Monday, December 31, 2007

a paean to year's end

I’ve thrown away 3 prospective year-end blog posts.

Three of them! That’s enough words to fill up the phone book of a small town in the Upper Midwest. At least it would be if the people in that town had names like Celexa Campanile, Farallon Velveeta, or Tinsel Bidet. It’s a lot of discarded words: enough words to feed a family of five. It scares me to just toss them out like so many reverse-fit jeans.

As Mark would say, “What IS your problem?”

I don’t know. What IS my problem?

Why can’t I get the sentences to stop jostling one another off the page? Surely there must be something to say about 2007, a year that at the very least left me with a scar that ruined my modeling career. In 2007, I had many new experiences: I ate raw pork; I had several chance encounters with Josh Kornbluth; and I participated in my first meme. It was the year that an inexplicably angry former manager of mine came clean about his (now her) struggle with Gender Identity Disorder. It was a landmark year in another way too: 2007 was the year that I abandoned my LA roots and did not spend Xmas vacation at the Sea Sprite Motel.

Surely there must be something punchy to say at year’s end. It was one heck of a year, Brownie, one heck of a year.

Could my year-end writer’s block be a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder? You know, Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD. The condition that Parade Magazine popularized during the 1990s: it’s winter; there’s not enough light; and you feel like heaving your Signature Gourmet coffee maker off the balcony five stories down onto Castro Street.

That is, if only you could summon the energy to get out of bed.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is even less sexy than ordinary year-around depression; depression will at least get you sympathy and a prescription for something anti-depressive. Seasonal Affective Disorder is like insomnia; it’ll just get you the obvious advice.

I’ve noticed that anything that’s called seasonal is uglier than its year-around counterpart and invariably in worse taste. Consider if you will: seasonal recipes, seasonal headwear, and seasonal allergies. The fact that this disorder is seasonal is a bad sign. A Seasonal Disorder probably has reindeer appliqués on it or is made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

Nobody will even get upset about it on your behalf, since it’s destined to go away of its own accord once the so-called Season is over. There’ll be no telethons, no call-in donations, no SAD walks.

In other words, if you put your mind to it, you could probably cure yourself by taking that clip-on LED book light that some misguided friend got you (“oh, I know you love to read in bed!”) and applying it directly to your forehead. Or you could drink Aqua-Velva—a seasonal sale item at Rite-Aid—to banish the seasonal heaviness from your heart.

You know how I know that SAD is an undesirable neurosis? If you look up SAD in Wikipedia, you’ll learn that your fellow SAD-sufferers are singer Natalie Imbruglia and science fiction-fantasy author Barbara Hambly.

That’s all anyone could come up with: Natalie Imbruglia and Barbara Hambly. Now, I have nothing against either one of them. No doubt they’re fine and talented people. But they are not full-fledged celebrities. No paparazzi lurk outside their villas, waiting to snap photos of the cellulite on their upper thighs.

You aren’t going to brag, "You know who else has Seasonal Affective Disorder? BARBARA HAMBLY. That’s who."

If, say, Angelina Jolie turns up with SAD—or even adopts an orphan with SAD—then you might be able to suffer with pride. But as it is, it’s just not a desirable condition.

I have no intention of attributing my perfectly good writer’s block to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Okay. If SAD isn’t good enough, how about the long-running writers’ strike? Many people have stopped writing in sympathy with that.

The problem is, the writers’ strike has been going on for so long that I’ve forgotten about the Colbert Report (just try to find any new Stephen material!). News of the strike no longer appears in my morning Crickler. There’s no writing to remind me that the writers' strike exists.

And while I’m entirely sympathetic with the writers who have walked out, you can’t blame a scapegoat that you’ve completely forgotten.

So, in the end, I’m tempted to lay the blame on San Francisco itself.

San Francisco is desolate this time of year. The tourists who throng to San Francisco in the summer—when the weather is arguably colder and nastier than it is right now—don’t come around here in the winter. Their numbers are few and they come from far afield. These are half-hearted tourists, the ones who took advantage of a special seasonal discount. These are the tourists who had to knit their own airplane seats and pack their own lunches.

Meanwhile the people who live here have all left. They’re gone. It’s almost like a college dorm: the inhabitants pack up and go to the place that they think of as their real home. Columbus, Ohio. Omaha, Nebraska. Decatur, Georgia.

Maybe they even all charter a plane together and go to the same place in the Midwest, the small town with the phone book I was talking about earlier. Or perhaps they skip the Midwest part of the story and go directly to Manhattan to ice skate in Central Park and stroll down Fifth Avenue, their arms laden with packages from FAO Schwarz.

For sure they don’t stay here.

My brother and I walked up to Twin Peaks just before Christmas. We stood up there, looking out to sea: at the Farallons, at the afternoon sun glinting off the water, at the tankers passing through the Golden Gate. It was beautiful and clear. The ocean was quiet and almost blue. For once it wasn’t windy and it most certainly wasn’t crowded.

Some tourists, a mom, dad, and almost grown-up daughter appeared at the top of the hill where we were standing and, after conferring briefly among themselves in Chinese, asked my brother to take their picture together.

My brother motioned them to move so the San Francisco skyline would be their backdrop.

He knelt and pointed their digital camera at them. The three of them didn’t all fit in the picture. My brother motioned to them again, this time signaling them to move closer together. They shuffled toward one another, a little awkward and stiff together like they weren’t used to these Disneyland-style photo ops.

"Say cheese," my brother said and clicked the shot. They all said cheese and smiled. The father had bad teeth; it looked like half of one of his front teeth was missing entirely.

Then my brother walked over to them and handed them back their camera.

My brother does not let the city’s Christmas stillness nor the cold get to him. He can muster enthusiasm for scenes like this; out of thin air, he can tell awkward strangers to "say cheese!" and mean it. And they did say cheese like they meant it. I hope the photo came out well.

A few minutes later, two gay guys, obviously a couple, one man black and the other man Asian, had him take a shot of them. He framed them with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop. He was about to snap the picture when the black guy said "Wait!" and took off his sunglasses and knit cap so you'd be able to see his whole face and his eyes in the photo.

Their smiles were dazzling.

Then a larger Asian family asked him if he would mind—he did not—and a few minutes later a European couple on a motorcycle, looking sophisticated and tousled, had him snap them by the 50-cents per view telescopes.

The small groups of tourists materialized, had their photo taken, and left, happy. It was as if they were checking off San Francisco things to do from a Lonely Planet list.

I don’t think very many people come to San Francisco to celebrate the holidays. San Francisco isn’t the right place for Christmas. They come here for Halloween. They come for Pride Weekend. Perhaps they surface for the Folsom Street Fair. Out of habit, they come here in the summer. And they cruise around Chinatown, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf. They don’t drive out to Twin Peaks, have their photo taken by a stranger, and then drive off. And most of all, they don’t come to San Francisco for Christmas.

We tried to spot landmarks in the far distance. Jon picked out Fairfield first.

"How do you know that's Fairfield?" I asked him.

"That's just probably where Fairfield would be."

"I mean, do you see any landmarks or anything?"

"No. But see—there’s Emeryville, and there's Berkeley. There's the Campanile. You can just see what's what," he told me.

"I guess so." But I wasn't sure where one East Bay city left off and another one began. He was taking Fairfield on faith.

In the near distance, I could pick out 22nd Street, General Hospital, our redwood tree, and the hairpin turn where Collingwood meets 22nd.

San Francisco looked completely uninhabited.

I fished two quarters out of my pocket as if to put them in the telescope. But really, my brother is right, and I do know what's where. Who actually uses the telescopes mounted at the edge of the Twin Peaks observation area? There's Market Street. There's Rincon Tower. There's the Transamerica Pyramid. You’d probably use the telescopes to look in peoples’ windows. I put the quarters back in my pocket.

We walked down the hill toward a Market Street overpass we'd spotted from the top of the observation area. We’d walked up on the north overpass and we were walking back on the south one. We saw two friendly black-and-white cats on 23rd Street on the way home.

I felt like a neutron bomb had gone off in San Francisco and these were the two cats that had been spared.

Where were all the people?

They probably went to LA, where it’s warm. They went to LA, where by tradition Santa wears a wetsuit rather than that tacky red-and-white Santa suit. Santa not only wears a wetsuit; Santa surfs. They went to LA, where we used to go every Christmas. They probably all stay at the Sea Sprite—“Stay on the beach, play on the beach”—despite all warnings to the contrary (including my own).

Look out for that pier, Santa. Look out!

Look out for the Sea Sprite, homies. Look out! Rumor has it that they charge you for cleaning up the vomit.

In spite of myself and all of my vows to have no regrets, I think momentarily of the dolphins playing in the waves and the mild days that remind me of why I never lasted beyond February in a climate where there’s ice and snow.

It only takes one visit in December for me to remind myself that Ocean Beach is nothing like Hermosa Beach.

If I’d gone to LA, I’d have something to write about.

I thought about that as Jeff (not his real name) and I watched X take the stage at Slim’s last Saturday. Wouldn’t you know it? They played Los Angeles. They played Johnny Hit and Run Pauline. They played We’re Desperate (Get Used to It). Was that two encores? We were far enough away from the stage that the band looked just like they did in 1979. In Los Angeles. Except now they have 26411 friends.

This isn’t Seasonal Affective Disorder; I’m just blue and nostalgic for something that doesn’t exist anymore. It happens every year.

The only thing that can dispel glumness and writers’ blocks is time. As I write this, the local airports are crowded with people returning. Repopulating San Francisco.

Traitors. I know I’ll regret hating the quiet the minute they’re back.

But I also know from past years’ experience that even the most elaborate Christmas decorations—say, the tableau worthy of Martha Stewart on Castro Street around 14th Street—will disappear by next week and things will be back to normal. There’ll be a few Christmas trees shedding tinsel on the curbs, waiting for the Sunset Scavenger post-holiday pick-up.

Can I convince all the rest of you that this Christmas thing is a bad idea?

People tell me that this is a holiday for kids. Not for me. But even as a kid, it seemed like a bad idea.

Here’s what I remember: “You want to come over and look at our tree?” Cheryl would ask on a slow day between Christmas and New Year. “I’ll plug in the lights for you. You want to see my presents?”

She wanted to give me the frisson of Christmas joy via proximity to her loot.

It wouldn’t work and I didn’t much care about the highly flammable dead trees in peoples’ living rooms anyway. Not unless you gave me a match.

It’s still early in January, but in a few weeks everything will be okay again.

All of the seasonal effects and affects, disorders and maladaptations, sweaters and mufflers, and decorations and fruitcakes will sublimate, not to be reconstituted until after Thanksgiving, 2008. The days will get longer. I will forget my New Year’s resolutions (to write shorter and more frequent blog posts; to floss regularly; to exfoliate; and not to let Lumpy and Mark boss me around so much).

But now I’ve got to go get some black-eyed peas lest I pass up an easy opportunity for good luck.

If 2008 is anything like 2007, I’m going to need it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

office space

Up until last month, it had been a long time since I had an office of my own.

I’d tell you that I lost my office gradually, except that doesn’t make any sense. How can you lose an office gradually? For one thing, no matter how big that hole in your pocket is, or how careless you are about where you leave things, you aren’t going to be able to lose a whole office.

You might lose an office key; they’re rarely affixed to big pieces of metal like that all-important key to the service station restroom. And with any luck, your office is much nicer—cleaner, sweeter-smelling, more hygienic—than a service station restroom. Nothing leaks on the floor and no-one pees on your chair. I hope.

But even if you lose the key to your lovely hygienic office, you still have the space itself. You’re just stuck admiring it from the outside.

So how do you lose an office gradually? It’s not like an office can go flat like a tire.

But that’s what happened at The Soft. At first I had an office across the hall from my pal Revi. We used this strategic positioning to irritate an over-earnest co-worker, one of those guys who spends entire afternoons fretting over his PowerPoint deck for the Management Review.

You know the type: the guy who shoots himself in the foot with his own technical bullets.

It was a bland interior office—and I’m not the sort to decorate my office as if it were a dorm room—but Revi and Lyssa took care of that: One day, I arrived and it was rife with things that are pink. Pink flamingos. Pink crepe paper. Pink pillows. Pink wind chimes. Pink. Pink. Pink. You could even say it was festooned.

That was a rosier time. A more sanguine time.

Revi moved on and I moved to an even less desirable interior office, this time with an invisible office mate. In time, he was replaced by a more visible office mate who commuted from Arizona. Then I had two office mates. Then, through some kind of corporate mitosis, I had multiple indistinguishable German-speaking office mates who glared at me whenever I'd show up to claim my bit of desk and share of the electrical outlets.

Then we all moved—lock, stock, and barrel, Germans, Arizonians, invisible people—into a large storage closet.

That was when I worked for The Walrus, and it was The Walrus’s stuff there in our shared office.

Well, calling it an office is something of an exaggeration, isn’t it? I became just another element of the collected detritus.

It wasn’t so bad: If I’d wanted to throw a party, there was a punch bowl and a giant Coleman cooler.

I helped myself to the candy and the zip ties.

There was a cardboard box that represented The Walrus’s library; he’d gone paperless in a moment of excess, and all he had in his large office (an office with a view of an expanse of perfect green lawn and fir trees) besides furniture was a functional-looking gas mask. It was around the time of the World Trade Center attacks and the anthrax scares and you couldn’t be too careful.

He'd thoughtfully left the his ‘n’ hers Uzis at home with the missus.

Like me, The Walrus made only occasional appearances, and then only to direct his three admins in restaurant reservations-making, lunch-ordering, breakfast expense-reporting, and generally doing the sort of things you can do using a Zagat’s as your main source of inspiration.

I’d sit in the storeroom, rifling through the container of extra-long zip ties and eating box after box of stale Nerds candy, listening to what was going on next door, where the Walrus’s admin sat.

It was the perfect location for innocent eavesdropping. You didn’t even have to be nosy: you just had to not cover your ears, and you could eavesdrop.

“NO PRAWNS IN THAT DISH! NO PRAWNS!” he roared as his admin ordered an extensive buffet of Chinese dishes for lunch. “NO PRAWNS!”

Apparently they’d included prawns last time. That was my guess.

She covered the phone delicately with one hand. “How much rice should I get?” She asked him. By this time, the bellowing had piqued my interest; I’d emerged from the storage closet and was peering around the corner into her office, a spectator to the lunch order. If she was ordering food for a meeting, well, I’m not proud. I’d scavenge the leftovers even if a few of those nasty larvet-like prawns had nestled in among the dry-fried long beans.

The Walrus was leaning over her desk. She really ought to have handed him the phone.

He looked at her as if the rice question were nonsense.

“One order. One order of rice.”

Oh. It was his lunch. Not for a meeting. His lunch.

I slunk back into the storeroom and sulked amid the corporate schwag, the free briefcases and XBox t-shirts, and the odd assortment of toys and fake sushi.

I didn’t really mind sitting in the storeroom. It’s like real estate. Location, location, location.

Or, as Amex would have it, knowing what The Walrus is having for dinner: priceless.

How often have you overheard a conversation about sorrel sauce in the corporate hallways? That's what I thought. Location.

“Did you know he had three admins?” one of my colleagues asked me breathlessly after he’d parted ways with the Soft.

“Think about it: there’s breakfast, lunch, AND dinner.” I told him.

By that time, I was completely nomadic. I’d roam the halls looking for an empty office to set up my laptop in. My briefcase had turned into a great, hulking, lumpy ballistic nylon sack of office supplies, computer cords, and battery chargers (and the occasional snack).

I carried my own Swingline stapler.

Empty offices are very poorly equipped at The Soft. I’d try to find one with a table and chair, but Facilities would invariably take out the phone and turn off the room's Internet connectivity. Interns would try to chase me out, convinced that once I moved in, I’d appropriate the space for good.

“Go away, kid. You bother me,” I’d tell some perky young thing.

Because, really, poaching offices like this is humiliating. Humiliating. Carrying your own stapler: humiliating. Sitting on the floor because there’s no furniture: humiliating.

I started working at home full time.

You know the story. Howard Hughes made us all too aware of what happens to the recluse who works from home. It’s a short step from realizing that you haven’t changed out of your sweatpants yet at 6pm to wearing cardboard tissue boxes on your feet and aluminum foil on your head and peeing in jars.

A short step.

You enter into a nether world. Your day-to-day schedule decays. Your wardrobe declines. Your hygiene goes to hell in a handbasket. You no longer own any hard soled shoes.

Not only that. You also run out of bookshelves.

An office isn’t just a place to sit; it’s a place to store stuff. Journals and books just don't look that great when you put them on home bookshelves. The same stacks of paper that make you look productive at the office make you look like a slob at home.

I’d given up though. I’d completely given up on the whole idea of an office. Never again would I have an office mate like Matt or be the victim of pink flamingo pranks. I’d passed the apex of my life as an office worker. No more quad pads, no more swivel-y chairs, no more donuts, no more fancy phone with lots of buttons, no more eavesdropping. None of that.

I was becoming maudlin, nostalgic for the series of anonymous corporate settings I could call my own.

About six months ago, all this changed. My great good luck had returned me to an interior office and an incredibly nice office mate. And it was swell. I still had no phone and no storage, but it was the thought that counted. I felt revived. Revitalized. Like a human again.

Last month something even more surprising happened: I got my own office back. A real office with an Aeron chair and a window through which trees were clearly visible. An office with some bookshelves and a phone. An office with my very own black wastebasket and blue recycling bin.

Let me explain about the wastebasket. When I have an office mate, I’m shy about what I throw in the wastebasket. For example, a banana peel is inappropriate for in-office disposal. You have to go to someone else’s office or a break room to discreetly dispose of a banana peel. Because if it starts to smell banana-y mid-afternoon, you can’t help but think that your office mate will start to resent you, to associate you with vaguely off-putting smells. Especially if fruit flies begin to congregate around your wastebasket because you’ve been throwing banana peels in there.

Even things that just look icky shouldn’t go into a shared wastebasket.

Here’s a short list of items that you’d have to slink into the break room to dispose of:

  • a banana peel

  • orange or grapefruit rinds

  • prawns

  • any other lunch detritus, especially if it involves salad dressing in any way

  • band-aids

  • paper towels saturated with cleaning fluid, especially if you’ve been huffing the cleaning fluid

  • anything else you’ve been huffing

  • roaches, either kind

  • used dental floss

  • fingernail clippings (which make me nervous anyway—don’t people use these for voodoo purposes?)

I think you’ve got the idea. You can’t dispose of personal stuff in your office if you’ve got an office mate. You just can’t. It’s unseemly.

So now I have my own wastebasket again. I never thought it would happen.

I can stand at the window and watch the guys who work at the small manufacturing facility in the building behind us play basketball and huddle in the back of their building, smoking cigarettes in the cool dank air that rolls in from the bay wetlands.

I can know the exact moment when twilight turns to night.

I can stand at the window, looking out at my dirty white Honda, and eat a portion of a leftover donut that someone’s left in the break area. And I can dispose of the remains in my very own trash can! It's not unseemly!

And I can make phone calls on my office phone.

At least in theory I can make phone calls on my office phone. If I could only get it to recognize my fingerprint again.

My new phone has a biometric login; to use the phone, you “Swipe the finger currently used to unlock the phone downward across the fingerprint scanner.”

No kidding. That’s what it says.

Swipe the finger. Swipe the finger. It doesn’t sound like it’s your finger. Swipe a finger from someone else. The current finger. The finger of a passer-by. Swipe the current finger of a passer-by. He will howl in pain as you swipe his finger.

And unlock the phone downward. They say “unlock the phone downward” because by the time you’ve swiped a finger a few times with no success, you’re ready to throw the phone downward toward the floor. Hard. And unlock the phone that way, with all due force.

My phone tells me that I’m Away. That’s because it’s never recognized my current finger again. Obviously I’m swiping yesterday’s finger. Or I need to swipe yesterday’s current finger.

Actually it’s just as well that my phone is Locked and I’m Away. Because the one time I had it unlocked, I did all kinds of damage. You touch it on its touch screen and it dials. Someone. Someone you’ve called before or someone who has called you. Or someone it’s found at random in your Outlook Address Book contacts—a spammer in Nigeria, perhaps, or a thoughtful online pharmacy who has notified you of an impending 74% discount on V.I..A.G.,R.A. It’s like pocket dialing, this touch screen, only more embarrassing because you see it dialing and all you can do is hang up on the person and hope they don’t have caller ID.

Sure, it’s less embarrassing than drunk facebooking, but certainly not as dignified as a normal misdial, where you end up talking to a stranger and simply apologizing. With this phone, you have the clear realization of just who you’ve called accidentally.

I’ve just taken to roaring into the phone: “NO PRAWNS! NO PRAWNS IN THAT DISH!”

Then the person at the other end doesn’t worry about who you are.

The Walrus, you must realize, was my mentor.

There’s a button with a question mark below the phone’s touch screen. Sometime I become optimistic and press it, hoping to get some answers. Answers to anything—perhaps answers to life’s more pressing or elusive questions.

But you don’t get answers. You get Windows CE Phone Edition documentation, which is just as awful as you’d expect. Here’s an entry: “Forgot PIN – enter password to configure your new PIN.”

Got that? You’ve got a PIN. And it’s different than your password. And if you forget it, you just have to remember your password.

Where’s that darned Jakob Nielsen when you need him? Who’d have thought you’d need documentation to use your phone?

But I do, because I also don’t know what the iPod-like touch wheel does. Probably if I knew how to select something from the File Menu using the iPod-like touch wheel, my phone would bake me a cake. Or empty my trash, where the fruit flies are beginning to congregate.

The real problem with the phone is that you have to take off your mittens to use it.

Oh, I forgot to say: It’s cold in my new office. Really cold.

Offices are often cold. You have to build a small bonfire in that clearing between your desk and your whiteboard—mind the sparks because your wastebasket will melt. And wear your parka. And your mucklucks. And you have to wear your mittens. Which makes it hard to dial your phone.

Mittens make it especially hard to swipe the current finger.

This office is colder than most. It doesn’t have a regular thermostat, but rather it has some kind of T1 connector for you to plug in your laptop and reprogram the darned climate. Stan Lanning used to have the kind of hex wrench you needed to break into the thermostats at Xerox PARC, hex wrenches not dissimilar from the kind you use to assemble Ikea EXPEDIT bookcases. You’d use Stan’s hex wrench, remove the cover, set the thermostat at a comfortable temperature—75 or so—and get back to work.

But this thermostat is different. The Facilities guy who came out to address my office climate woes mumbled something about temperature cycles and speeding up the frequency and all kinds of mumbo-jumbo. Naturally, when he was finished, my office was no warmer. In fact, I half believe it’s actually gotten colder.

Perhaps it’s the icicles hanging from monitor.

I honestly can’t complain though: I’m perfectly happy to have an office again. And if they try to kick me out of this one, I’ll mobilize the small army of fruit flies lingering over the wastebasket, and we’ll barricade the door.

We can call out for Chinese food.

On my cell phone.