Tuesday, March 27, 2007

benign neglect

The bees are gone.

Yellowjackets, meat bees. Romper Room Don’t Bees. An enormous irritable swarm of apian flesh-eaters. It’s as if they were never living in the garden at all.

They’d emerge from a big hole in the short slope between the second and third terrace in our garden, fly somewhere (probably to get coffee at Philztakes a lot of caffeine to buzz around like that), then return. All day long, yellowjackets streaming out, yellowjackets streaming in.

If I were a landlord, I’d have been down there asking, “Just how many of you are living in this miserable hole? Didn’t you read your lease? Only 3 bees at a time. I don’t care if you’re related or not. I bet you bees are ruining the built-in appliances and getting water all over the floor when you shower. There’ll be dry rot by the time you move out.”

If you’ll recall my August 22nd post, I was contemplating donning a welder’s helmet and poisoning them under cover of night. Or beating them at Chinese checkers and making them buzz off in shame. But I just couldn’t bring myself to become a mass murderer. And I’m not especially good at Chinese checkers; it would’ve been embarrassing to be beaten by the bees.

Oh. I almost forgot: I was also mightily scared of them.

I was even more frightened after I’d consulted Helen Zverina, the Senior Health Inspector of the Vector Control Program at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. She told me to consult a bee expert, someone who knew what he or she was doing.

"Don’t just call an exterminator," she told me. "You’re apt to just make the yellowjackets angry."

It was almost as if she could read my mind.

Great, I thought. I don’t want the bees to be angry. I want them to be happy.

Don’t worry. Bee happy. Maybe I should provide them with better benefits. Perhaps a free cafeteria with raw hamburger and an all-you-can-eat gravy bar. And -- to save wear and tear on their tiny wings -- a shuttle bus with wireless Internet access to take them wherever bees go with their tiny bee laptops and tiny bee iPods. I could gather up their soiled yellowjacket laundry and stuff it in our capacious washer and dryer.

Light on the starch, please.

Works for a certain company I could mention. In fact, long after said company’s corporate bubble bursts and someone else makes the next big search advance, those guys’ll be running a restaurant service and laundry with free transportation to and fro. Jon and I are certain that’s what they’re doing the best.

Better benefits for the bees. That’s the answer. Helen Zverina had me convinced.

So I put aside my plan to summon Western Exterminator, no matter how appealing their yellow trucks are. The Western Exterminator man has a mallet behind his back. But mallet’s not going to work on a swarm of angry meat bees who don’t have free transportation onto the Peninsula, free shots of wheat grass juice, and free laundry service, right?

Time passed. The nest grew. And grew. Around the beginning of October, I contacted Tom Chester, formerly of the SF Beekeepers Association. Formerly? Yes. Formerly. By the time I got around to contacting the fellow that Helen Zverina told me was who she’d call if she had a large nest of angry meat-bees in her front yard, he was gone.

He was gone and the bees were flourishing.

But, through the miracle of the system of pneumatic tubes that we call the Internet, Tom answered the email I sent him.

“Best of luck with the wasps. I'd recommend doing nothing for now,” he told me.

Just the sort of advice I was hoping for. I live for advice that hinges on doing nothing. Doing nothing is right up my alley. You might say it’s the area of my expertise.

Do nothing.



I did nothing. All winter. Nothing at all. Nada. Zip.

I didn’t even peer into the nest for fear of irritating them. This strategy was a real time-saver, since my previous research established that gardening might disturb the yellowjackets as they went about their day-to-day affairs. Doing whatever it is that easily angered yellowjackets do: Publishing articles in Phys Rev B. Writing C compilers. Eating D-ssert. Sending E-mail to their representatives in Washington.

Doing important bee things that I really wouldn’t understand.

And now the yellowjackets are gone. Every last bee. I don’t know where they went nor when they left. They broke the lease and split in the dead of night, like the renter a couple of doors down who was moving after midnight, blocking our driveway with his rental van when I was trying to go shopping.

The meat bees left very quietly. No buzzing, no loud music on the car stereo, no clunks and thuds of the oak dresser being bumped down the stairs. They left without a trace.

I decided to go investigate. In person. Up close. Emboldened by their absense. With my camera, even. Knowing full well that bees hate paparazzi. That’s why they wear those tiny dark glasses.

At first I couldn’t even find the nest. The garden out front had become so lush and overgrown that foliage had fully obscured the entry hole. Wildflowers were blooming. Leaves from the miniature banana plant that Evert had given us were scraping a second-floor window (“Oh, that’s not going to be a full-sized tree,” he assured us at adoption time. That Evert. He’ll say anything). Everyone – from D. Meyer to the agapanthus to the papyrus – looked like they had found a mysterious underground wellspring of Schultz’s Plant Food.

I took my clippers in hand.

Snip. Snip. Snip. What happens if they’re still there? What happens if they’re just being sneaky ol’ meat bees, waiting for me to get close?

“Oh look! Here comes breakfast. Delivered to our door. So convenient!”

Snip. Snip. Snap. Snip. Snip.

In sixth grade, Mrs. Myrtle Thiess, our sour English and Social Studies teacher, read us a creepy story from Esquire called "Leiningen Versus The Ants." I don’t remember the details, but I believe the story’s main character was eventually devoured by hungry army ants.

The clippers sound an awful lot like their powerful ant mandibles echoing in my nightmares. Snip. Snip. Snip.

“A successful person always has a neat notebook,” Mrs. Thiess was fond of saying as she held up my own bedraggled notebook as a counterexample. I could tell she thought the inked doodles of Rat Fink on my notebook’s peeling cover foretold a future of prison tattoos, teenaged abortions, and raging drug habits.

My feeling was that Mrs. Thiess read us "Leiningen Versus The Ants" to demonstrate the horrible forces of nature that would visit their wrath upon those of us who had messy notebooks. Those of us who let benign neglect take its course.

Snip. Snip. Ant mandibles. Snip. Snap. Snip.

My briefcase is just like my notebook was in sixth grade. Messy.

Focus. I am no longer in sixth grade. Don’t think about Mrs. Thiess. Don’t think about Leiningen. Don’t think about ants. Don’t think about elephants while you’re at it.

Say, is that the distant hum of bees I hear underground?

I’m not usually afraid of insects, but these yellowjackets intimidate me.

But a few more snips reveal a healthy-sized hole in the ground with nary a yellowjacket in sight. The bees are gone.

Benign neglect. It worked again. It’s how I run my life. Bee nine neglect. The bees leave. The plants thrive. And my messy notebook has morphed into a messy briefcase.

So there, Mrs. Thiess. So there!

The problem is, benign neglect only works about half the time. It works for the zit on your chin. For the box of photos in the hall closet. For maintaining most small appliances. But it doesn’t work for everything.

I’ve spent the last month or so interviewing people who are trying to keep digital stuff that way. They amass digital stuff. They create digital stuff. They record digital stuff. They stuff it out on servers hither and yon. On YouTube. On Flickr. On Tripod. On Geocities.

And as the years roll on, benign neglect takes its toll.

Accounts are forgotten.
Local files are scuttled as computers become obsolete.
EULAs are never read.
Services go belly-up.

Most people worry about file formats and disk crashes. Rightly so.

But they should also worry about benign neglect.

Those 1s and 0s are more like the bees than you’d hope. You go to look for them. And you might find that they’ve scattered.

It’s Myrtle Thiess’s revenge.

And somewhere she is laughing.

Monday, March 19, 2007

a double-digit birthday

I just don’t get birthdays.

Weddings and funerals, now those I understand. Weddings solemnify the consolidation of several individuals' credit card debts, bookshelves, kitchenware, and possibly gene pools. It’s no wonder newlyweds smash cake on each others’ faces so forcefully; they’ve gotten a glimpse into the future and now they’re hopping mad. Funerals? They need little explanation. They’re your last chance to demonstrate that you can actually throw a decent party, if only by proxy.

Divorce? People have their own private ways of celebrating divorces. Most involve bad behavior and non-premium alcoholic beverages that come in economy-sized containers – Old Fedcal, Senorita Tequila, or Pink Zinfandel in the big box.

Look: we celebrate the anniversary of Elvis’s untimely demise, not his birthday. We hunker down in front of the tube with our peach Sealtest ice cream and Seconal and remember and remember until we’re fat and stuporous.

Birthdays only make sense if everybody gets the day off. If you’re Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, for example, but not if you’re Millard Fillmore or Ulysses S. Grant. And certainly not if you’re Zachary Taylor, who died of what amounts to acute Independence Day dyspepsia after having eaten: “a hasty snack of iced milk, cold cherries and pickled cucumbers.”

What, no herring?

Holidays make sense too – they mark the passing of the seasons. And they make it possible to light fireworks or dress as a member of a different gender than usual or eat until you’re bloated and bilious. They may even have appealing mascots, like Christmas or Easter (and here I’m talking about S. Claus or the E. Bunny, not J. Sus; I’m suspecting that your misinterpretation of the word “mascot” is deliberate and disingenuous). There’s a house down the hill from ours that is inevitably festooned with appropriately colored thematic lights for every holiday. Right now, you can still see the green shamrocks of Saint Patrick’s Day, although I’m sure they’ll tastefully disappear within the week.

Basically, birthdays just commemorate the fact that you’ve muddled through yet another year without dying. This is of little note unless you’re in the single or triple digits. Double digit birthdays have little to recommend them, even if the flip of the year puts you into a whole new demographic category, opening the floodgates for a new advertising barrage.

Birthdays are also used as opportunities to fete someone who’s already famous. Then there’s no issue about who’ll come to your birthday party. Everyone will, of course. And everyone will bring a camera with the hope that you’ll get drunk and become publishably unphotogenic and garrulous. That your nose’ll turn red, your eyes’ll turn into puffy little slits, and you’ll say something that’ll make you the next candidate for rehab. Thar’s gold in them thar candids.

But really there’s no point to birthdays for the rest of us.

Birthdays have been on my mind since I just had one. I seem to have one almost every year, it seems. I’m starting to detect a pattern. I’ll keep taking data though; there’s no need to jump to unwarranted conclusions.

Birthdays are a lot like showers – it seems like no sooner than you’ve dried out from the last one, then it’s time for yet another. They’re thankless, birthdays and showers are. Thankless. They just go to show that even after all this time, you're all wet.

Maybe it’s that I don’t like the inevitable calculation of “do enough people like me to constitute a decent party?” And “if I put all those people in one place, will they perhaps gang up and beat the shit out of me?” A birthday party is a recipe for rejection and paranoia. At least it’s a recipe for having friends goad you into floating a Marshmallow Peep on a lake of Jack Daniels, setting the whole mess on fire, and drinking it down in one fiery gulp.

You wouldn’t do that if it weren’t your birthday.

I remember very few of my birthdays growing up. Very few. My parents made me organize my own birthday parties and I've always procrastinated when it comes to planning social events. So these parties were pretty lackluster affairs, the result of six or seven desperate, anxiety-ridden last-minute phone calls. Would Leanne Goetz and Denise Ewing actually come over, or was that overreaching my social status? Was Cheryl Parana still my friend, or had she noticed how unpopular I was? Was it okay to invite Dore Fingerhut even after she moved to a new neighborhood?

No Truman Capote, I. No parties in George Plimpton’s penthouse. When I was in the single digits, it was all with the miniature golf and do-it-yourself sundaes. Maybe a sleep-over, although I can’t remember ever hosting one myself as a child. The only upside – and my brother remembers this too – is that it was one of the few occasions that our parents thought worthy of serious junk food like Marshmallow Fluff.

Marshmallow Fluff. It’s like Jell-o or Spam. The color and texture should warn you off, but instead it beckons you: “eat me. EAT ME.” Marshmallow Fluff is hypnotically white and miraculously adhesive. It was the only upside of my childhood birthday parties. There was usually some left over to eat in peace in the aftermath of the trauma the actual event.

My parents believed wholeheartedly in intellectual improvement, so I got a lot of science and history books as birthday gifts. Unfortunately I was an avid reader of trashy fiction – spy stories and adventure novels – not the high-minded non-fiction my parents thoughtfully supplied me with. Seaborg’s Elements of the Universe and The Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History stood on the second highest bookshelf, unopened, dust jackets pristine. The only book of that genre I really got into was The Golden Book of Facts and Figures, a fantastic compendium of trivia. It had lists of things like The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and The Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The US Presidents listed in chronological order with brief biographical sketches. State birds and wildflowers. That kind of thing.

Gifts of this sort did little to enliven a birthday party though; it wasn’t as though my little chums were clamoring for me to let loose with that section about the storming of the Bastille or the elements beyond Uranium. No. We’d rehash rock-n-roll gossip (was it true that the Beatles were all dropping acid now?) and cuteness ratings (Davy Jones or Peter Tork? Mark Lindsay or Brian Jones?).

My recollection is that when you were 9, there were only 5 appropriate birthday presents:

  1. An album that contained at least two hit singles by the original artists (so not 101 Strings plays the Beatles Greatest Hits);

  2. Creepy Crawlers;

  3. Anything related to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth characters, especially Rat Fink;

  4. whatever the cool new universally fetishized item was; and

  5. cash.

The first four were gifts that your friends could be trusted to purchase; the last was the only thing any unsupervised adult was capable of delivering. Not acceptable were:

  1. dolls (which I was desperately afraid of);

  2. anything deemed educational; and

  3. corny shit related to developing good habits and eradicating bad ones (and here I’m not referring to methadone, but rather to the Berenstain Bears).

So the best 9th birthday gift came from my friend Dore, who gave me a copy of Rubber Soul with two Creepy Crawler bats taped to the front.

That was boss. Totally boss.

It’s harder to know what to want when you’re no longer 9. By the time you’re 30, your allowance is bigger, so you’ve bought every Creepy Crawler you desire. You’re past the age of the Birthday Toot or the Birthday Beer Bong. (If there’s a Seven Ages of Man, there’s also a Seven Ages of Gifts.) You’re stuck. And people start buying you age-appropriate gifts. Thoughtful things. Tasteful things. Practical things. Of course, my Fellowes Powershred Model 120C-2 rocks, but at its confetti-producing heart, it’s an enormously practical birthday gift.

By midday on my birthday – after several stray birthday cards had arrived via US Mail mixed in with our normal assortment of American Express refrigerator magnets, real estate ads, and Valpak coupons – I had almost convinced myself that I could simply ignore the passing of another year boundary. I wasn’t dead yet (I even checked my pulse to corroborate this intuition), and I was showing signs of surviving the day itself. I shuffled downstairs to the mail slot and scooped up a small pile of envelopes. Not dead. But mighty glum.

Marcia’s birthday card cheered me up by addressing my mood rather than by harping on the birthday aspect. I do still want to smack somebody, perhaps even Mr. Bush (the Shrubster, not Poppy) or his evil penguin puppetmaster. (I have to admit: Jon Steward does a dreadful imitation of Dick Cheney by conflating him with the Burgess Meredith character. And yet I still can’t do any better.)

I was still glum, but I’d made it through the day.

I didn’t really cheer up until my brother’s gift arrived the next day. I’d wondered why he’d asked me if FedEx had brought the package yet when we talked on the phone the day before. We usually exchange gifts that aren’t particularly time-sensitive. Gifts like socks, used book gift cards, and small yet powerful kitchen appliances. We seldom send each other crustaceans or whole trout -- items that would tend to stink if not delivered promptly. What difference would it make if the package showed up on my birthday proper, or the next day, which would seem to be virtually indistinguishable? Even if it were the coveted Anne of Green Gables outfit from CATPRIN for Lumpy to wear while he was shredding the living room couch, one day wasn’t going to make a big difference. As the CATPRIN website promises in an almost poetic intro:
CAT PRIN -- the tailor for a cat you know -- it is -- fact which will become dearer than former if a cat has clothes on.

Don't you doubt? "Although I want to dress with dress extravagant with my cat, doesn't a cat dislike having" clothes on? It is impossible that continue for time long to be sure, and you continue dressing a cat. But about [ to which you dress a cat and take a commemorative photo on special days, such as a birthday of a cat, ] is OK.

In my mind’s eye, I could dress Lumpy as Anne of Green Gables the day after my birthday, and just say I’d done it on my birthday. I could even fudge the camera’s time stamp. Who’d know? Anyway, it makes more sense to spend the day in the ER the day after your birthday, rather than on your birthday, where someone might notice and make a fuss. I can’t imagine Lumpy maintaining the placid demeanor of the CATPRIN model if I affixed a mop of curly red hair to his scarred and torn gray ears. After all, there’s still pigeon blood on the dining room ceiling.

So when the gift arrived the day after my birthday, I struggled through the FedEx packaging and bubble wrap, confused by the NY return address. How could it be a CATPRIN costume if it wasn’t from Tokyo? The contents – such as they were – were equally inscrutable. The package held no instructions, no documentation, no frills. It just had a packing order and an odd assemblage of power supplies, colored wires with shrink tubing over the connections to the power supplies, connectors, and… sunglasses. Sunglasses? Sunglasses?

Sunglasses. It was indeed something wearable. I could wear it; Lumpy could wear it (with about as much enthusiasm as the Anne of Green Gables getup, I’m afraid); Burning Man hipsters could wear it.

Once I’d figured out what was in the package, I couldn’t wait ‘til it was dark to try it out. So I stood in the closet for the better portion of the afternoon, admiring my new look in the mirror.

Good thing I like hanging out in my closet; it’s the perfect venue for showing off my new firefly-like glow without venturing outside of the house.

9 volts later, my birthday glumness was dispelled. Anyone’d feel better – significantly cheered up – if they put this on.

What a great birthday present! Something not aimed at my demographic. Something impractical. Something electroluminescent. Something worn by the Borg in Star Trek (and possibly by Trekkies at the Trek Convention), by aliens in Dark City, by astronauts in Lost in Space. Something not available in the Sky Mall catalog. Something with a web site that has spelling errors, uses the word ‘utilize’ to excess, sports a ‘cease and desist’ notice directed toward the legions of potential copyright and patent infringers, and has what looks to be a three person user community. It’s refreshingly unprofessional.

And it's Boss. So Boss. As boss as Rubber Soul with two creepy crawler bats.

I made it through another year.

Happy birthday.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

a Josh Kornbluth about town

Two Josh Kornbluth sightings in two days. What’re the odds?

For those of you who don’t recognize his name, Josh Kornbluth is the writer/director behind Haiku Tunnel, which for my money is funnier and truer than Mike Judge's workplace classic, Office Space. Mr. Kornbluth also performed a one-man show here in San Francisco, Ben Franklin Unplugged, which apparently wasn’t such an apt name. Jeff Ubois told me that he went to it expecting something biographical about Ben Franklin, and instead the monologue spins off from Josh Kornbluth's own uncanny resemblance to the canonical portraiture of history's most famous flier of kites.

To me, Josh looks a lot more like The Critic's Jay Sherman than he does like Ben Franklin. That's not pejorative either: I love that cartoon.

Anyway, the first sighting was in the line snaking up Castro Street in front of the Castro Theater, a historic venue right down the street from me. It'd be convenient if I were more of a movie buff. Then I would've been in line too. As it was, I just caught a glimpse of Josh Kornbluth as we passed by the Castro Theater in the car.

I turned to Mark and said: “Isn’t that Josh Kornbluth?”

He said, “Who?”

I said, “Josh Kornbluth. You know. The guy who did Haiku Tunnel.”

And he's all, “Which one is he?” as he glanced over at the throng of people waiting to get into the theater.

There was no way Mark was going to recognize Josh Kornbluth. Mark doesn’t even remember the few movies that we do see. This trait allows him to enjoy the same films over and over again, unspoiled by the repetition. We mostly don't let the movies that we rent run all the way to the final credits either. Somewhere amid the tension of the plot's climax, we both agree that the damned thing is making us nervous -- really nervous -- and we invariably turn off the movie. Click. Then Mark falls asleep on the couch and I start tap-tap-tapping on my computer.

Sometimes we even pretend we're going to watch the final half hour some other time, but now that movies are distributed on DVDs, we're not apt to even know where we left off once we've stopped the thing and taken it out of the player. The World's Fastest Indian sat in the DVD player for over a month, waiting for a particular viewing to be wrapped up. I finally stuffed it back in its red Netflix sleeve and mailed it back to the mothership.

By the time I could point Josh out to Mark – There he is! That's him! Standing in line for the Ken Burns film and personal appearance like every other history buff in town – Mark was already beeping the horn, distracted. The guy in front of us was dropping off a passenger, probably to join the growing line in front of the Castro Theater, well behind Josh Kornbluth.

We were in the white Honda, the little one, heading for neighbor Evert Grobbelaar’s art opening, which was somewhat peculiarly situated at Good Vibrations, "a diverse, woman-focused retailer providing access to sex-positive products." It's a mission statement that makes sex sound a lot like dental hygiene.

Evert’s art opening, though, is an event we'd been anticipating for some time now. We’d heard the preparations for the opening for weeks. It seemed to involve lots of nighttime pounding, drilling, and sawing. At 2 am. At 3 am. At 4 am.

“Those people never sleep,” I’d say to Mark, who at this point was invariably just a snoring hillock under the covers. I often repeat pronouncements like this to Mark several times, knowing full well he’ll neither wake up nor remember me talking to him by morning.

Even without the artistic thumps and whirs coming from next door, Lumpy and I are insomniacs, padding around the upstairs in the dark, hoping sleep will eventually overtake us. Actually, only I am hoping sleep will overtake me. Lumpy is hoping beyond all hope that I’ll consider offering him a fifth or sixth post-midnight snack. A cat can get mighty hungry in the middle of the night thudding up and down the stairs and clawing the Ikea sofa to shreds.

The noise next door turned out to be connected with the construction of frames for Evert’s photographs, not with the production of the photos themselves. The photos were mostly nudes, mostly men who I’d seen around the house for the last year or so. The photos have a surreal quality created entirely from pre-photography effects, not post-photo photoshopping. He’d paint his friends, literally, using their skin as his canvas or bathe them in textured multi-colored lighting, and get some odd and interesting effects.

So we were driving to Evert's opening, Mark at the wheel, me with my toes gripping my socks and sweating from the nausea that accompanies prolonged fear. No time to focus on whether or not that was really Josh Kornbluth in line to see Ken Burns. Better to focus on, say, a last will and testament.

We're not going to make it.

Mark’s driving really does scare me. Like most couples I know, we can’t drive anywhere together. As wasteful as it is, we’d be a lot better off taking separate cars.

“Evert’s opening goes ‘til 8.” I said. “You don’t have to drive like this, Mark. Really.”

“Fuck that guy. Why're you stopping there? Drive, mister! Fucking tourists!”

“You’re scaring me. Fuck! Watch that taxi! There's a pedestrian! Why aren't you turning on Franklin?”

And with that, we entered one of those spatial discontinuities that are so prevalent in San Francisco. Four right turns won’t get you around the block. And there seems to be no way of getting back to where you want to go. It just heightens the tension.

It’s heart-stopping riding with Mark. Honestly it is. It's always a relief to get to get to your destination intact. The ride always overshadows the event.

The art opening, incidentally, was like most art openings I’ve been to, especially the ones where you like the artist’s work, but don’t have much to say about the genre. I’m awkwardly recognizing that some of the subjects are here in person, staring at the nude photos of themselves. They look pleased. The photos are pretty cool. I kind of wished they were in a regular gallery with good lighting, not in the back room of Good Vibrations.

It smells funny in the Good Vibrations back room. And not funny in a good way.

Behind me a girl is saying, “Yeah. I mixed the white wine with some of that fizzy cranberry stuff. It was warm!” And I turn around to catch her making some kind of face.

“When’s my turn?” her companion calls out to Evert. Most of the models are men, and I think she wants to make sure she's at least in the queue. This is no Ken Burns documentary; the seating is limited.

The thing about art openings is they only last until the wine is gone. But by the time we hit the streets again, enough time had elapsed that the traffic had subsided and Josh Kornbluth had disappeared into The War.

San Francisco isn’t Manhattan. There aren’t GawkerStalker-quality celebrities in this town. You gotta take what you can get. If you recognize someone you’ve never been introduced to – Josh Kornbluth, Bruce Vilanch, or even Willie Brown – you've got to think of it as a major sighting.

Of course, it’s not as bad as College Station, where when we spotted the local KBTX TV weatherman at Garcia’s Mexican Cafe, we got all excited.

"Look!" I said to Mark. "Over there! Over there! Doesn't that guy look familiar?"

Every hair was in place. Perfect.

"Yeah. That's the weather guy from the 6 o'clock news!" Mark's enthusiasm matched my own. "Wonder what he's having. Probably the catfish with green salsa."

That said, I’d completely forgotten about Josh Kornbluth by the time Jeff Ubois and I walked into the Fertile Grounds Cafe on Shattuck the next day. We’d just listened to Peter Brantley, the new head of the DLF, talk about all kinds of interesting things, including digital preservation, our shared interest. The plan was to hang out with Art Medlar, an old friend from Xerox and the Internet Archive, and drink coffee and eat middle eastern food.

There are lots of coffee places in Berkeley. Lots. And each one has a better pun in its name than the last. You wouldn’t even consider going into that Starbucks on Oxford.

“I’d rather eat No-Doz,” I told Jeff as we passed the Starbuck's. I didn’t want to explain about the pink caffeine pills or Wal-AWAKE or any of my other favorite caffeine supplements, the ones that you take if you're not getting enough caffeine in your normal daily diet.

I’m not afraid of getting my nutrition from a pill. Bring it on! So convenient.

When we walked into Fertile Grounds, it was as quiet as a library. It was much, much quieter, in fact, than South Hall, the old library school building at Berkeley where we’d just come from.

Students occupied almost every table. Each had a Macintosh laptop propped open on the table, earbuds in their ears, and long-emptied beverages beside their keyboards. It was quiet-quiet. Only a vague hint of music leaked from any of the earbuds.

“Is the kefir cheese made out of goat’s milk?” I asked the counter guy when I ordered. My voice almost the echoed, the way it does when you talk too loud in a library. I don’t like goats’ milk. I don’t like the imagery it conveys; I don’t like the taste; I don’t like the smell. The counter guy said something back to me; I’m not sure whether he was speaking in English, but he said something back to me about "sandwich." I asked again about KEFIR CHEESE. He re-answered SANDWICHES? Then he pointed at the rack of potato chips.

These miscommunications are funny on SNL; not so much so in Berkeley cafes.

If I hadn’t just shut up and pointed up at the menu, I might’ve ordered TWO broiled tractor sandwiches with goat, hold the crushed-up BBQ chips, instead of kefir cheese, tomatoes, and pita bread. Several students had looked up from their laptops in a mix of irritation and curiousity. What were these odd strangers doing trying to order food and beverages in a café?

Jeff and I started talking and eating. Art arrived soon afterward. And we were yakking it up, much to the annoyance of the other, uh, patrons. The curly-haired guy at the table next to us gave us the ol' evil eye and moved to a quieter corner.

But then who walked in but Josh Kornbluth. He had an enormous backpack on his back, the kind that students carry. He sat down at the table next to us.

Two Josh Kornbluth sightings in two days. I mean, what’re the odds.

A friend joined Josh Kornbluth too, and the two of them were yakking just like the three of us were yakking. They’d send a look of annoyance our way every once in awhile when we became particularly raucous. I was so engrossed in our own conversation that I never even eavesdropped on them.

This is not normal for me.

Even if we were bothering them though, they couldn’t have moved. Every other table was full. One student, one laptop, one empty coffee glass. Tap-tap on the keypad. Some small local indy band on the iPod. Berkeley. So Berkeley. How Berkeley can you be?

As soon as one of the students left, Josh Kornbluth and his friend stuffed themselves around a smaller, one-person table. Perhaps to get away from us, or perhaps to get out of direct range of the draft that was blowing through the place through the front door transom. Who can tell?

After they’d moved, and Jeff could stand on one of their chairs – the one right by the front door – to close the transom himself, a move which summoned the catatonic counter guy. He came quickly when he noticed what Jeff was doing. That’d really be the way to order something – just go behind the counter and start making it yourself.

With the transom shut, I was pleased to note that the café was warm and we were the noisiest people there. The kefir cheese was actually quite good and didn’t smell at all of barnyard. I’d showered recently, so nor did I.

I’m not so sure that Josh Kornbluth was as pleased with situation as I was, because he left soon afterward. Maybe he was finished with his conversation. Maybe I hadn’t showered as recently as I thought. Maybe he isn’t interested in digital archiving.

Hard to tell.

“Was that really Josh Kornbluth?” I asked Art and Jeff after he’d left.

“Yeah. That was him.” Neither Art nor Jeff seemed particularly surprised that he’d been sitting next to us in the café.

“I went to see him in that Ben Franklin Unplugged thing. I was disappointed.” Jeff said. “I thought it’d be about Ben Franklin.”

We all decided we admired Ben Franklin.

“But it was about Josh Kornbluth’s neurotic family instead.”

It was a Being John Malkovich moment. I savor these things.

Today I told my brother I’d seen Josh Kornbluth twice in two days.

“Josh Kornbluth. Yeah. That name sounds familiar.”

"I think he’s got a show on PBS.” I said helpfully.

“Oh. Right. I associate him with doing dishes. I always listen to NPR while I’m doing the dishes,” my brother said.

I told him about the line of people in front of the Castro Theater, all waiting to get in to see the latest Ken Burns documentary and asked him if he knew what the documentary was about.

“Ken Burns does documentaries about nouns. Sometimes proper nouns like Thomas Jefferson. And sometimes just regular nouns like baseball. Maybe he should do a documentary about lunch.” That was my succinct brother's analysis of Ken Burns's oeuvre.

I thought that was a dandy idea for Ken Burns to produce a documentary called (simply but eloquently) Lunch. Perhaps it could even star Josh Kornbluth. We'd surely review it in our scholarly journal Lunch: an international journal of the midday meal.

Two Josh Kornbluth sightings in two days. What’re the odds?