Sunday, July 30, 2006

questions and intestines

Last Monday Andy Raskin, a storyteller in Beth Lisick's Porchlight series (this month's theme: Busted!), was telling a tale that turned on a rumor circulating in Japan in the mid-1980s. American intestines are 1.5 times longer than Japanese intestines: that's how the rumor went. It had to do with eating and digesting our muscular and chewy American cows and the inability of the average Japanese person to do so in the middle 1980s. Perhaps Japan wasn't importing enough beef during the Reagan administration. Maybe it was the basis for a car ad in which Carrot Top ate an entire Toyota truck, synthetic upholstery, rubber floor mats, and all. Perhaps it was a prescient explanation for Bush Sr.'s 1992 breach of etiquette, that indelicate sushi incident: his extra long intestines literally gagged the poor man.

In fact, if the rumor persisted into the new millenium, it likely threw off the betting at the Nathan's Hot Dog eating contest. Wasn't Takeru Kobayashi victorious again this year? Maybe his intestines are on par with Lance Armstrong's reported extra-large heart. And what kind of doping can put you in front of the pack? "We found Pepcid AC in his urine!" But still. Kobayashi's victory presents pretty substantial evidence that the rumor's been quashed.

But don't ask me what this intestines rumor had to do with Porchlight's Busted! theme. I couldn't tell you. I was distracted. Distracted!

Did Mr. Raskin -- who is surely a creative man -- make this rumor up? It'd be so easy to make up something like this. Not the part about the actual length of brawny American intestines, per se, but rather the bit about it being a rumor in Japan. It'd be simple to just fabricate something like that. Who'd know? I couldn't stop thinking about it, even as the audience chuckled at the further twists and turns of Mr. Raskin's tale. Is this intestine length stuff a real rumor, or just a rumored rumor?

If the answer isn't in Wikipedia or listed on Snopes, how would you even find out? It just so happens that Snopes regards intestine length as one of those great unanswerable questions. And surely the rumor's implicit racism would violate Wikipedia's fair and balanced dictum. Nothing fair and balanced about insulting an entire nation's digestive tract. Nothing at all!

Happily, my Lunch co-editor is up on all things Japanese, so I was able to ask him: is there any truth to the rumor that there used to be a rumor about Japanese intestines?

Yes, he informed me, there was. As one would suspect, it's died out by now; thus Mr. Kobayashi's stunning winning streak did not seriously undermine anyone's worldview.

But what would've happened if my co-editor hadn't dropped by? Where would I be then?

In my living room, looking at Yahoo Answers, that's where! I'd drop right in to the "Society and Culture" category and have a look. Someone else must've wondered this too. When it comes to important questions about intestines, my fellow Americans seem to exhibit limitless curiousity.

In fact, maybe the answer's lurking in the subcategory about culture and groups.

The first question I see is "What the f**k?" I'd wondered that too, but there's no time for that right now; I've got more important things on my mind. There seem to be a lot of Yahooers interested in flirting and telling jokes that are in questionable taste. There's MySpace for that, dudes and dudettes. Let's keep it serious! To wit:

I really like him and I don't wanna lose him because he's the only other gay goth guy at my school, but I don't like feeling pressured to do something that I'm not ready to do yet.
The only other gay goth guy at my school? Not even close! Where does a girl go to find out about cultural interpretations of intestine length? Surely a search on "intestines" will reveal all that I seek. Ah, quite a number of resolved questions about intestine length. Maybe one of them'll hold the key.

Q: What is the length of your intestines?

A: ...The small intestine of a human can be as long as six to eight meters long (20-26 feet), depending on age and size of being... The large intestine is wider but shorter than the small intestine. It measures approximately 1.5 meters (5 feet) in length...
Together - the intestines range in length anywhere from 25 - 31 feet.
The expert was a lovely young girl whose profile included a photo. Her response was very earnest and very accurate. I suspect she even added small intestine length + large intestine length on her own initiative as a hedge against the accusation "you didn't answer my question!"

Nice answer! Nice smile!

Lucky for me the answer-a-thon doesn't end there. Someone apparently didn't believe our last expert.

Q: Is it true that your intestines are 26 miles long?

A: According to the slithery sites in our Digestive System category, we have about thirty feet of intestines in our body! The small intestine, where most of the digesting happens, is over twenty-two feet long! ... The large intestine, or colon, is about six feet long.
Exclamation points! A punctuation mark that just radiates authority! Happily, this answer's units are much more sensible than the units of the question, but the answerer has the subtlety and poise not to rub it in. That's FEET! Not MILES! That's why, I'd imagine, we get a third variation on the theme:

Q: How long are the human intestines?

A: The small intsestine is appproxiamtely 20ft 6-7 m long, in a cadavar, the small intestine is only about 2-4m 8-13 ft because of to mucle tone and the large intestine is about 1.5m...

Ah, a leitmotif of death with a hint of Eurotrash influence hidden in the introduction of metric units. That'll keep 'em coming, death and metric. But I'm still lost with regard to the authority of my rumor about a rumor about intestines. My query has yielded 2258 results. Turns out EVERYBODY on Yahoo Answers just loves intestines. Intestines and tapeworms. Intestines and herbivores versus intestines and carnivores. Frog dissections and intestines. Snickers bar digestion and intestines. Yep. There's a lot to know about intestines.

Perhaps the truthiest vital organ, intestines.

But I'm gonna have to ask it myself if I want to know about this rumor. Interestingly, a quick tour of search results on intestines japan length rumor beef yields a pointer to a sinophile blog in which Japanese intestines are rumored to be longer, not shorter.

I might be happier asking more practical questions.

For example, that yellow fungus -- the one that had me so worked up last week -- seems to be spreading. It's moved to the south easternmost corner of the house, to the rubber tree's pot. The fruiting bodies (mushroom speak for "mushrooms") look a little different, but they're still BRIGHT YELLOW. What does Yahoo Answers have to say about bright yellow indoor fungi?

Sure enough, I'm not the only one afflicted.

What I've discovered is that not only do other people -- chi chi, joanna g., and Sage T -- have yellow fungus abloom in their houseplant soil, but also that Yahoo's self-appointed experts also have no idea what they are either.

But I no longer feel so alone.

One more question before I decide that Yahoo Answers is even less truthy than Wikipedia.

This one's consequential: "Is that poison oak I see beside the trail?" I ask as I stray from the path to harvest some ripe berries.

Poison oak or not? Yahoo Answers tells me, "The poison oak will be growing from a vine and the oak seedlings will be from a straight stem. Wear protective clothing and try to uncover the base to determine. After a while you will be able to tell one from the other by sight."

The answers that tell you how to identify a horrible itchy weeping disfiguring rash are more definitive.

I'm beginning to see the virtue in Wikipedia for the first time.

Interesting that there's a lockdown on Elephants though. Would it be disingenuous to wonder why that happened?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

afflicted with lassitude

I'm out of sorts. It's hot. The cat and I are afflicted with lassitude of the worst sort.

The cat moves from spot to spot in our house looking for the arctic air that I've been known to complain about: there's usually no shortage of cold. Instead of moving with feline stealth and a preternatural grace, he throws himself on the ground with a thud and meows as if he were a Siamese.

"It's hot," he tells me. "For godssake. Do something about it. I didn't sign on to work under these conditions."

Then he sighs. A big ol' world-weary sigh. Cats can and do sigh.

He's even off his feed. He's a big hungry cat and it takes a lot to put him off his feed. I offer him a shrimp from my homemade Pad Thai. He just glowers. He knows I could do something about this heat if I just put my mind to it. If I applied myself. Focused. A pink morsel of shrimp is no compensation for being required to wear a gray fur coat in this relentless heat.

And I know he'll want overtime pay and days off in exchange for this pain and suffering. You probably didn't realize that cats are unionized. They are.

What you also might not realize is that San Francisco is a city with no air conditioning. Sure, those snazzy skyscrapers in the financial district have A/C, but out here in the Castro, we're too rustic for that. The bears in their flannel shirts suffer; the leather boys in their chaps suffer; and my cat in his fur coat suffers. Most of the bars and restaurants have opened their windows with the hope of conjuring up a breeze. But it's not happening. The boys at The Edge spill out into the street; even there, there's a limit to how many sweaty bodies make a bar feel just a little too hot and crowded for comfort.

Nothing is working.

It's hot. All the windows are open and it smells like car exhaust and roof tar up here.

Then there are the fireworks. Didn't someone use up their Red Devil Safe and Sane Jumbo Assortment on the 4th? It seems like they didn't. Pop-bang-fweeeee! Some green sparkly bits fly high into the night sky. Pop-bang-fweeeee! Just how fucking big was that assortment pack?

PacBell Park has the same idea. I can see giant professional chrysanthemum explosions visible over the intervening hills. These go off with a dull booooom. It's loud! With the Middle East behaving the way it's behaving and GW behaving the way he's behaving -- and here I'm not referring to his ill-conceived touchy-feely back rubs that instinctively alarm female world leaders -- I'm instantly filled with anxiety, especially if the fireworks don't go high enough in the air for me to see them twinkle and pop. Just a louder-than-loud boooom. Wouldn't you be alarmed?

I try to mollify the freaked out cat (neither of us likes these explosions), thinking to lure him back into the kitchen with some ice cubes for his water bowl. I open the freezer; there don't seem to be any icecubes in the automatic ice maker's overly capacious tray. What's the deal? The ice cubes that had been in there were apparently so old that by now they've completely sublimated. Vanished. Gone. No ice cubes for the cat's water bowl.

I have a feeling that if there were still ice cube remnants, he'd have something sarcastic to say about their age. Once an ice cube demonstrates visible shrinkage, you know it's going to taste like ass. It is. There's no getting around that. And the cat's not shy about letting me know that something tastes like ass.

I stand in front of the freezer, contemplating the non-functional ice maker as long as my conscience will let me. Ah, that cool breeze feels good. Not much in the way of food to obstruct cold air circulation. What's that fluid in the recycled baby food jar? Might that be motor oil (20-50)? Looks like motor oil to me. Perhaps a leftover from a little at-home science experiment. Hope no-one thinks it's potable; it does look just about as appetizing as anything else in the refrigerator.

A lone jar of baby food filled with Castrol 20-50 is sufficiently disturbing to make me close the freezer door, cool breeze or no, conscience or no.

When I hunker down on the floor with the cat in a display of empathy (and with the thought that it's often cooler hunkered down on the floor), I can't help but notice that there's an awful lot of perma-dirt in the kitchen. Perma-dirt. That's really why anyone moves. It's not the dirt; it's the perma-dirt.

My old pal Bill Liles recently opined what we all secretly subscribe to (and I believe I've said elsewhere in this blog): that beyond a certain point, a house doesn't get any dirtier. After 7 years or so, he said, a house reaches a filth equilibrium. That would be a fine theory if it weren't for perma-dirt.

Think of it this way: the dirty-house-in-equilibrium theory is like special relativity. But perma-dirt is like general relativity. It's a much harder problem.

You might say "Perma-dirt? You're making that up, Cathy. I've never heard of perma-dirt. Really!"

Oh, you might not have heard the technical term, but I'm sure you've experienced the phenomenon. That's the stuff that's left over after you've applied the best chemical warfare against household dirt that Dow and Dupont have to offer, the scrubbing bubbles and the mold-banishing solutions. The stuff that warns you not to get any on the dog. The stuff that makes your nosehairs curl and catch fire. The really toxic solutions that have adorable personified mascots: big-eyed bubbles with Groucho Marx brows and talking scrub brushes that sound like Don Rickles. It's Agent Orange rendered loveable.

But despite their MX-quality toxicity warnings, these chemicals don't work any magic against perma-dirt. And you can just forget about your Simple Green or Amway L.O.C. Perma-dirt just laughs at those wimpy wrong-smelling cleaning products. They're not gonna square off against a good solid case of perma-dirt.

Anyway, when it's hot, and you're lying around on the floor with the cat, you've got plenty of time to contemplate the perma-dirt. Plenty of time. You're closer to your household surfaces than is prudent, and what you see isn't pretty.

Time to move; we're afflicted with perma-dirt big time. The lassitude is nothing, NOTHING, compared to perma-dirt.

Our worse offender is a Kitchen Aid portable dishwasher.

Don't look at me that way. It came with the house; we've only used it once. It hooks up to the kitchen faucet and noisily and moistly cooks your dishes until you convince yourself, they must be clean by now. They've just got to be clean. Moist, noisy, and an absolute magnet for scum; that's the Kitchen Aid dishwasher.

In spite of the fact that we don't use it, we just can't seem to get rid of it. A really deep analysis of the situation -- one that can only be performed when one is prone on the kitchen floor, trying to absorb the last bit of coolness from the tiles -- tells us: (a) it'd be really hard to carry this LARGE APPLIANCE out of here; 75 lbs x 75 stairs = 5625 pound-stairs or -- get this -- 2.81 stair-tons; and (b) (and this is a not-insignificant rationale) there's no other surface where we can conveniently deploy Mr. Signature Gourmet coffeemaker.

You might remember Mr. Signature Gourmet, purchased in haste after the untimely demise of the more respectable Mr. Coffee. You might also remember the neurosis I developed about the fact that Mr. Signature Gourmet has no automatic shut-off mechanism. For the last month, every time I've left the house (which is admittedly not very often), I've had to scamper back up 75 stairs after I've gotten down to the street and realized: I forgot to check if the coffee maker's been turned off. I've got to go look! Just a second! I'll be right back!

You might also remember that Mr. Signature Gourmet was developing a bit of a warp and that by my calculations, in a year -- using the most conservative extrapolation possible -- the top would be warped wide open, and Mr. Signature Gourmet's soft underbelly would be exposed to the corrosive morning air.

You might also remember that Mr. Signature Gourmet was white. Unlike Stephen Colbert, I do see color. That's why I'm not going to even pretend that this is the same coffee maker. And contrary to what you may be thinking right now, we didn't replace it because of my neurotic need to run back up 75 stairs and into the house to check its on/off status. Nope. Nobody knows about that. It's a secret neurosis. Even my imaginary hypothetical therapist doesn't know about it. In the best Northern California way, I'm not working on it. You don't know about it. It never happened.

Nope. What really happened was -- another gravity experiment! Yes, glass carafes fall and shatter like many other breakable everyday objects. And with coffee makers, the carafe is cruelly priced to be more expensive than replacing the entire coffee maker.

So, buh-bye Mr. Signature Gourmet I. Say hello to Mr. Signature Gourmet II (or Mr. Signature Gourmet Prime, if you insist). Mr. Signature Gourmet II is a sleek black small appliance with a timer. For 5 dollars more, we purchased the neurosis-reducing model that doesn't force you to run up 75 steps every time you leave the house. It's a real time and energy saver, Mr. Signature Gourmet II is.

Because it's equipped with many more sophisticated coffee-making functions, Mr. Signature Gourmet II sports four (4) (IV) buttons. And they're labeled so there's nothing to remember, nothing left to chance. The thing that I find vaguely disquieting -- and I don't want you to think that I normally comment on minor design elements like typography -- is that Mr. Signature Gourmet II's functions (on/off, hour, min, prog) are labeled with ComicSans characters.

Yes. My coffee maker was designed in PowerPoint. Comic Sans. There's no mistaking it. I'd recognize it anywhere. In a dark alley. On a Broadway stage. At Carnegie Deli, eating a lean corned beef on rye. Comic Sans.

See what I mean? Disquieting.

After my success with the pigs and the yellow mushrooms, I thought I'd teach the whole lot of 'em to make coffee (especially since the yellow mushrooms have wilted in this heat and the pigs no longer show any interest in the potted plants). I know there's some kind of adage about teaching pigs to sing, but I'm not teaching them to sing; not even to sing karaoke. I'm teaching them how to operate a very simple piece of equipment, a small appliance that automatically shuts itself off after 2 hours, an elegant bit of kitchen technology labeled in user-friendly Comic Sans.

I mean, how hard could it be? The pigs are better-than-average pigs. They can do it!

I think I've got 'em trained after a few short hours. We'll see tomorrow morning. There's a bit of a nuisance getting them to manage the heavy spoonfuls of coffee grounds, but we've made a heckuva a lot of progress today.

Heck of a job, pigs! You go, pigs! Gig 'em, piggies!

Tomorrow morning, I'll wake to the smell of freshly brewed java, java that'll stay warm for exactly 2 hours and no longer.

So when I leave to go to Philz to get my morning coffee after discovering that the pigs forgot to use a filter to contain the grounds, I won't have to run back up 75 stairs to see if Mr. Signature Gourmet II is safely at rest.

P.S. On top of my other woes -- the lassitude, the cat ire, the explosions, the missing ice cubes, the perma-dirt, the comic sans, the piggies doing a heck of a job -- without meaning to, I've messed up the columns of my blog template. See? Column 2 (the profile, links, past posts and the like) starts at the bottom of Column 1 (although it's correctly aligned in the horizontal dimension). I don't recall actually editing anything in the template, but apparently intent to edit is enough. Anyone who knows the probable cause & how to fix it will be praised lavishly if he or she either drops me an email or posts a comment.

Friday, July 14, 2006

a fungus among us

House mushrooms. We've got 'em. House mushrooms. We're infested.

They're yellow to match the tiles in the bathroom. Thank god they don't fully match the bathroom tiles. Then they'd have to be pink AND yellow. And they'd have to have grout between them, I suppose. And knowing my luck, they'd leak.

But these fungal volunteers: first they're in one pot; then they're in another. The alocasia had them first. Then they moved on over to the marginalia -- no, that's marginata (which I got at Ikea, so the name's probably made up, like Magiker bookcases or Flarb credenza covers). The potted palm is the current victim of the fungus incursion. The yellow mushrooms come up -- overnight -- and then they open, spewing spores all over the floor in a light dusting. Covering the ficus berries, the miniature yellow dates, and the hairballs that already litter the floor.

I'm not sure I like the idea of anything -- animal, vegetable, or mineral -- spewing spores in my living room. I don't want to upset the delicate equilibrium of my squalor.

These guys don't even look real. They look like mushrooms stenciled on t-shirts, that cliché summer-of-love iconography. Lord of the Rings meets The Doors of Perception. Or was that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets That Seventies Show?

I'll never know if they're psychedelic. I'm a little skittish about their potential toxicity. Is it really okay to have yellow fungus in your living room? Should you, like, do something? Or call someone? Hey! Culligan Man! Or maybe you're supposed to call Roto Rooter/that's the name/and away go troubles/down the drain. They must be psychoactive, because they're making me awfully nervous, the way psychedelics do just before they come on.

I am awfully nervous. I am.

So I do what any other horribly lazy yet neurotically fearful person would do. I do a Google Image Search for yellow mushroom. Once I've eliminated the ones that are clearly cutesy products (mushroom paper lanterns! mushroom salt-and-pepper shakers! art glass mushrooms!), I begin to notice a theme: these guys are all growing outside. Out-of-doors. In the musky dusky woodlands. Not in an urban living room. And they either all look just like our infestation or none of them do.

Hmmm. Perhaps there is something to worry about. Perhaps they're so highly toxic that the weird lightheaded way I feel as I plow through page after page of jpegs is incipient mushroom poisoning. Maybe just breathing the mycelium gas that they emit when they respire is doing irreparable harm to my delicate organs. To the soft, absorbent part of my brain where I store important things like advertising jingles and sitcom plots.

Damn. How do you ID a mushroom anyway? They really do all look pretty darned similar to me. Maybe they don't to another mushroom. That's it! Maybe what I've got to do is pretend to be a mushroom. Then I'll be able to tell the difference.

Nah. Doesn't help. Although I can see how it wouldn't be a bad hobby, pretending to be a mushroom. It actually seems a lot like yoga.

But I've got to get serious here. I google mushroom identification yellow. A Bolbitius vitellinus or a Mycena capillaripes? You tell me. Or maybe -- because I like the name -- an Inonotus tomentosus, aka Red Butt Rot. And here's a Laccaria laccata var. pallidifolia, aka Lackluster Laccaria. Lackluster? No, I'd say these yellow mushrooms are downright enthusiastic. Not in the least lackluster or under-performing. A Suillus brevipes, aka Short-Stemmed Slippery Jack? Doesn't look like it, but wouldn't you like to say you had one of those in your living room? I would. And here's a Tricholomopsis rutilans (aka Plums and Custard). The names are great, but I still haven't ID'd the fungus. I'd like to say that the Bolbitius is a pretty good match, but really I'm not so sure.

How'd this fungus even get here? I don't recall inviting it up. The living room is 75 steps up from the street, so it certainly didn't get here on the 24 Muni. The 24 bus is always late anyhow, so that fungus wouldn't be among us until tomorrow. At the earliest. And it'd be talking to itself like the other riders of the 24.

I wonder if the world's largest fungus has reached my living room. Could it be a long arm of the Armillaria ostoyae that occupies about 10 square kilometers in Oregon? Could the Armillaria ostoyae be trying to maintain its position as World's Largest Organism, a position recently usurped by Pando, a hyperactive colony of quaking aspens?

The last time I checked, Oregonians don't migrate in this direction; rather they accuse Californians of heading up their way. But this particular fungus could be a rebel; after all, Armillaria ostoyae kills trees, which is not a very Oregonian thing to do. Last time I checked with my Oregonian friends Sara and George, Oregonians grow trees, not kill them.

So how can I tell if my fungus is an extension of the ever-growing record-seeking over-achieving Oregon fungus? Nah, it just can't be. It's not killing my houseplants. In fact, to the contrary, they seem envigorated by their new pot-mates. I used to feel that way about housemates myself. That is, until I saw the overdue phone bill with calls to a payphone in Antarctica or looked inside the fridge and discovered leftovers that looked like furry pets. Or found a 2 inch wide shoulder-to-shoulder trail of ants leading to an open jar of Mary Ellen Strawberry Preserves.


Maybe the pigs brought the spores in. The pigs don't usually bring stuff in; they just mill around the livingroom in a small herd. Is it a herd? Everything's a cohort nowadays, so maybe the pigs hang around in their cohort. But anyway, they don't bring much in; they don't even track in mud on their tiny pink trotters.

What if, what if, what if they assembled themselves into formation? What if they chose themselves a leader (GWPig?) and headed off across the hardwood like a platoon of geese. (It's not platoon, is it? It should be. Perhaps a squadron.) They could -- and remember, this is strictly a re-enactment -- make an effort to spread fungus spores hither and yon. You know, collect them outside and bring them in. Don't pigs love truffles? These mushrooms are like truffles, only not quite as truffle-y. But -- in your mind's eye -- you could see house pigs wanting to grow house mushrooms if they couldn't root for truffles in the great out-of-doors.

In the next part of the enactment, I attempted to stack pig on top of pig -- some hot pig-on-pig action -- but I found that the stack got unstable way before I got the whole cohort to reach the top of the palm's blue pot. (Jonathan Small, by the way, is an expert at pig stacking, and the best I've seen him do is a 6-deep pig stack.) And in a more stable pig pyramid formation, a classic of cheerleaders the world over, they simply don't have the altitude to get over the lip of the pot.

But we have lots of raw material available for the pigs to use to reach the top of the blue palm pot. For example, I have arts-and-crafts outbursts, during which I paint dried flowers. Please don't tease me about it; I'm sure there are many venues -- summer camps, kindergarten classrooms, mental hospitals -- where such things are not frowned upon, but rather explicitly encouraged. What if the pig cohort hauled one of the dried lotus pods out of its arrangement and over to the potential truffle farm? They could traverse the pod's stem and get right to the dirt. Sowing (so to speak) spores to grow truffles. Or mushrooms.

It could've happened just that way. You can even try this in your own livingroom. Pigs + aerable houseplant soil + ad hoc ladder + spores = indoor truffle patch.

See if it doesn't work for you. And that's just one scenario. I'm certain you can come up with many more. Lots of ways those mushrooms could've gotten to where they are.

Or perhaps I'm under-rating their psychoactive potential. Hey Culligan man!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

center of mass

I was walking through the Mission this afternoon on my way to Phil's Coffee, and all I could think was, Carmen and Flavio are gonna miss this place. They're moving away from San Francisco in less than a month. They'll really miss it. I can tell.

It seemed like there were more murals in this part of the Mission than I'd ever noticed before. They were everywhere. Grinning pigs on the wall of a butcher shop on 24th Street -- even the decapitated pig head was all smiles -- and a masked Wounded Knee resistance fighter on a 22nd Street construction site walkway.

But it was the demented Mr. Bubbles on the laundromat wall who caught my eye: "Mr. Bubbles! Hey, Mr. Bubbles: what'd you do with my sock? Yo, Mister! Mr. Bubbles! I'm talkin' to you!"

Art alive on every building, on fences, down alleys. It helped counteract the fact that you might well see hipsters instead of homies on half the street corners these days. The Mission started gentrifying during the Internet boom and it hasn't put on the brakes. But they haven't replaced Botanica Yoruba with Restoration Hardware. Yet.

Carmen and Flavio are moving to Amherst. In central Massachusetts. I like to think it's the center of mass, but maybe that's pushing it. We tried that once, living in Amherst at the center of mass, and I don't think we lasted even six months. Centripetal force threw us off. Maybe we weren't quite at the center of mass after all.

We should've had our collective tails between our collective legs on the long drive back to California, but we were, in fact, jubilant. Excited to be heading home. Driving as fast as we could on the black ice that coated the highway in Tennessee, passing Shoney's after Shoney's, eating fast food burgers and not even bothering to unwrap them or chew. Home! To California!

You couldn't fault the scenery in Amherst. We moved there in late August and spent the fall reveling in novelty of the colored leaves on the trees lining the Robert Frost trail. Tromp, tromp. Shuffle, shuffle. We walked around a perfect small lake. A few fallen leaves floated on the still water's surface; it looked like the product of a Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" lesson. Deciduous trees! How cool is that? Then, in December, snow. Real snow! Not cocaine, but snow-snow! And antiques! The central Massachusetts countryside was just as soothing as Bob Ross's voice. And the Robert Frost trail: I imagine that if you moved to Manhattan, you'd hike on the Jim Carroll trail instead; it'd have completely different scenery, iconography, and ghosts. But there'd be none of this After Apple Picking folderol; of this you can be certain.

The serenity of our Emily Dickensonian/Robert Frostian idylls was shattered by our downstairs neighbors. Shattered. You see, I rented our apartment near UMass at the Crestview Apartments at the end of July. While all the undergrads were safely ensconced in some other distant part of the state, snug in their cozy childhood bedrooms, nourished by Mom's cooking.

"Is it quiet here?" I asked the rental agent at DH Jones Realty. "Really quiet?"

"Oh, yes. It's very quiet," he assured me. And went on to tell me about the woman across the hall who was a grad student at UMass in some silent monkish discipline like chemical engineering or materials science.

The apartment's brown carpeting was brand new. The walls were freshly painted. You'd say the place was spic-n-span. You would. It didn't look half-bad for a 1BR in a college town. We settled in at the end of August not long before classes started.

But then came September. Our downstairs neighbors moved in. Are those undergrads? They looked awfully big and healthy and athletic for grad students.

The guy at DH Jones Realty had lied. Just lied through his teeth. Very quiet. Very quiet indeed!

Did you know that a metal kitchen sink will work as a basketball hoop if you want to play basketball at 3am? The fall air had a real nip to it, so you wouldn't want to be playing outside in the middle of the night. THUMPETY-THUMPETY-THUMPETY-BANG! 2 points! And if you're playing basketball inside your Crestview apartment, you can whip up a blenderful of daiquiris when you get thirsty. That'd be at 3:20am, after you'd worked up a sweat. Whir-WHIR-WHIR-CLATTER-WHIR-CLATTER.

A daiquiri needs to be well-blended. And a basketball that bounces out of the metal sink with a glancing smack on the faucet might provoke an escalating dispute. Is that really worth two points? It bounced back out. Thud! The sound of a 228 pound undergrad hitting drywall is pretty unmistakable. Wham! You can really get into it with all that sugar and all that rum and all that post-adolescent adrenalin in your system.

So Bat Brain -- a student-drawn comic in the UMass paper -- seemed just right. Bill Dearing got it. I should've scared up an old newspaper if I'd wanted to know what the place was really like. Instead of asking a real estate agent.

There's always someone like that at college, someone who can get the essence of the place in four panels. Blue chronicled our own undergraduate experience. Here's one he drew of his roommate Jeff, sitting in sophomore physics lecture. It's pretty much perfect, just as I remember it.


Anyway, we went to Carmen and Flavio's going-away bash on Saturday night. I thought, "No, I'm not gonna tell those guys scare stories about UMass -- it doesn't seem fair to do that. They're too smart to rent a 1BR Crestview Apartment. And I'm not gonna say A WORD. For a change."

It was too cold to be out on the back deck of their Glenpark flat, but a bunch of us were standing out there anyway. Smoking. Looking through the neighbors' windows. Looking out toward San Francisco City College and comparing this view with that view and this hill with that hill and this flat with that flat. The usual things that people talk about when they don't all know each other, but need to find some common conversational ground. Everyone knows about views and hills and renting apartments. In spite of the cold, it was nice standing out on the deck, drinking homemade sangria.

It was the homemade sangria, I think, that made me blurt out, "You guys ought to sublet. Y'know. So you can come back when it's February. I mean, just in case. If your downstairs neighbors play basketball or something."

But they'd already given notice on their tidy 2BR Glenpark flat. 2BR. Light and bright. A short walk to BART. Hdwd floors. And they reminded me that they'd already shown their mettle by surviving College Station, Texas, home of the Texas A&M University Aggies and Aglets. (The Texas A&M Battalion had its own student-drawn comics, but I thought Today's Smile, from the front page of the town's daily Bryan/College Station Eagle, was much, much funnier.)

Gosh, I'm glad Glen Gerzik got his new chompers, you'd think as you scanned the Eagle for interesting local stories. Like the progress of the construction on the new Bed Bath & Beyond.

But that's College Station, and this is Amherst. And besides they're going to buy.

Buy? Then they can't move when the place gets dirty. Did you know catfood has something in it that welds the chicken chunks directly to the floor? And that shower grout has a function beyond improving the basic aesthetics of the shower stall?

I mostly keep my eyes shut in the shower -- I hate getting water in my eyes -- so I don't worry about the aesthetics of our pink-and-yellow shower stall. For godssakes! It's pink AND yellow. Not just pink. Not just yellow. Pink AND yellow. You can't worry about the aesthetics of something that's already pink and yellow. Better to shower with your eyes squinched shut, as if someone were throwing you a softball.

But it was that line of drips on the garage floor. Directly underneath the shower stall. Even I couldn't ignore this kind of evidence. It's not cat pee. Not motor oil. Clearly soapy water.

"Call the landlord," I told Mark. "The shower's leaking."

He reminded me that we owned the place.

"oh," I said. "oh. That's not good. Shit."

I wore a woeful expression down at Cliff's Variety (the best hardware store in the world) and asked the clerk in the kilt if I should use grout to fix the shower. Grout. Even when you say it, you feel like a homeowner. Grout.

"Grout," the clerk in the kilt repeated. "The one thing that you have to remember about grout is that you have to do it right."

He looked at me sternly. He doubted it. I doubted it. In fact, it may well be that I doubted it even more than he doubted it. And he doubted it plenty.

In the end, I bought a tube of white goo that looked reassuringly like toothpaste. The tube looked like a toothpaste tube and the goo looked like toothpaste goo. But I didn't delude myself for even one second that toothpaste could be used to fix something like this; it only works in dry environments, like where you pulled your poster off the wall. When you were a renter. In the good old days. When you just had to move.

It would get dirty inside and snowy outside (or dirty outside and snowy inside) and you could just move back. To California.

Remember this, Carmen and Flavio: you can always move back. To California. Okay?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

duck tail and cover

The sounds that surround us make me want to take cover. Holy cow! Get under your desk and cover your head! I'm hoping it's not a nuclear war that's making all that noise. My dormant midcentury angst is awakened by all the booms and blats and bangs.

Shit! That sounded way too close to be all the way down on the Embarcadero. Is that machine gun fire? I'm easily spooked by explosions.

The fireworks are beautiful from our balcony. You can see the official ones over Pier 39 and any number of smaller (and probably less legal) displays all over the city. There are even some just at the top of Hill Street, not two blocks away. But it's cold out. Cold enough that your eyes water and you wonder whether it's worth it to be shivering outside while chrysanthemums and smiley-faces burst over San Francisco.

They've really got the fireworks technology down: cubes, spheres-within-spheres, sparkly sprays that seem to hang in the sky for minutes, and mini-mushroom clouds.

Mini-mushroom clouds? Did I say mini-mushroom clouds? I'm going in. I seem to remember from the filmstrip on Civil Defense Procedures that getting under your desk is safer than standing out on your balcony, exposed to the decaying radioactive elements. Sure, you can wave like you're the Pope if you stand out on the balcony, but I think I'll bid farewell to civilization as we know it from under my desk. Besides, it's warm and cozy under my desk.

I was outside watching the fireworks for awhile, trying to force my digital camera to capture the moment. Turn off the flash, focus at infinity, click the button. And... no click. Nothing happens. There's a delay while the elves inside shake their Etch-A-Sketches clean and start again. Shit! I missed another one. And the last one: I was unsteady enough by the time the camera clicked that the sharp points flashing in the sky turned into a small army of neon worms. So I started pressing the button when I heard the thud of the launch. I clicked photo after photo. Both batteries died quickly with that approach, so I was spared the annoyance of trying to take fireworks photos.

Don't you hate it when the flash goes off when you're taking a night photo a mile-and-a-half away?

The good thing about photographic subjects that are hard to get right: someone else has taken a zillion pictures of the same thing and posted them all to the Web, to Flickr or to their blog or to their web site. If you search for fireworks "San Francisco", you'll see what I mean. No point in taking any pictures at all. If it's credibility that I'm looking for, I can even find photos that are just as blurry as my own.

In fact, it's not just those anonymous pictures of skylines, meadows dotted with wildflowers, and happy puppies that I don't need to shoot anymore: those peoples' relatives could pass for my relatives. And -- what's more -- my doppelgangers are all substantially more photogenic than I am. Might as well sell my digital camera. Somebody else has already taken a photo just like the one I'm about to take.

The fading of the final official firework gives way to random pops and blats and sirens. Once we get past the Fourth of July weekend, I feel like the best part of summer's already on the wane. The High Sierra Beard and Moustache Championships (members of ZZ Top, eat your hearts out!) are over; the s'mores have been made (although we used sticks again this year -- I'm waiting until next year to go fully high-tech. I spotted an electric marshmallow roaster in a catalog of useless items that we got in the mail); and I've had my Fourth of July meat hangover, induced by eating a full side of beef.

By myself. Half a cow. I should be ashamed, but I'm merely bilious.

Because it's a short work week, and I'm overwhelmed by lassitude (the weather's warmed up considerably from the start of this post 'til the end), I'm going to share a short list of topics I'm too lazy to blog about. But I'd give each one their due if I were more energetic. Honest I would.

First there was Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's surreal visit to the White House (and to Graceland). Our own brainy national leader welcomed Mr. Koizumi to the White House with a bizarre comparison to Elvis, saying “Like you, he had great hair. Like you, he was known to sing in public. And, like you, he won admirers in countries far from home.” I'm not one to talk; I've been to Graceland. I've admired Lisa Marie's swingset in the backyard and the Fat Elvis's white jumpsuit in the showcase. Marcia and I even went to Graceland on the 25th anniversary of Elvis's death -- but that'll be a whole other post.

Then there was the unexpected demise of Rocketboom, thus removing another secret time-wasting vice of mine from my bookmarks. Yeah, the clips are only 3 minutes long, but you can waste an awful lot of time cruising through the archives. Amanda Congdon has good hair, clear skin, and is awfully perky; she's always seemed destined for bigger media. Even though I liked to pretend Amanda's report was a real vlog, I knew it was a long tentacle of the media business, and that it couldn't last. That ol' Amanda'd have to bust out of that little Quicktime window and onto a full-size plasma display. Bye, Rocketboom. I bet Amanda'll show up again soon though.

Finally, my friend Jonathan Small tells me if I don't mention him in my blog, he'll stop reading it. He's in medical school, so I feel obliged to acknowledge the intense pressures on his time. After all, I'm competing with cadavers and bodily fluids for his attention. But I do need to warn him that he's already got a doppelganger in Cincinnati. In any event, I doubt he'd like it if I wrote an entire post about him; I'd just start making things up.

But I really don't need to make things up. All I have to do is leave the house once in awhile. And sometimes, not even that.