally wonder why the building had windows in the first place). Then there's the subtext: "Don't you go peeking out those windows! You are here. You are ours." Perfect.

We received many such communiques, always on the official Tymshare Memorandum stationary, and usually with a routing slip or routing directive written right on top of the page. You can see that I often failed to pass on the memos; they'd stop when they reached my cube. I've saved them all these years, edicts to stop reconfiguring the partitions that defined our offices, warnings to stop damaging the office plants (they were rented and insufficiently hardy to stand up to the coffee poured into their pots), threats about cascading parking problems (the Tymshare people were parking in the Tymnet lot, which in turn forced the Tymnet people to poach parking from the poor Dynatax employees, who could not come to work at all, since there was no place for them to put their cars), and other timeless complaints.

I can find lots of artifacts from Tymshare on the Web. I even found the old Fortran compiler, which might've been the one I was supposed to be maintaining when I went stir crazy and put all my belongings in the back of my Opel station wagon and headed back to LA.

But there's nothing that reminds me more of Tymshare than those corporate memos. Without getting maudlin, without referring to Office Space, without driving by the building (now one of Apple's buildings) with its draperies permanently closed, I can re-read a memo and relive a moment in Tym.

Friday, April 21, 2006

chow Manhattan

My lumpy briefcase and I are back from Manhattan, having survived several embarrassing celebrity sightings, an overwhelming (and beautiful) six course dinner in a kaiseki-style Japanese restaurant, two American Airlines snack boxes, the apparent death of the whole concept of "boutique hotel," amazing insect-like swarms of tourists stirred by the first warm week of spring, and the usual taxi hi-jinx. In some sense, it was a typical trip to Manhattan, especially when one uses a 50lb briefcase as ballast and is wearing high heels with less aplomb and dignity than a 6'2" transvestite teetering dangerously down the Castro Street hill.

Perhaps it's best that I'm so celebrity-illiterate these days, because during all of my celebrity non-sightings, my bulky briefcase was in prominent attendance, conspicuously overstuffed and frumpy. You can't distance yourself from your briefcase the way you can from, say, a person you don't want to be visually associated with; there's no way of pretending that it's not with you or that it's something that stuck to your shoe as you made your way down a crowded sidewalk.

There I was in the Paramount elevator, sweaty and disheveled after walking the last 7 blocks to the hotel because the cab driver threatened me that it'd take an hour to head uptown from 39th to 46th on 8th Avenue. "They're short blocks," he said. "You can walk." He was pleading. Midtown was a mess at 10:30pm on a Tuesday night. The sidewalks were aswarm with theater-goers from out of town and the streets that weren't blocked off were jammed with taxis, limos, delivery trucks, and whoever was insane enough to approach Midtown in a car. Everyone was laying on their horns, enough so that cops were shouting through megaphones that any more horn-blowing would be cited. So I got out of the cab, tipped the driver handsomely for the foreshortened journey because I'm prisoner to liberal guilt, and started up 8th with my WWW13 backpack, accursed briefcase, and a plastic bag containing vital magazines and the remnants of my SFO-JFK snack box.

It was not a look I'd deliberately cultivate: part nerd, part bag lady, part sweaty crazy person.

By the time I was in the Paramount's elevator, awash in blue light, I knew there was something up on 46th Street. There were Klieg lights in front of the Paramount and even in my wildest delusions of grandeur, I couldn't pretend they were for me. And these two guys in the elevator: definitely well-known actors. I could tell they were thinking I was respecting their privacy by not saying anything to them. In truth, I just recognized them as members of the celebrity class. I had no idea who they were. "Julia," said the one with the Johnny Depp hairstyle, "Julia looks like she's put on some weight." The other defended Ms. Roberts: "It's been since the twins." Then the first countered, "Don't you think so-and-so looks like a young Julia?"

It was a conversation intended to impress.

The two men bade me and my briefcase farewell when I shambled off on the 8th floor, desperate to dump my ad hoc luggage on a chair. They were actually quite friendly, but I don't know who they were. Assignment to self: Read People once in awhile. It won't hurt you. You can skip the heart-warming articles about personal triumph over adversity and just study the celebrity gossip, however briefly. This could've been a moment.

The second brush with celebrity was on the packed flight on the way home. I was seated next to a man reading Esquire, one of my own usual airplane magazines. I admired his sleek briefcase and self-consciously kicked mine (now even more unattractively lumpy, given that I'd stowed an orange in it) underneath the seat in front of us.

The flight started poorly. A 9 month old baby was seated in the row in front of us in the care of her Manhattanite mom, who had clearly forgotten to sedate her offspring. The baby was squawling. The baby was howling. The baby was sputtering green peas over the back of the seat. The man next me speculated archly that the baby was irritated because her upgrade to Business Class had not gone through. I suspected we'd all tried. The woman's husband was the only one who'd made it to Business. So there we were, and I was feeling more claustrophobic than normal.

It seemed like more people than usual were hanging out by us, probably because we were so proximate to the lavatory. Several of these aisle-standers seemed to squint with particular vigor at my seatmate.

The baby continued to squawl. I begin to mutter darkly, under my breath, and scowl.

By midflight though, the baby had quieted and was gumming contentedly on the seat back. (Note to self: don't put head on seat back from now on.) We were all in a happier frame of mind. The man next to me had finished his Esquire. He offered it to me, and I was happy to take it. In exchange, I gave him my Details and we chatted briefly how stale the back page gay or not humor had become and how uneven the writing was. Better now that they'd made Augusten Burroughs a regular, but still bad. It does have the most attractive models, however. My seatmate was well acquainted with the publishing industry, but this wasn't too surprising: it was a non-stop coast-to-coast flight from New York. After he'd finished Details, I offered him my New Yorker. It was clear we had a solid overlap on our magazine preferences, except he'd clearly incorporated much of the sense of style conveyed by these glossies and I most certainly hadn't.

I gave the lumpy Briggs and Riley another guilty shove further under the seat with my worn out Bruno Maglis.

Why do I have to look like this? Why is it that I can start with great raw material and emerge looking like I shop at K-Mart?

It wasn't until I got home, and put two and two together (using a key clue, a comment made by a fawning woman who stopped him on the way off the plane and said, "I watch you every week on Bravo"), that I realized my lumpy briefcase and I were crumbling crackers and spreading cheese surrogate on ourselves in front of one of the cast members of Queer Eye. I knew he looked familiar. And yes, when I read his online bio, he'd been a contributing editor for Esquire.

It's just too humiliating. I can't imagine what he thought. At least we read the same magazines. I do wonder where he got his briefcase, although I imagine that one keeps one's briefcase looking sleek by not stuffing oranges, ten dollars' worth of loose change, and a dozen electrical cords in it.

But I need this stuff.

When I travel by myself, I tend to live off the contents of the American Airlines snack box for much of the duration of my travels, supplemented if necessary by pillow chocolates (the little squares the turn-down service puts on your pillow), convenience store sandwiches, and vending machine peanut-butter crackers. The simple story is: I hate going to restaurants alone. I just can't pretend to be comfortable.

Because I was with a colleague -- a colleague who does his food research -- I actually ate dinner that included a course described by reviewers as "an amuse bouche of sea urchin and raw quail egg." An amuse bouche. I rarely think of myself and amuse bouche in the same paragraph or find an amuse bouche in my mouth. I'd be hard-pressed to even pronounce it. This was a serious restaurant; the food was rated 27/30 in Zagat's and was lovely to behold.

But once again, I embarrassed myself. I chugged along through 3 courses, eating minor works of art that required I suspend thinking about what I was eating and focus on texture and subtleties of taste. I was doing well. I won't bore you with the details. Well-known food writers capture this sort of stuff much better than I do. And they can type "amuse bouche" or "the king of crustaceans" with a straight face. I could never do that.

Nor, apparently, could I make it through this seeming endless presentation of delicacies without thinking UNITED AIRLINES BENTO BOX. Yes. There it was. Some bit of flavor was just a little too evocative. And once I started thinking UNITED AIRLINES BENTO BOX, all bets were off. That's all I could think about.

On our way back from Bangkok, Business Class, seated in the most comfortable place on a 747, the front row of the upper deck, I was stupid enough to press on with the Bento Box. The flight attendant did everything she could to warn me.

Flight Attendant: "What can I bring you?" [she listed two benign-sounding entrees, one a variation of chicken, the other of beef.]
Me: "I think I'd like the bento box."
Flight Attendant: "I don't think we have any of those on this flight."
Me: "Oh. That's disappointing. I was looking forward to it."
Flight Attendant: "Oh, wait a minute. Let me check. I think I might've seen *one* of them."

One of them. That should've tipped me off. The last one. A leftover. The remaining bento box. From when? From yesterday's flight from Narita? From two weeks ago? Something someone found at the back of the refrigerated compartment, in the darkness, behind something else that got thrown away because it had green scuzz growing on it?

Sure enough, she found me my bento box. And I ate it, thinking all the while, "this tastes a little off. Why am I eating this?" But each business class seat represented 150,000 painful miles of previous travel, and I was not going to ignore my meal. Travelers around me were cutting into their filets. I was maneuvering some rubbery-hard raw fish between my chopsticks and into my mouth. I will eat this hard earned sashimi if it kills me.


Yes. I did get sick. And, no, I haven't eaten very much in the way of raw fish since. Oh, I've had occasional sushi dinners, but I stick to the wimpy Americanized spider rolls. California rolls. Rock 'n' rolls. Maybe after another decade elapses, I'll forget the BENTO BOX, but for now I have hard time suppressing the memory.

To my credit, I did make it through jewel-like presentation after jewel-like presentation, but I was beginning to fill up, and the discomfort of being too full, coupled with one too many crustacean, brought BENTO BOX memories welling to the surface. I had to skip several consecutive courses. It's quite embarrassing in this rarified atmosphere to have a full plate go back to the chef. There's no strategy for concealing it either: you can't push something so carefully organized around on your plate and make it look like you've done anything other than deface it.

The dessert, however, was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life, a grapefruit jelly with a quiet layer of frothy cream. It locked the BENTO BOX back in the service cart. I ate the entire tiny thing and would've had seconds if they let me.

One last bit about Manhattan: It used to be that the idea of staying in a "boutique hotel" was tragically hip. You could even be somewhere like I was, in the theater district in Midtown, spitting distance from Scientology's Manhattan headquarters, a place just swarming with Midwestern tourists in track suits and running shoes with fanny packs strapped around their ample middles, and you could walk by the model-pretty doormen into the lobby, and you'd be transported to a sleek world that throbbed to a soundtrack of techno and shone with undeniable hipness. Everything'd be monochromatic, matte, and subtle. The people would be slender, black-clad, and have good haircuts. There'd be the touches, the unexpected, the metal beaded doorways, the zinc fixtures, a single protea flower, couches beamed directly from the future. And you'd be away from the Iowans on a spree. Expedia,, and their ilk have changed all that. It's just as easy to know about a boutique hotel and stay there as it is to know about the nearest Days Inn, and it might be just as cheap to stay there.

Oh well. At least me and my briefcase fit right in. In fact, in the newly-colonized Paramount, we even looked good.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

leaving the house

I'm excited: I'm going to leave the house today.

Of course, that also makes me nervous. I don't leave the house very often any more; I just sit here at my laptop, gazing at the San Francisco skyline. At dusk, the SAFEWAY sign on Market lights up and the blue Metreon cube begins to glow. At sunup -- the current viewing configuration -- there's just a faint pink nimbus of smog shrouding the bay.

When you don't leave the house very often, you decline into wardrobe drift and schedule drift: all clothes, dirty or clean, sweats or little black cocktail dress, are the same; and all times are the same, except for the ever-changing vista at a safe distance out the living room window.

I'm going to New York City, a real city, abuzz with people whose wardrobes are not in a state of shabby decline and whose schedules don't preclude the possibility of 9 am meetings with other people. And that, remember, is 6 am PST. So in addition to being excited, I'm nervous. You'd think I'd never left the house before nor braved the gallery- and Zabar's-world of Manhattan.

And there're all the problems to solve and decisions to make before I leave for SFO. First, there's the damned briefcase. I'll pack light; I don't mind the people at the hotel check-in counter looking at my scant luggage and thinking to themselves: "I guess she doesn't plan to change clothes while she's here. Hope she at least brought a toothbrush." But the briefcase is never light. There's my computer and all the things it needs to keep it happy. Accessories. That weighty iGo gizmo that allows me to plug-in on the plane. A mouse because the touch pad on this computer is too twitchy to use for very long. Then there's the stuff I'm supposed to read (technical papers) and the stuff I will read (magazines). There's the stuff that never leaves the briefcase (change, OTC remedies, affinity cards for every single hotel and car rental chain in the US under every spelling variation of my name, and numerous other small but exceedingly heavy items), and there's a small stash of food.

I'm turning into my grandmother. I have a small stash of food in my briefcase. She always had leftovers from her last restaurant meal in her handbag -- a roll wrapped up in a napkin (woe be unto the eateries that offered place settings with linen napkins), a candy or ten from the bowl at the door (the technical term for this is "pocket mints"), perhaps some breadsticks, anything that didn't make it into the carryout doggie bag container.

There's a reason for to carry food: the snack box.

I almost always purchase the snack box, if just for the excitement of seeing what's in it. It's packaged in such a way that there'll invariably be a surprise: a tiny package of dried raisin surrogates or, if you're unlucky, actual raisins; a Slim Jim made of turkey processed in a patented manner that'll remind you of a midnight ramble through 7-11; a hermetically-sealed packet of savory floor sweepings from First Class (including a stray almond); packaged cheese spread that makes good on its promise to be spreadable if not entirely cheese-like; three highly breakable water crackers upon which to spread the cheese-surrogate; and a package of Oreos, the only cookie with mayonnaise in the center. Hmmm. Perhaps there aren't that many surprises in the snack box, but usually the price is a surprise, since it's apt to have gone up. No matter what I say here, I'll buy one. I always do.

Then I'll stuff the vast majority of its contents into my already-stuffed briefcase, because there's no telling when I'm going to be hungry. See. Like grandma. Never know when you'll need a nosh, even in the city that never sleeps. Who wants to go trolling the streets of midtown Manhattan at 3am for a snack when you can just pluck one (somewhat squished) from the belly of your briefcase?

The briefcase was one of those purchases where something looks perfectly reasonable at the shop when you bought it (in this case, I had the political savvy to frequent a locally-owned business) and then you bring it home and realize it looks much bigger than it did in the shop. This happens to me a lot. The cookware that looked fine at the restaurant supply store looks restaurant-scale when I put it on the stove. The faux-fur coat that appeared to be normal on the rack makes me look like a marmot or a badger on a bad fur day in my own mirror. Everything looks much more to scale in the shop.

The briefcase is enormous. Just enormous. It's made for a guy who's at least 6'4" and 200 lean pounds of gym-hardened muscle. When I carry it, it looks like it's in charge of me. And it's a Briggs and Riley, guaranteed to never wear out, so I'm burdened with this albatross of a bag forever. It just gets lumpier and lumpier as I cram more stuff into it. No wonder I never need a suitcase.

My friends and some bolder flight attendents have opined that what I really need is a backpack with wheels. You see a lot of them in US airports. A backpack on wheels. I know it'd send me squarely back to the days of early childhood when I insisted on bringing my little red wagon with me everywhere. A tiny person trailing a item on wheels: definitely evokes something I don't care to bring to mind. You can see why I can't have a backpack on wheels. Besides, I've been tripped by other travelers' inattention to their backpacks on wheels and luggage on wheels and duffel bags on wheels. I don't want to join that club.

What will I forget? I always forget something.

Better check my No-Doz stash. Mark Bernstein will tell you that I used to carry instant coffee crystals to eat in the morning because I don't want to rely on hotel coffee, but now I've switched to No-Doz, even though there's probably a Starbuck's in my tiny hotel room. I don't like having to place a complicated coffee order before I've had my coffee, forgodssakes. I suspect Starbuck's will start having miniStarbuck's so you can have a coffee while you're waiting in line for coffee, but I'm not going to be held hostage by them. It's not even real No-Doz I'm talking about here, but Walgreen's generic product AWAKE. If you keep the caplets by the bed, along with a glass of water, you're good to go in the morning. You're AWAKE. You're Wal-Awake.

And there's the cell phone. It probably won't work wherever I am. It never does. But woe be unto me if I forget it and have to find a payphone somewhere. There really aren't any, and when there are, they're in much worse shape than they used to be (what kind of loser doesn't have a cell phone with them at all times?), and they practically extort money from you to use them (30 minutes subtracted from your calling card just to connect).

Shit! I just checked. It's going to be 78 degrees tomorrow in New York. All of my clothes are geared to 50 and threatening to rain, since I spend most of my time here or in Seattle. At least they're all black or grey, so I don't have that problem. I once looked in the door of Manhattan boutique and all it had on the racks were an entirely countable number of t-shirts in colors ranging from medium-cool-grey to dark-warm-grey. Grey is safe. While I know brown is the new black, grey is the eternal black. But I'm not set up with good clothes for 78 degrees! I'd rather it be warm than cold, but it's easier to be dressed acceptable when it's 60. Crisis. I know: I'll do what I always do. I'll wear what I have and pretend I don't know that it's not quite right.

William S. Burroughs had it wired with the suit and fedora. There's a look.

At least I've located a pair of grey socks that more or less match and don't have holes in the toes (a consideration in these days of public shoe removal). And headphones with which to listen to the New York Dolls and the Ramones to get me in the mood.

Manhattan, here I come!

Sunday, April 16, 2006


I have 37 houseplants. I just counted.

I don't think of myself as the houseplant type; the houseplant type is, by nature, a nester. I am not a nester. Never have been. We used to move every time the place we rented got too skanky. Now that we own, we share our house with dust bunnies of prehistoric dimensions and prehistoric temperments that are best thought of as the Deadhead roommates who never do the dishes. In fact, the floor is so filthy that we tell our guests to keep their shoes on so their socks won't get dirty (especially those yuppie guests who start to remove their shoes as a quid pro quo the minute they come in the door). I like to think that we're at squalor equilibrium: when you open the front door, about the same amount of dirt goes out as comes in. See what I mean? Not a nester.

But now there are these 37 houseplants that'd signal otherwise.

Where'd they come from? How is it that 5 orchids, 5 alocasias, and a tall spiky tree-like thing live in the bathroom, 9 of the plants occupying the tub itself? One alocasia has taken it upon itself to send a shoot into the sink at such an angle that one of the leaves invariably sends my contact lens case clattering to the floor whenever I wash my hands. But they grow well in the bathroom because it has a skylight, offering the finicky plant a perfect level of indirect light; I don't have the heart to put them anywhere else.

It wasn't sudden, this invasion. It was gradual, the way things are that creep up on you. First there's one; then several; then quite a few, but spread out so it doesn't seem like there are terribly many. Finally, the trend becomes undeniable. They're everywhere you look.

Twenty years ago I insisted that I didn't want houseplants. They'd all die if I went out to buy an LA Times and didn't come home for a few months. Too much trouble to have living things in my care. But when Tim moved to Colorado, I took in two of his plants, both philodendrons, the weed of the houseplant world, the kind you see everywhere -- in offices and dorm rooms; in restaurants, suburban family rooms, and studio apartment kitchens. Hearty suckers, those philodendrons. I still have Tim's philodendrons. The trouble with philodendrons is that they are way too easy to propagate. You put a cutting in a glass of water and -- poof -- another philodendron. Two becomes four becomes sixteen. And so on. It's a miracle that I don't have thousands of 'em.

Rescue's been a theme with these plants. One Friday in the late 80s, Pattie, Dan, and I were have drinks at some hokey Mexican restaurant in Palo Alto with Christmas cacti on the tables. Compadres. An overenthusiastic marguerita-inspired gesture sent just a few segments of Christmas cactus onto the table. I wrapped the segments in a napkin and brought them home. Big mistake. Turns out that's the way the little devils infiltrate your home and hearth. They break off the main plant and they root in the first cubic inch of soil they find. It's a big plant now, that Christmas cactus, and I have at least 4 others, if you don't count the ones that have found their way into the homes of friends and relatives. Others have fallen off a larger cactus and rooted in another plant's pot.

Take Harvey, for example. Harvey has a big pot that's just full of volunteer Christmas cactus plants. They fall off the Christmas cactus on a table and into Harvey's pot. That's all it takes.

Harvey is a ficus tree who I assume was named for Harvey Milk, a one-time resident of our fine neighborhood, an activist, a former member of the SF Board of Supes, and an all-around good guy, who was assassinated in his office at City Hall by Dan White, a crazy-assed twinkie-poisoned homophobe who was also on the Board. The assassination was tragic; I still weep when I see the documentary. Since then, many things around the neighborhood have been named after him. But Harvey the ficus is nothing like its namesake. What the tree does to distinguish itself from the other houseplants is that it behaves as if it were living outside. It's always losing leaves, but worse yet, it constantly issues these crazy brown berries. Plop. Plop. Plop. I can hear them falling onto the hardwood floor in the quiet of deep night. But they don't just fall; they fall and roll. Dozens and dozens of them. Every week is autumn in our living room as I sweep up piles of leaves and ficus berries. If you lift the cushions off the sofa, you'll find whole caches of them. Not coins; not cracker crumbs, but hundreds of ficus berries and dried leaves. Mark would like to take a miniature chain saw to Harvey, but you can't do in a plant named for a local hero. In fact, you can't do in a plant that has a name at all. Once you've named the pig, you aren't going to be eating bacon, right?

The palm trees also produce fruit, small bright yellow things that are the moral equivalent of dates, only so small that it'd take millions of them to make a fruitcake. And I don't know where you'd find those gross neon green candied cherries made to the same scale anyway. The palms are also refugees, a welcoming gesture when I returned to Xerox in 1996. Bobbi, Bob's indispensible secretary, had one of those florists' baskets of plants delivered to my office my first day back at work. They were originally planted in a disposable clear plastic container in damp mossy stuff; you could tell they were only meant to last a few weeks, just a little longer than cut flowers. They're supposed to only last as long as your optimism about the new job does; you and the plant basket are scheduled to wilt in harmony, when you both realize what you've gotten yourselves into. That you're in a low-light situation and it's not going to get much brighter. But somehow these palms are survivors. They've maintained their chlorophyll through four jobs, easily outlasting the other welcome swag like t-shirts and ergonomic chairs, and certain well outlasting my optimism and enthusiasm.

Then there are the orchids. Fussy epiphytes, these orchids. For plants that don't give a damn about soil and normal plant concerns, orchids require plenty of attention. You don't buy orchids for yourself; they're usually given to you and are extraordinarily effective at eliciting guilt because you're always in the process of killing them. Seemingly willfully so. From the moment they arrive in your house. They're in bloom when you receive them, and that'll be the last time you see flowers on them until you completely give up on the plants and put them in some obscure corner to die while you -- consumed by guilt -- tend to the philodendrons, which have meanwhile taken root in the carpeting.

I used to have an indoor bromeliad too, a lovely spiky thing that willfully drew blood during each week's arduous watering process, which somehow required a turkey baster as part of the ritual. But after moving it from room to room over the course of 17 years to find the ideal light level, I finally put it outside, where it seems to be doing quite well.

The other thing you've got to know about houseplants is that no matter how healthy they are today, a week from now they could have spider mites. Vibrant green leaves wither quickly and turn yellow; every surface becomes covered by a weird webby substance. And if you peer at the leaves long enough, you'll see legions of tiny bugs. I'm sure if you magnified them, they'd be so ugly that you'd have to give each one its own tiny spider mite makeover. Spider mites will cause even the most ardent environmentalist to go running for the insecticide. But what you soon find out is that the insecticide doesn't kill the spider mites, but rather kills the plant with the idea that the spider mites'll move on since they don't have anything to eat. But unlike houseplants, spider mites are wonderfully adaptable. The same spider mites that only a week earlier could eat nothing but alocasias quickly developed a taste for Boston Advance Contact Lens Conditioning Solution. And there's nothing grosser than a crust of spider mites mixed with polyvinyl alcohol, unless it's those green candied cherries.

If I were adaptable, I'd raise spider mites instead of houseplants.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Kansas riddle

What's 568 square feet, has an incinerating toilet, a polyethylene dock, and costs $159,000?

If you guessed a tent within the perimeter of the Palo Alto school district, you're way off.

It's a cabin that was once owned by William S. Burroughs on a lake outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Lone Star Lake, to be specific. Do you somehow inherit some of Burroughs' authorial mojo if you live in this cabin and crap in the incinerating toilet? Are his prescriptions still in the medicine cabinet? Are there identifiable bullet holes in the nearby pines?

You'd better get some kind of intangible benefit for $159K. Or even a tangible one.

I'm guessing by the write-up and by the decor shown in the eBay photos that the current owners are (a) nice people and (b) not in close philosophical alignment with William S. Burroughs. They've done their research though in hopes that it'll make the place worth an extra hundred grand to a fan with means. Look what they've turned up:

William Burroughs once hosted Saturday Night Live and a movie about his life is being considered with James Woods playing the lead.
I don't think of these as salient details about Mr. Burroughs. They've made him out to be a regular guy, a fisherman, possibly even a triathlete (they boast of a triathlon held at the lake in the summer). He's a CELEBRITY!

I wonder how much his place in New Waverly, Texas would command. I bet the place still has scorpions and giant rats, especially since they seemed to be numerous and gun-shy at the time. Unlike his neighbors at Lone Star Lake, I doubt these are the same scorpions and rats; however I'm sure they're similar scorpions and rats.

Jimmy Wales in SF

Jimmy Wales is in San Francisco at this very moment, talking up Wikipedia. I've already had my say about Wikipedia back before I started blogging, so I won't belabor my points about encyclopedias in general and Wikipedia specifically or start in on anecdotes about childhood homework disasters and Elizabethan Crumsters made of cardboard and dried spaghetti. Surely there's a statute of limitations on such traumas.

That said, there must instead be something I can do in celebration of Jimmy Wales's visit to our fair city, made of Jello and replete with steep hills and staggering vistas.

Ah, I know. My friend Lelia told me a story about an unnamed prankster in upstate New York who added a teeny-tiny bit of fraudulent data to Wikipedia almost a year ago. I'll go see if it's still there. That'll be my celebration of Mr. Wales's visit. It's like that Deviled Ham Spread recipe on page 666 of the Betty Crocker cookbook: it's not that hard to sneak something into a voluminous reference work. And someone was no doubt quite pleased about the Deviled Ham Spread caper.

I don't mean to digress, but I need to explain this Betty Crocker reference. I have an old paperback Betty Crocker Cookbook, printed November, 1974 by Bantam Books. It's from that era when savings and loans gave you cookbooks when you opened an account; this one's compliments of Glendale Federal Savings. Both my grandmothers opened multiple savings and loan accounts around then, I suspect just to get the cookbooks. Then they gave them to me; I have quite a number of them. I don't think they were hinting around about my cooking skills, or how cooking skills were necessary to land a husband. They both worked and knew that supporting oneself was the skill that mattered. Nonetheless, they thought I might want a cookbook or two to stave off starvation there at Caltech.

This one's from Grandma Goldie and I've had it so long that the cover's falling off. She gave it to me in January, 1975, when it was hot off the presses. I can't help but wonder whether the deviled ham reference made it onto p. 666 in subsequent editions (perhaps offered by Home Savings and Loan).

It's more than a coincidence. Deviled Ham Spread is in a section devoted to recipes for party sandwiches, a more important phenomenon back then, when Rumaki (p. 15) was falling out of favor and sushi hadn't quite made it to Midwestern buffet tables. (If it had, it would've been in the index, falling squarely between Surprise muffins and Swedish meatballs.) What kind of party sandwich spreads are accounted for? We've got, in order of appearance, Avocado Spread, Cottage Cheese Spread, Creamy Cheese Spread, Golden Cheese Spread, Ham Salad Filling, Olive-Nut Spread, Shrimp Salad Filling, and Deviled Ham Spread. Deviled Ham Spread is all by itself on p. 666. That in itself could've been an unusual, but not inexplicable coincidence. But notice Deviled Ham Spread is at the end of the list. It's out of alphabetical order. It's a crop circle in the plowed fields of party sandwich spread recipes.

It's the work of some mischief-maker.

And so it is with the Wikipedia factoid I'm looking up.

Only I can't quite remember what it is. It's in the demographic information about a town in upstate New York. It was a figure for the average IQ of members of this town. That's all I can recall of the anecdote. That and I checked it for veracity 4 months ago -- much to my surprise, it was there. But that was then, this is now, and Jimmy Wales is talking at Long Now.

Isn't this what Google is for? I type in "New York" demographics "average IQ" and because Jimmy Wales is in town tonight, I'm feeling lucky. Very lucky. Sure enough the page that comes up is the Wikipedia entry for Pittstown, New York. And there it is, "The average IQ is 68."

Welcome to San Francisco, city of Jello.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


You know about Dollywood, right? The homage to Dolly Parton in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee?

Now there's a veritable Harleywood, a Harley-Davidson-themed mall near Daytona Beach, Florida. It's where all the Hecks Angels go to blow a few bucks on genuine Harley-Davidson swag. To buy denim jackets for their dachshunds. "Once it was about the ride; now it's about the destination" brags the Web site. Got that? Motorcycling is not about riding any more: it's about accessorizing.

You can even live at Destination Daytona, safely ensconced in your upscale condo, tuned to American Chopper on The Discovery Channel, watching the Orange County Choppers crew -- the adorable Senior, Paulie, and Mikey -- in another outrageous and goofy, yet wholly artificial, race against time as they send out another Harley to some other shop for customization. The biker lifestyle brought to your high-definition plasma screen: it's almost like they're shouting obscenities at each other in your livingroom. Is that motor oil on the Persian rug?

Imagine an update to the 1966 Roger Corman flick, The Wild Angels: "We want to be free. Free to ride our machines and not get hassled by the Man. And we want to be able to go shopping too." Peter Fonda'd be an accountant and HOG member, clad head-to-toe in Genuine Harley-Davidson (TM) apparel; his old lady, played by Nancy Sinatra, would ride an Arlen Ness pink Sportster and be a shoo-in for partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Michael J. Pollard's customary off-the-wall sidekick character would write free software and do a little consulting on the side, just to pay for his bitchin' ride.

It costs a lot to be an outlaw these days.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

last laugh

When we moved to Texas in the fall of 1994, the Web was just starting to take off in Silicon Valley. You could see minor evidence of it at the time -- overheard references to hypertext in Palo Alto eateries, URLs popping up here and there, chatter mostly. Just before we left Los Altos (Spanish for "the mayonnaise-eaters"), I snapped a photo of a sign outside a building in Mountain View: it was a novelty to have a physical address refer to a cyberspace location.

In truth, I was glad to be leaving Silicon Valley. I was sick of eavesdropping on technophiles. My colleagues and I had been working on hypertext for over a decade already. Enough.

We moved to a rural area near Wellborn, a few miles south of the edge of College Station. You move to rural Texas, you think chiggers, cow pies, Aggie jokes, scorpions, and Jim-Bobs. So it was no surprise on that humid November day as we were watching the movers carry our few belongings into our new house that the guy who rode up to us on his John Deere Riding Lawn Tractor said his name was Jim Bob. Jim Bob. It was almost too much. But what staggered me is what Jim Bob told us he was up to.

He was running a Web server. One of his projects was to put small town Texas on the Internet. You can still see evidence of his efforts. Bremond, Texas: Home of Friendly People & Polish Sausage.

Jim Bob found his way into many of the talks I gave for the next couple of years. Just the juxtaposition of Jim Bob and the Web could elicit a pretty big chuckle from all kinds of audiences. I told the Jim Bob story even after we'd moved back to Silicon Valley; I told it until I was sick of it myself and it was no longer a novelty to have Jim Bobs on the Web.

Meanwhile, Jim Bob had found his way onto my Web site as well. Late in 1994, I wrote a few anecdotes about living in small town Texas, about having a propane tank, about giant satellite dishes, about cows. I added snatches of music too; a few bars from the Green Acres theme song seemed more than appropriate. I don't think I ever identified with Lisa Douglas, or even with Arnold the Pig, but more than once I felt like I'd been transported into a 60s sitcom. We even had a colleague who sounded like Pat Buttram (aka Mr. Haney). Naturally I made a link to Jim Bob's personal homepage. I remember it as having pictures of his wife and kids and Jim Bob himself. All it said was something like, "No time to be cool right now."

No time to be cool right now.

The link broke some years ago, and although I hate the idea of not having an up-to-date Web site, I never fixed it. I assumed no-one much went to those pages any more. The Web was no longer young and there were many other things to capture peoples' attention. I'd googled Jim Bob, and couldn't find a good photo anyway, just a shot of him hunting with his Ruger 270. So I never updated the link nor the text of the page. It seemed like the relic of another time and another place.

I decided to fix the link today. I don't know why. Some days, you just get a wild hair up your ass and you have to fix something that no-one really cares about.

So I did the obvious search. The results high on the first page didn't make much sense to me, SEC stuff, but sometimes someone's doppelgangers overwhelm the person you're looking for. It wasn't until I hit a link to a story in Bio IT World that I realized what had happened: Jim Bob had struck it rich within the last few months. Not rich-rich on that breathtaking scale of various dropouts of the graduate CS program at Stanford. But certainly on top of the heap for Wellborn, Texas, where houses still sell for under $200K and the best barbeque around is at Junek's Chevron Station. His company ClickFind had been acquired for $4M and $14M in DataTrak stock. According to Bio IT World, a trade magazine I hadn't heard of until today,

When the call came from DataTrak, ClickFind was not on the market. But Ward says he would have been leery of acquirers who could have bought the Bryan, Texas, company and moved it to San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, or some other Yankee metropolis where you may need a million bucks if you want a dwelling for little ones, spouses, and pets. Ward says he would never have considered such a move, to protect the cohesion of his 17-person team, all of whom are rooted in Texas.
$18M wouldn't have been enough to excite my notice; other people I know have become comparably wealthy and I'd never think to comment about it. It's just that Jim Bob was so out-of-phase with the boom and so out-of-phase with the bust.

But really it comes down to the story and how it always elicited a chuckle. People'd hear me give a talk and remember Jim Bob and ask me about him the next time they saw me.

One hot August day in 1995, Frank Shipman and I were having lunch at the FatBurger on University; it was the day Netscape went public. We were watching the coverage on CNN on FatBurger's TV, taking in the air-conditioned air, and watching the value of the stock climb before our very eyes. We calculated the fledgling company's valuation on a napkin: somewhere just shy of two billion dollars. It was unbelievable. How could this be happening?

That was over a decade ago. Ol' Marc Andressen is no longer a boy wonder. And it's been five years since the bottom fell out. People have forgotten about the gold rush quality of that period.

I guess Jim Bob won't be interested in that house on the street behind us that went on the market for $2.5M. It's a Modernist Masterpiece w/Stunning Views according to the postcard the seller's agent sent us. Two bedrooms, two baths, contemporary design, perfect for entertaining. Jim Bob can afford it now.

I just won't be telling that story about Jim Bob, his gigantic satellite dish, his John Deere Riding Lawn Tractor, and his Web server any more; somehow it's lost much of its bucolic charm.

Monday, April 10, 2006

antisocial software

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! LinkedIn is cash-flow positive. At least that's what Business Week reports. I'd have a hard time believing it, except I suspect Amway is also cash-flow positive and has been for many years.

Don't see the similarity between Amway and LinkedIn? You should. They're both pyramid schemes that use your own social network to good effect. For someone. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone who'll do something for you. Because you're somehow explicitly connected in this great family of man.

The only difference is, there are actual Amway products, weird Soylent-green inspired nutritional supplements and iffy cosmetics. Cleaning fluids that smell funny and don't work quite right. The people at the top of the pyramid know that. They don't say very much about how the L.O.C. surfactants smell; they just say, "Everyone loves clean. Clean says you're in control of your life and your surroundings."

It's about control. If you're linked in, you're in control. It's not like Tupperware: "Hey everybody! It's a party! Plastic containers can be fun! Let's get wild over the storage of leftovers!" In fact, I notice that Tupperware's new line of containers was inspired by the classic alien face-shape. Who wouldn't be excited by that?

Nope. It's not about parties or having a ball with 2 cups of leftovers that can go directly from refrigerator to microwave.

The thing about social networking software like LinkedIn and is that, unlike Amway and Tupperware, they don't fill any particular niche in your life. MySpace and FaceBook are like life, only better. Everyone's out to strut their stuff and talk to people they'd normally socialize with. They flirt. They display photos of themselves in their underwear. They sure as heck don't network. They console, cajole, and wink knowingly. And it seems to work.

There's a reason you left your old job and stopped going to lunch with the people you used to work with: you've moved on. LinkedIn? No. I think I'll opt out. And there's a reason that class reunions are only held every 5 or 10 years. assumes you're interested in getting back in touch with the people you knew in school. But that's really beside the point. It's more like that dreadful reunion one of your friends goaded you to attend: the reason you went is that you got to see firsthand who got fat, who's had cosmetic surgery, who's overdressed (among women, this means "didn't follow the implicit black cocktail dress code"), who came out, who lost their hair, whose drug habit is out of control, and who looks a lot worse than you do, even with their sunglasses on. Seeing pictures of other peoples' kids on Nah. That'll just remind you how old you are when you realize that the kids look more like the surfers you knew in high school than their parents do.

I confess, I did join once though, for about a half hour.

What happened is this: a girl I went to school with popped up in some other venue, alive. This surprised me greatly, since I'd believed all these years that her abrupt disappearance in tenth grade was a suicide. And it was entirely plausible. She'd already enjoyed a successful career as a child star when she moved to our neighborhood; she'd starred in a Jerry Lewis movie and been up for a Golden Globe. She'd sung duets with Elvis in another movie (although I don't think she was as public about this role at the time; this was Elvis's In the Ghetto period, when he was a joke, not really even competing with Jim Morrison for our hearts and pre-adolescent dollars). Donna was a celebrity among us; we elected her student body president and discussed her doings with barely-concealed awe. She soon fell from grace in one of those normal ways that it's best not to discuss, particularly since I've already demonstrated that I was exceedingly prone to believing salacious rumors in those days. Then she disappeared.

Once her name had popped up last fall, I went to -- sheepishly, I admit -- with the idea that the reference was somehow bogus, that someone was impersonating her or even pretending that she'd shown up in their retail establishment. This many years later, who would know? And much to my satisfaction, there was no sign of her.

In point of fact, I went to a large junior high school and an even larger high school (around 2700 students), and I saw few familiar names at all. One of the odd things about this social software is that it's based on the "small town" assumption. I've worked for several large companies and have gone to large schools; it's not that likely LinkedIn and Classmates are going to connect me with people I remember more than fleetingly. "Oh, yeah," I'd think to myself, "that was the kid who barfed on the floor in social studies." But there'd be no reason I'd want to start a conversation with him now. Watching someone vomit in 7th grade is not the basis for a lifetime bond.

But then, right around Christmas, things got weird.'s noxious habit of sending email whenever they'd hooked another sucker, "You have 1 NEW profile at, Catherine," yielded some bizarre fruit. The NEW profile was Donna's and it said, tantalizingly, "hey gang, finally sat down long enough to record m..." Classmates cut it off right there. And I had to join and give them my credit card number so I could look at the last 30 characters of her message, promoting her work on a music CD. Then I was done with and I went through fits of paranoia as I expunged my credit card information from their system, lest I be charged for my little looky-loo.

My little looky-loo. How much use does social software like LinkedIn and Classmates get like mine, brief forays that satisfy intense, but highly transient, curiosity? And how much use is of the Amway sort? I'm told that LinkedIn is used by head hunters to locate fodder for placement.

A friend of a friend is a prospect indeed.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

past POTUSs

My brother and I were chatting about the presidency and the quality of our leaders, present and past. Naturally we got to wondering how long it's been since we've had an administration this flawed, this corrupt. If Nixon hadn't been so photo-perfect for blame with those jowls, the beady little eyes, and the five o'clock shadow, we'd have to look much further back in our history. Warren Harding, my brother thinks. There are some obvious parallels.

But that's not the point of this story; I can't bear to blog about the current political situation, nor Sy Hersh's article that's about to appear in the New Yorker. Let's leave that to those with insider information, people who are privy to leaks (privies and leaks do seem to go together). Let's just say, it's interesting to go through America's short history of leaders and play the eye doctor game: better or worse, better or worse, better or worse.

Jon finds the mustacheod Grover Cleveland -- the lone Democrat to serve as President in the latter half of the 19th century -- to be underrated. And of course, there's the irresistable tidbit that he served two non-contiguous terms. Plus, from my point of view, he looks more like a walrus than any other American president. That surely puts him in both the better and the highly underrated categories.

Who, we wondered, served in that term that interrupted Cleveland's two? Since Wikipedia was down (and millions of students were no doubt facing incompletes on their term papers), I decided to take a look at Why not? That'd be a place where you'd find a list of POTUSs, don't you think?

Indeed. There's a list of past presidents, which quickly tells us that the answer is Benjamin Harrison. Another hirsute man, short at 5' 6", and not in the least bit walrus-y. But I digress. The point of the story is the look at the US Presidents you get from

Notice anything weird about the Presidential portraits? Young G.W. is the only one who found the need to have an American flag as a backdrop; he's got a much bigger smile than the others, as if he's awakened from a good night's sleep and doesn't have a care in the world. JFK's gaze is oddly cast down, something like that clue on the Abbey Road album cover that proved Paul McCartney was dead (in that case, Paul was the only one of the four without shoes). (I think the proof is that the real Paul McCartney was young and foolish rather than sanctimonious like the replacement Paul McCartney). LBJ cleaned up real nice.

But what you need to look at are the bios. For example, of the walrus-y Mr. Cleveland, it is said:

"A bachelor, Cleveland was ill at ease at first with all the comforts of the White House. "I must go to dinner," he wrote a friend, "but I wish it was to eat a pickled herring a Swiss cheese and a chop at Louis' instead of the French stuff I shall find."

Pickled herring? Perfect for a walrus.

And William McKinley, a president who was shot while in office, stood for "the full dinner pail" and "kept his ear so close to the ground that it was full of grasshoppers."

It's full of tidbits like this. No authorial credit can be found for these biographies either.

They're kinder to first ladies. There's a subtext of "stand by your man" and each was more gracious than can be imagined. No mention of the Republican cloth coat in Pat Nixon's bio. We don't get even a glimpse of pre-recovery Betty Ford (except to learn that she'd studied modern dance at Bennington and been a member of Martha Graham's troupe). Lady Bird, we learn, kept things running when LBJ had a major heart attack during his stint as Senate Majority Leader. No slouches among the first ladies.

Makes you wonder why they weren't the presidents.


In a world of celebrity unions -- the Bennifers and Brangelinas -- my favorite has got to be Bjork and Matthew Barney. Bjorney?

Drawing Restraint 9 and Vespertine. It just seems right. I won't pretend to have understood Cremaster Cycle, nor will I deny thinking, "You're not supposed to watch all of it, right? You just see your 5 minutes and move on."

Saturday, April 08, 2006


I've always picked up stray scraps of notebook paper from the sidewalk, even before there was a magazine devoted to exactly that. Apparently lots of people are fond of the stuff they find on the ground.

This one starts out okay -- a clear example of the "Dear Grandma" genre. Pretty hard to get into trouble with a Dear Grandma letter, right? You go through the "How are you? I am fine" sequence, say a word or two about school -- "Homework is really hard this year. I hate my teacher." And maybe include something positive about yourself, something to make Grandma proud, variously "I got an A on my math test," "Me and my brother shot hoops for 2 hours on Friday," "I haven't puked in the car for a whole week," or "My therapist said that I shoplift because I need to develop boundaries," depending on your strengths. Then you can delve into the realm of the cryptic, like "Mom says we can get a brand new iguana," the object being to fill up the rest of the page. Writing large is very effective.

Our young letter writer was doing fine until he got to page 2. Then we see why the letter was never mailed. A 1 Dollar bill? Why would he even bother to mail the thank you note? No incentive. In fact, the closing "how are you?" has become a sly snipe: clearly one must enquire after the mental health of a relative who is so out of touch that she thinks a 1 Dollar bill is an adequate gift for a young person with Needs. That's not even enough to buy a cell phone ringtone.

What is Grandma thinking?

Exhibit B in our Found on the Ground series is from the archives. I found it at De Anza Junior College in the early 90s.

"Edith Wong," it tells us, "is a pootie pootie, hah!" This amid Human Physiology notes about lung volume and lung collapse. We know the author would under no circumstances revive Edith Wong, but we can picture her reviving others. A braceleted hand is extended, either to offer assistance or to dismiss the victim as unworthy.

Likewise the profiles and disembodied head: Revived or not? Or do they suggest that the note-taker's mind is not wholly focused on Human Physiology?

The last comment about Saddam Hussein dates the note paper to around the first Gulf War. It is oddly prescient though. What could the note-taker be reacting to? Is it to put Edith Wong in perspective? Saddam Hussein isn't that bad, but that Edith Wong, on the other hand, is a pootie pootie?

That's the great thing about these scraps of paper: they're ultimately indecipherable and wholly intriguing.

This last one has a hint of menace. It's Jack's letter to Marti. It sounds like Marti has gone away so Jack can do his dirty work for him -- rub someone out, perhaps. "I did everything you asked," he tells his friend, and now, he implies, I'm getting out of town before the heat gets wind of it. While Jack didn't demand payment up front, now he wants to make sure that Marti slips him a couple thou for his troubles.

Naturally he doesn't want his parents to confenscate [sic] it. What do they want hopeful young Jack to do, get a paper route?

Is it any wonder that when I run into these kids on the sidewalk, I cross to the other side of the street?