December 30, 2005

Self-Pity City: A Dream

There was a brightly lit high-rise city across a broad shining river. In the city, millions of people lived, in the welcoming light of millions of lamps. But on the near shore, one family dwelled on a tiny peninsula barely big enough for their little house and yard. When they crossed into the city to school or work, everyone avoided looking at them or touching them. A daughter from the family had recently looked at a citizen of the city while walking the bridge, and there was an uproar on both sides.

This was dramatized in the dream as a Twilight Zone episode. My role was of a visitor from another world whose task was to figure out why the family was taboo.

I crossed into the city and came to an elementary school where a child from the outcast family was a pupil. I mingled with the parents to view a display of the children’s art works. On the bulletin boards, their crayon drawings were all dated 1952 and 1953. Tears filled my eyes: “I was just born then,” I told the other parents, and had to hurry from the room.

This is a dream that comes with a hidden title, which I realized immediately on waking up. Self-Pity City is a title I’ve long wanted to use for a book or story and never have.


December 29, 2005

Generalizations and Throwaways

I was thinking stereotyped thoughts about a group of people who are near to my heart. Then I stopped myself and thought, “I’ve been around long enough, I’ve seen enough examples, know them well enough, so that I don’t need to generalize.”

That’s exactly the opposite of what we’re taught, isn’t it? We’re taught that when we see sufficient examples of a phenomenon, we’re justified in making a generalization about it.

But I don’t find that to be true in real life. I find that the more examples you see of something, the more you understand that each example is different and generalizations are beside the point, misleading. The more examples you see, the more exceptions you find.

Generally speaking, that is.

Then I was thinking about whether I ought to play this blog a little more loosely, relax the construction of posts and allow myself to write more throwaways. My usual method is to draft a post on Microsoft Word and then upload it to the blog. That way, I have a Word file as backup, and every few months I print the new stuff in the file so I have a hard copy as backup too. But lately I’ve been a little lazy and have been writing some posts directly onto Blogger and not backing them up. I back up the ones I think are “serious,” and I slack off with the ones that are casual, immediate responses to things in the world outside my crafty involuted mind. I just type them out and toss them into the well and consider it good exercise that I’m writing them for immediate oblivion.

But what if those throwaways will be the very things that interest future readers most? That’s where they’ll get the feel of what it was like to live in our time; that’s where they’ll find the spontaneous expression of a culture’s spirit. The “serious,” ambitious pieces will be hobbled by the conventions and received attitudes of this year, this decade – by the very topicality I try to disown in them, but which can’t be disowned any more than one’s skin: ten years from now they’ll shriek “Ten years ago!” Clogged with the sediment of their vintage. While the outwardly topical pieces, trivial as champagne bubbles, will feel fresh and unfettered, so light they float above their origins.


December 28, 2005

The Nonaddictive Personality

I was going to brag that I haven’t spent a penny in three days, but then I remembered that I put some gas in the car for $14.50 – why, I don’t know, since I’m not going anywhere – and rented two movies for $5-something. (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and TWO FOR THE ROAD, both excellent in their own ways.) So I can’t even say I’ve been extreme in renunciation: everything in moderation.

Sometimes I fall into a hermitic temper and I stubbornly narrow my life down to a few daily rituals. This week of solitude it’s classical music at breakfast, work through the sunlit hours, twilight walk or gym session, dinner with red wine and rented movie, bedtime reading with more classical music. Email and online surfing of course. I’ve been feeling as if the world is lying outside for me to resist. If I were single I’d be going out and trying to meet people, but with a wife and family far away I have an excuse for asceticism. I haven’t taken the country drive I thought I was going to take, and I haven’t gone to a restaurant by myself (the one time I went with others, they picked up the $8 check), and I haven’t been to a movie theater or concert. All of them, things I used to do enthusiastically when I was really solo.

It’s funny the pleasure I can get out of not buying things. In the normal course of life I spend too much money on restaurants and a goodly amount on vacation travel, but if I see something appealing in a shop window it never occurs to me to buy it. I Iove used bookstores and one of my pet pleasures is seeking out good bottles of wine for under $10. I have pictures I’ve been meaning to frame for years, but I can’t bring myself to find a framing shop and choose a frame and actually hang the things on a wall.

I hear people talk about their binges – how they ate a whole box of cookies or a quart of ice cream – and I’m bemused. Those are things I’ve never done in my life. No matter how much I love food – and I do – I don’t see the pleasure in overdoing.

A little exposure to a sensation is all I need. I get the point quickly and I don’t need a lot more. No need to drink twelve beers if two make you feel just right. As a teenager, if I smoked a joint and felt like my mind was opening ecstastically, I didn’t have to do it again the next day. Each experience meant so much, I didn’t have to keep hammering it in. “Be as one on whom nothing is lost”: Henry James’ prescription for a novelist.

The king of delayed gratification. I don’t even count my chickens after they’re hatched. After all, not all the chickens may survive. One might be eaten by a fox; one might be smothered by the hen; one might be drowned in the duck pond.

I’ve been drinking a comforting amount of wine this lonely week, but the idea that I might slip into excess is humorous. If I drink three glasses one night, I’ll wake up the next morning feeling fine but knowing I won't repeat it that day. I gorged pretty well on Christmas dinner, and since then I’ve been eating with utter restraint – tonight’s dinner was whole-grain bread, cheddar cheese, salad, and shiraz. I used to be a moderate caffeinehead but I cut way down a couple of years ago, and these days if I make a cup of tea in the afternoon I probably won’t finish it.

It’s sad, I know…

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December 27, 2005

Year-End Greetings, 1932

I've been browsing a little in my recently purchased DVD collection of the complete NEW YORKER magazine, and it occurred to me to wonder, What were they doing at this time of year way back then, those unfortunate primitives? It was a totally other world then, wasn't it, inhabited by people who didn't have the capacity to intrude on one another electronically at every instant, and who didn't have the insistent rhymes of rap music and the soothing phrases of self-help books guiding them through life, and who weren't ragged from sleepnessness and overwork and neurotically worried about the ingredients of their food? Those people who thought in all innocence, for instance, that the French were their allies?

I pushed Disc 8 (1925-1936) into the slot and felt my way toward the Dec,. 24, 1932 issue, and in the Talk of the Town section the editors were giving a humorous summary of leftovers in the in-box from the year just past:

•"A patriotic lady called up to complain about...advertising French products now that France had defaulted on her debt payments."

• "Daily success guide -- 'Did you get sufficient sleep last night? Did you inhale deeply today? Did you eat any raw fruit?' A thoroughly nasty little book," the editors concluded.

• for proto-Maureen Dowd fans: a study on "The Marital Condition of Gainfully Employed Women"

• an elegant solution to the Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays dispute: "The Department of Motor Vehicles Wishes You a Happy New Year"

Further along, I found that the nation was curious, and in some cases alarmed, about the undue influence on President-elect Roosevelt of one Professor Raymond F. Moley, who was called "the Mind Behind the White House." Nope, nothing like that around these days.

The League of Nations was under criticism for passing the buck on the Manchurian crisis -- hmm, haven't heard anything like that in a while...

Meanwhile, the magazine was viiglant about the problem of music piracy -- a phrase used in a Profile of the founder of ASCAP, the organization founded to ensure that songwriters received their due royalties.

All this in the first few pages.

What had drawn me to this issue initially was that it contained the first-ever "Greetings, Friends!" poem by Frank Sullivan (1892-1976), who wrote that feature annually for some 40 years: a long comic poem in rhymed couplets, mentioning by name oodles of people, famous or obscure, who had done noteworthy things during the year or who happened to provide a rhyme for something he wanted to joke about:

To my friends upstate in Saratoga Spa,
To Huey Long and the people of La....

I wish a maximum of Yulidge
To Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge,
To Alma Gluck and Charlie Schwartz
And those who suffer from wens and warts;
To those susceptible to coryza,
To Edward Johnson and Theodore Dreiser...

Alas, there was something in the poem that departed unpleasantly from later mores: some comic use of racial epithets for Asians and of a mock-Chinese accent. On the other hand, however, Sullivan came up with something that would turn out to be of consisderable usefulness to satirists seventy years later: a rhyme for "W.": "trouble you."

Greetings, blogfriends!

December 26, 2005

"Um, be careful, cat spit has amazing felting powers!"

The Going Jesus blog. A friend -- who I immediately have to add is a sincere, churchgoing Christian, raised as a Lutheran -- just sent me the link with the simple annotation, "You will pee your pants." It's true, figuratively at least. At first I thought it was a parody of a ditsy Christian lady's blog, complete with comments, cat photos, beautiful layout art, parody ads for "Martha Stuart" stuff, real ads that are not so different from parodies, and links to the Going Jesus/Going Bridal Store where you can buy "WTFWJD?" t-shirts, "Please Shut the Fuck Up about Your Wedding" refrigerator magnets, etc. I thought it might be written by a gay man. Then I realized it is the deliberately comic blog of a Christian woman who doesn't mind sending up Jesus's followers when it's warranted. And she finds it's often warranted. And at first I thought the comments might be parodies too, because they're all so -- you know, like -- they've got blogpseak down perfectly -- (eeuuw!) -- but it turns out they're real and written by likeminded people.

There's an archive going back to Jun 2003, all in the same vein, and the Going Bridal blog dates back to 2002. And there's no letup in inspiration from first to last. The posts about kitschy Christian tchotchkes, such as the Cavalcade of Bad Nativities, are especially hilarious.

There is deep knowledge at work here, and amazing energy fueled by some incalculable combination of love and anger. The "About Me" says the author is a 35-year-old Episcopalian church secretary/Parish Administrator married to her sexton. She adds, "I love my job. I really do. And not just because I get to sexually harass the Sexton."

An immediate blogroll.

Pigging Out

Christmas morning I took a walk through empty sunny streets to slip a rented movie through a return slot, then came back and did a half-day's work on the teachers' notes for a Grade 11 literature textbook. I'd been invited to an early dinner by a couple of friends, and we drove to one of the few restaurants in town that was open: a Southern-style cafeteria where you can get all you can eat for $7.99. It had the only packed parking lot in town, too. The restaurant was a big, clean space with tables being rapidly cleared by black-aproned Hispanic women, and at 4 p.m. the line of customer went the entire length of the interior to the front door. Families were carrying overloaded trays of food, sometimes two trays per person, and many of the trays were piled two or three layers high, with several entrees, two or three desserts, and a multitude of small side-dish bowls. Well, the line was so long you wouldn't want to go back on it for seconds. Now and then a piece of china fell to the ground and smashed, to be quickly whisked up. I got cucumber salad, cole slaw, fried chicken (two thighs, two wings), roast beef, sliced red potatoes braised with onions, corn niblets, fried okra, jalapeno cornbread, pumpkin pie with whippped cream, and apple pie. Water to drink. This was a full tray only one layer high. Everything was good except the fried chicken, which was dry. And the okra was a bit stale and bready. The pies were excellent, the roast beef medium-rare, moistened along with the potatoes by natural juice. Among the three of us we had planned on four trays, but it turned out we didn't need the fourth.

All around, people were pushing plates of half-eaten food away. "I'm through." "I'm done." "No more." "No mas." "It's nap time." By the cashier's station stood a revolving glass display of whole pies. Pumpkin, pecan, apple, buttermilk, chocolate cream, coconut cream... They looked perfect. Some other time perhaps. I'll come back with the kids, they'd love this place.

Back home, I watched one play of the Packers-Bears game on TV: Brett Favre threw a touchdown interception. Sic transit gloria mundi. I read myself to sleep (ALBION by Peter Ackroyd, recomended for anglophiles only, of which I am one), then woke at 8 p.m. and watched a good suspense movie, ONE FALSE MOVE, written by Billy Bob Thornton before he became a star.

Today's plan: just another Monday.

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December 23, 2005

Christmas with Conviction

I took a walk down Red River Street just before sundown yesterday, after I’d finished working – I hadn’t left the house all day -- and after a few blocks a man shouted at me from across the street, asking directions. A black man in his forties, about six feet tall with a strong wiry build, wearing clean work clothes and a neatly trimmed mustache. I couldn’t hear what he was saying above the traffic so I started walking across the street toward him, but he indicated that he would come to me.

When he got to the sidewalk next to me, the first thing he said, as if he had to get it out of the way, was that he was on release from a prison term for robbery.

“That’s okay,” I said.

He explained that he was in a special program of Governor Rick Perry’s called “Your Will to Be Free” whereby, after serving 18 months of a two-year sentence, he was being sent to a pilot program at a halfway house. He had been put on a bus from his Dallas-area prison and sent to a city he didn’t know – Austin – to test his will by making him find his way to the halfway house. He had a map, which he showed me: a somewhat fuzzy, wide-zoom map showing no details other than major highways. From the bus stop he’d walked a few miles to Red River on the basis of directions from strangers, making some big wrong turns on the way. By my estimate he still had five to ten miles before he reached the halfway house, a star on the map just east of the airport, which is on the outskirts of town. He had to get there by 8:30 or he’d be expelled from the program. It was about 5:00.

He was worried he wouldn’t make it, but I assured him he had time. Then I had an idea, “I’ve got nothing to do, and I live near here. You stay here – or you can come with me – and I’ll – “

He cut me off, knowing what I was going to say. The program prohibited him from accepting rides with individuals. His group had been shown a film about what can happen when a civilian gives a ride to a seemingly trustworthy con… a mother with a baby giving a nice man a ride…

Okay, so I walked with him as I gave him general directions to Airport Boulevard via 19th Street. I told him he could probably get a bus, but I don’t know the bus system well. How much did the bus cost, he asked. Maybe fifty cents or a dollar, I said.

“If it costs fifty cents, would you please let me have fifty cents?”

“Sure,” I said.

As we walked up and down the hills on the eastern border of the UT campus, I stayed at arm’s length beside him. We talked about things we had in common: I asked him if he had kids. He has three, and two grandchildren, a daughter starting college at Texas State thirty miles down the interstate, which he called “down the street.” The comparative troubles of raising boys versus girls. How his daughter’s mother had foisted his daughter onto him once she became a teenager, but he’d been too strict with her and ruined their relationship, and he wanted to see her in college – one reason why he was glad to come to Austin -- but didn’t have her phone number. He asked me how I was going to spend Christmas and I told him, in broad outline. He asked me if I was a teacher and I said no, but my wife was, and he laughed and said, “You got that professor look,” and I said it was because I hung out with professors. He asked what I did and I told him, and explained how I don’t have any benefits but I do have a lot of freedom. “You’re a smart guy, you can figure out how to save for the future,” he said, which I wish was true. “And now you’re going out for your walk for exercise after you finished working,” he said, and I smiled and told him he’d guessed exactly right.

We talked about how nice Austin is: he’d noticed the many pecan trees and live oaks, more than in his hometown Dallas. And the water – wasn’t there a river or lakes somewhere? He’d worked for the city of Dallas for seventeen years, he told me. I didn’t ask what he’d been doing or what kind of robbery he’d committed.

Up and down the hills, and the sun sinking orange ahead of us, and the football stadium just to our right and the tree-filled campus spreading beyond it. His feet hurt walking the hills in steel-toed shoes, and I told him the east side of Austin is flat, he’d do better there.

We stood on a hilltop on the border between east and west Austin and looked at the orange horizon line, the green-blue sky with one bright planet burning steady white, the highway and the low-rise city flattening out for miles at our feet. He kept saying how glad he was to be here – kept repeating the city’s name in a tone of wonder and approval.

“This is my Christmas present: Austin!” he said. And I felt it was a Christmas present for me, too.

We walked downhill to 19th Street, and by the time we shook hands goodbye it was dark. I got out my wallet and gave him two-fifty, which was all I had in small bills and change. I said it was great talking to him, and wished him good luck, and he said he hoped he’d see me again.

Back home I did a Google search for “Your Will to Be Free.” A simple search gets literally a billion hits; a search for the exact phrase gets 721, of which most are song lyrics. Checking the first few pages, I didn’t find anything relevant. A search for “Rick Perry” plus the phrase gets zero hits.

It’s a good idea for a release program, though: transport a well-behaved con to an unfamiliar city, wearing an electronic homing device (I assume), and ask him to find a destination with only the vaguest map and no money as a test of his determination. I hope he made it by 8:30.


December 22, 2005

Althouse for Conservative Diva

Well, there's an online poll for Conservative Blogress Diva, and Ann is currently running a close third in a field of 14. I tried to vote for her several times, but they would only let me vote for her once.

She's more of an individualist than a doctrinal conservative, although many of her stands on specific issues are rightwing. Above all, she's far less shrill, and far more perceptive, than most of the political commentators on either side. Although I have to say I think some of her opinions are pretty wacky.

No matter what the conflicts between us, I always thought I'd vote for her for anything. And she probably thinks that if she hadn't married me, she'd be a Supreme Court justice by now. She'd deserve it, too. So at least let me try to help her be a blogosphere diva.

Click here to find the voting site.

News from Madison

I just received this email from my son Agent 83: "Hey: I just finished college."

Tha's the way we do things in my family. I didn't attend my own college graduation. I just packed my things and drove to New York. Didn't attend Agent 81's either. Unceremonious to a fault.

Agent 83 will be moving to Austin next month to work and try to get a foothold in the film/TV field, and maybe go to grad school, and we're ecstatic that he'll be here. He is a screenwriter, a director, a sometime activist, a fashionable gent, one of my most incisive critics, an idol to his younger half-brothers, and very probably a highly competent waiter, though I've never seen him at work. After some early academic wobbling he buckled down and ended with an excellent overall grade point average. He's as mature and self-motivated a 22-year-old as I've ever known.

Congratulations once again, dear 83! May your path continue to be as beautiful as it's been already.

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First Step Toward Artificial Consciousness

From Discovery News: A robot that recognizes itself in a mirror has been developed by researchers at Meiji University in Japan.

I learned of this at the always-provocative YARGB, where there's an interesting, linguistically tangled discussion in the comments. I think some of the commenters are getting hung up on whether this extremely rudimentary robot is truly self-aware or not. That's like asking whether Australopithecus took a shower every morning and then read the Times on the train to work. This robot is a first step in a long and -- if we survive -- inexorable process. Shouting, "No, it's not truly self-aware!" isn't going to hold back the future.

The only thing I want to know about artificial intelligence is, will it be kinder and more foresightful than we are? Actually that's two questions, and I'm mainly interested in the first.

My Ordeal: Day One

Well, that wasn't so bad. The only problem is I bought so many treats for myself I don't know how I'm ever going to make that restaurant date. I may have to stand myself up. Last night I pan-fried a couple of Central Market's exceptionally good crab cakes, and backed them up with an organic spring mix salad and Gleneagle spring water (Scottish, with a long tapering bottle that must be worth far more than the water inside it). Tonight it's going to be calf's liver, and I also got some Central Market bulk pesto -- which obviates the need ever to make one's own pesto -- to put on noodles. Also got some Terra Red Bliss potato chips -- red potatoes and olive oil -- for snacking.

(Once, back in the Seventies, a friend accused me of being a potato chip connoisseur just because I had a preference between Charles Chips and Wise. Little did we know!)

Then for exercise I walked to 37th and Guadalupe to see the 37th Street lights, a homegrown Austin Christmas tradition, but for some reason this year there weren't as many cool lawn displays as in past years: no phantasmagorias of underwater Santas swimming among mermaids, no Bush parodies, just a lot of lights strung on houses. The house that had perennnially been turned into an erupting volcano was no longer decked out as such. The most distinctive new display -- nodding reindeer and polar bears made of wire and white lights -- would not have been at the top of the list in previous years. The house that is traditionally most outrageous had nothing notably new, instead falling back on its basic displays. Is everyone tired this year? Did crucial participants move from the block? The outstandingly new thing I saw was a popcorn vendor's cart: is commercialism taking over, sapping the block's energy?

Back home, I talked to Agents 61, 95, and 97 on the phone. The redoubtable Agent 61 had driven 650 miles in twelve hours and found a motel on the far edge of Memphis. Today's leg, across the whole length of Tennessee to the northeast corner, will be in the 500-mile range. She ordered a cheddar burger at Steak 'n Shake and it came dripping with processed cheese sauce instead of sliced cheddar as the menu described, and when confrtoned, the waitress merely said, "This is how we make it"! O America, whither goest thou?

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December 21, 2005

From the Lime Trees

"Well, they are gone, and here must I remain...."
--Coleridge, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison"

Agents 61, 95, and 97 just drove off for eight days in Tennessee, visiting my in-laws. Normally I'd go with them, but right now I have three freelance projects at once and I didn't feel I could spare four days on the road, plus very limited work days at the in-laws'. (I like them a lot and would hate to have to squirrel myself away for a couple of hours with a computer while they were out boating or something.)

Agents 95 and 97 are buckled into the back seat playing Gameboy, which they're likely to do for the rest of their journey, though they'll also spare some time, I'm sure, for reading books, listening to audio books, and bickering. These two boys are like a married couple: they can't stay apart from each other and they're always getting on each other's nerves. They have their own two-person culture: they joke together, laugh together, spar with each other, and talk so fast about so many in-references (usually referring to Japanese animations of one kind or other) that I'm left baffled.

Agent 61 is a thorough tour planner. She's got this familiar route mapped out and the trunk fully packed (where would my suitcase have fit?, we joked), and I've presented her with a can of fix-a-flat and a canister of pepper spray. Most importantly, she's got her own personal French press and bag of organic free-trade French roast to take with her to the caffeinically less sophisticated regions.

I'll be here in Austin working and blogging during the vacation. I'll probably even take myself out to a restaurant and a movie or two. And do a lot of reading. I've got to have some fun, it's going to be so lonely.

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December 20, 2005

Viewing Log: Werner Herzog at Kaieteur Falls

In Herzog’s 2004 documentary THE WHITE DIAMOND, a British scientist, a typical Herzog distraught jungle obsessive, is testing a new type of small airship to fly above the rainforest canopy of Guyana in search of medicinal plants. He thinks he may also want to fly it above Kaieteur Falls, the world’s longest single-drop waterfall (741 feet), but he changes his mind when a test flight -- five store-bought helium balloons, jointly carrying a glass of champagne -- is sucked into the falls by the downdraft.

A million swifts, it is said, live in the unexplored cave behind the falls. The camera catches a smoke-thick flock of them flying in front of the cataract, a swirling mass in which each individual seems to have its own flight plan, its own will and whimsicality, aided rather than hindered by the need to stay in the group. The water is bright amber at the top of its plunge from the green-black rock of the plateau; as it drops, it lightens, churning gray and white in a smoke-cloud of spume. And the swifts are flying around the spray, inside it, behind it.

Do they live in a continual ecstasy? Because they should. Or are they so used to the waterfall, or are their nervous systems so primitive, that they hardly notice it?

Some of them may not be well mated or well fed, they may have worries about whether another member of the flock is going to steal their favorite cranny in the cave. Some may be old or sick or injured, nearing their last flight. But how terrible, no matter what their struggles, if they didn’t know that they deserved to live in a continual ecstasy. That the conditions demanded it, and not to do so was dumb negligence and loss of life.


December 19, 2005

Moussaka and Tagine

The kids are sleeping late this Monday morning -- no six a.m. alarm clock to start them racing toward school. It's nine o'clock and I haven't had breakfast or showered or put on street clothes. Time is slowing down for the winter, congealing like syrup that's been set out in the cold.

We spent the weekend attending one party and throwing one of our own. Our party was a celebration for one of my wife's colleagues who'd gotten tenure on appeal after having been denied it last year. The denial was a gross injustice in this case, the result first of all of the fact that our friend was doing cutting-edge work in educational technology whose products did not fit into the usual pattern of publication in refereed scholarly journals (he could make a lot more money in the private sector, but loves academia); and secondly, that his recommendation letters were weakened by two spiteful letters from professors at a prestigious private university where he had received and declined a job offer. Apparently in the tenure game, negative letters are so rare that a single one will raise a serious alarm.

Well, our friend and his family had a nightmarish time last December and a nailbiting, extraordinarily stressful time during the reapplication year. This time he pulled through with the help of supportive colleagues who agitated for his case -- first among them, my wife, Agent 61, who felt that without him, her whole departmental program could fall into irrelevance.

It was a joy to be able to congratulate him last night and to hang around with fifteen nice, bright, sociable people drinking wine and making cheerful small talk. I cooked my famous Greek moussaka, slightly adapted from Craig Claiborne's NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK -- the 1961 edition, missing its cover, its pages stained with ingredients from thirty years' cooking -- and Agent 61 made a Moroccan tagine of chicken, olives, and lemons, plus several Moroccan salads, from Paula Wolfert's COUSCOUS AND OTHER GOOD FOOD FROM MOROCCO. (Agent 61 spent two years in Morocco in the Peace Corps.) We toasted our friend with Veuve Cliquot 1998. This morning, all the glasses and dishes and pots and pans are clean, and on the kitchen counter are a carrot cake, a German chocolate cake, and a raspberries-and-cream cake, all partially eaten. I hope I don't succumb to them.

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December 16, 2005

Ecks Ridgehead's Blogiversary

Among the many who are celebrating their first blogiversaries at this time of year is Ecks Ridgehead, author of Tales from the Ridge, a fine ongoing collection of microfictions, showing an impish but serious allegorical imagination. In his celebratory post he gathers together seven of his favorites from his first year: among them, ones about a boy who catches a shark; a boat of despairing people cruising the seas eternally; a dog-faced man at the circus; and perhaps my favorite, Pestilence riding the London Tube to the Apocalypse instead of a horse.

Check it out, he's gifted and fun to read.

The sidebar feature "About Ecks" describes him as "a man of 28 tender years" but it has said that for a whole year now, so don't you think it ought to start saying "29 tender years," Ecks? Come on, admit it.

Typepad Problems

Some of my favorite bloggers use Typepad, and this morning there seems to be a problem with that system. A check of five such bloggers shows that none of their sites shows posts dated after December 10. I hope it will be fixed.

Am I Really a Cohen?

One of the Kohanim, that is, the sons of Aaron, the priests of ancient Israel.

Informal family genealogy says I am, but Cohen has been our surname for only two generations. Before that, on the paternal side, it was a long Polish name, and a few generations before that, we didn’t have surnames at all. But Ha-Kohane, “the Cohen,” was an honorific applied to my ancestors in their communities, which is why my grandfather took the name Cohen when he got to Ellis Island early in the 20th century.

Now I can find out by mailing a sample of DNA from my cheek to a company called Family Tree DNA, which is supposedly the most reputable of the many companies doing DNA testing for genealogical purposes. They’re the ones who are doing the DNA testing for National Geographic’s massive Genographic Project, which hopes to map how our prehistoric ancestors migrated out of Africa and across the world.

At Family Tree you can also get tested for Native American ancestry, African ancestry, and more. You can find out the time span to the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) between you and another individual (maybe you and your girl/boyfriend are cousins). They have Y-DNA tests for tracing your male line, and mito-DNA tests for tracing your female line.

Most Kohanim share a set of markers on the Y chronomosome called the Cohen modal haplotype, which originated 3,000 years ago. The same markers are sometimes found in Italians (yo, Tony!), possibly because of the presence of many Jewish slaves in ancient Rome; and in an African tribe called the Lemba, who have traditionally claimed to be one of the lost tribes of Israel and are now supported in that claim.

Supposedly something more than half of men who get the test get a positive result. I should get the results in a few weeks.

So what happens if I find out I’m a Cohen? Well, there are taboos associated with the status, such as not being allowed to touch the bodies of the dead, but I’ll cheerfully ignore them as vestiges of the primitive past. The rule about not having disheveled hair is the one that would really affect me personally. Also, only the kohanim were allowed to bless the congregation using the special salute -- hands uplifted, fingers separated into pairs -- that some Hollywood wise guy adapted for the Vulcan salute on STAR TREK.

The main function of kohanim in orthodox Judaism today is to read the first passage of the aliyah, the Torah portion, at Sabbath services.

By definition the test will also tell me whether my kids are kohanim, which would be nice. Mostly, I’ll just be a little smug. And if I’m not, I’ll find some way to be smug about something else.

Live long and prosper, y'all!

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December 15, 2005

No Time Like the Present

When he was seventeen he remembered that he was not born on this world. He was a time fixer from the far future, spending a few days in this ancient civilization, a few days in that one: his mission to tie up loopholes, paradoxes, and contradictions so that the course of history could run smooth. Then somehow he got stuck in a thoroughly boring family on twentieth-century Earth that had nothing to do with history at all. How was he to get out? Trying to bend the bars of his time–prison, he writhed within the life of an average high school senior. Walking the school corridors, he saw students in Sumer in 3200 BC practicing cuneiform on wet clay tablets. Giving a report on atomic structure in Chemistry class, he babbled in a tongue he later claimed was Olmec. Who could contradict him?

The electric shocks, the thorazine, did their work over their years, slowly, and one day he found he’d made another time jump: from seventeen to twenty–five, remembering nothing in between. Someone helped him find a job at the library and an efficiency apartment. One day he found himself getting married. To whom? Oh yes, he remembered now. He was nice to the children when they arrived, but he preferred sitting in his swivel chair behind the counter at the library, leisurely checking out books and toting up twenty–cent overdue fines.

He was all right now, but there was one thing he never told anyone: he was living in 1959. Walking down the street, he saw big bulky round–roofed cars, and signs in restaurant windows offering two–dollar dinners; and when he watched TV with his family, the one he watched had a black–and–white screen and vacuum tubes.

He whistled as he walked down the street in his fedora hat and his wide–cuffed, sharp–creased slacks. Any time now he expected the US to send a man into space.


December 14, 2005

Bumper Sticker Patrol, Installment #2

The rear of the pickup truck is plastered with stickers and stencils for women's martial arts. "Sun Dragon Womens Martial Arts." "" In one corner is a bumper sticker with the famous quotation from Einstein: "You cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent war."

Huh? The chief idea of martial arts is that you prevent violent encounters by preparing for them. You learn to handle yourself in a fight so that, if a potentially violent situation ever arises, you can defuse it, or can walk away with your dignity intact, or if necessary can deter the opponent while doing the least possible physical damage.

You prevent adversity by preparing for it. There is no other way.

That Einstein quote has always seemed to me to be the stupidest thing a genius ever said. It's like saying, "You cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent disease," or, "You cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent household accidents."

Cute rhetorical flourishes -- the parallelism of "prepare" and "prevent," the false either/or choice of prevention versus preparation, the misplaced appeal to expert opinion -- do not make a statement true.

Does the truck driver not believe that what she enacts locally also applies globally?

A Confession of Adequacy

I’ve been shamed into sanity. Not shamed in the toxic, soul-pervading sense, but in the healthy, adaptive sense of having my misbehavior pointed out to me -- by circumstances and by my own better judgment. It’s as simple as this: over the past week or so, through a conjunction of events, I’ve had so many people express respect and affection for me that I can no longer justify going around feeling undeserving and unsuccessful. I can no longer lean on my early upbringing in order to have the pleasure of feeling bad; I have to face the face that I’ve overcome all that, and that I now have an exceptionally fortunate, productive life and quite a stable, constructive personality. In every important sphere of my life -- in blogging, in writing for my living, in my tai chi practice, in interactions and conversations with my wife and children and friends on a variety of subjects -- I’ve been overwhelmed this past week by validations of my worth from every corner, unexpectedly and without my prompting.

I’m going to have to change my tune to adjust to this undeniable reality. I have to acknowledge that what people have been telling me is true. Not to accept their valuation of me would be ungrateful, and I hate ingratitude. And to keep fishing for compliments, which I know is a flaw of mine, would be a disservice to the people who have already, so often, complimented me. (And I can’t even tell myself anymore that people say those things to everybody, that they probably don’t mean it. I can’t believe that so many good people would be insincere just for my sake.)

It’s as if I were missing a limb and had been fitted with a perfectly good prosthetic, but spent years and years whining about how the prosthetic didn’t fit right and how it itched and I could still feel the phantom limb. It’s time to admit that the prosthetic works fine: I’ve got enough self-esteem.

This attitude shift is going to require some work, and my first task will be to believe that I can do it. But that may not be as hard as it sounds. Truth to tell, I’ve come to this peak after many years’ long climb.


December 13, 2005

Blogiversary Greetings!

Today is my first blogiversary – one year of blogging. It’s been a joyfully creative year for me. For the first time in my writing life I’ve felt I was working in a new form, and helping to shape and influence that form, rather than emulating old, standardized models.

One of the two best things for me about this year of blogging – and the less expected of the two – has been the feeling that I belong to a group of congenial, bright, interesting people – friends -- who welcome and accept me, an unbounded neighborhood of thinkers and writers who come and go, stopping by to chat whenever they like, and who can agree or disagree without rancor. The stable heart of this community is a cozy “pod” of frequent commenters and fellow bloggers, but the community’s borders can expand instantly, infinitely, in any direction, through the amazing network of links that is the blogosphere. Anyone can join immediately just by appearing.

One tends to think that one’s own pod is the best – the nicest people, the most cogent commenters – just as one tends to think one’s own children are the most beautiful and gifted -- but whenever I visit other blogs I see that they have their pods too, often interlocking with mine, and those groups seem every bit as interesting and intelligent and caring as mine. And I end up wishing I belonged to all those pods, just as I sometimes wish I could experience other people’s families as fully as my own.

The other best thing about this year is that the blog turns out to have been the raw material for a book. I’ve been writing a book all this time and didn’t know it. I’ve compiled 87 of my best, most preservable posts and polished them slightly as needed, and once I get some front and back matter and jacket copy and so forth – and a title, for that matter -- I’ll take it to a publish-on-demand company so that you all (and I hope that means all!) can buy copies. It will be mostly microfiction, with small handfuls of travel pieces and personal essays and haiku and literary commentary added, because this isn’t just a short story collection, it’s a self-portrait in blog posts: something new, something I’m helping to define by doing it.

Comments won’t be included in the book, by the way – those are yours, not mine – but I hope readers of the book will be motivated to return to the blog and find the comments on pieces they like.

So thank you again, frequent readers and first-time readers, commenters named and anonymous, fellow bloggers, fellow humans met and unmet. You have enriched my year immeasurably.

December 12, 2005

"The atheist non-god is not going to send me to non-hell for my lapse of non-faith if it should turn out that I am mistaken"

The science fiction writer John C. Wright, whose work I'm not acquainted with, was an atheist all his adult life until his recent conversion to Christianity, which happened through both intellectual and mystical means. His story, found on Speculative Catholic, would have been one of the brightest ornaments in William James' THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE.

Wright on the error of atheism:

I began to notice how shallow, either simply optimistic or simply pessimistic, other philosophies and views of life were.

The public conduct of my fellow atheists was so lacking in sobriety and gravity that I began to wonder why, if we atheists had a hammerlock on truth, so much of what we said was pointless or naive. I remember listening to a fellow atheist telling me how wonderful the world would be once religion was swept into the dustbin of history, and I realized the chap knew nothing about history. If atheism solved all human woe, then the Soviet Union would have been an empire of joy and dancing bunnies, instead of the land of corpses.

I would listen to my fellow atheists, and they would sound as innocent of any notion of what real human life was like as the Man from Mars who has never met human beings or even heard clear rumors of them.

Wright on his mystical experience:

I became aware of the origin of all thought, the underlying oneness of the universe, the nature of time: the paradox of determinism and free will was resolved for me. I saw and experienced part of the workings of a mind infinitely superior to mine, a mind able to count every atom in the universe, filled with paternal love and jovial good humor. The cosmos created by the thought of this mind was as intricate as a symphony, with themes and reflections repeating themselves forward and backward through time: prophecy is the awareness that a current theme is the foreshadowing of the same theme destined to emerge with greater clarity later. A prophet is one who is in tune, so to speak, with the music of the cosmos.

Read a much longer, and thoroughly fascinating, excerpt here.

Hat tip: Good and Happy.

For the record, I'm neither an atheist nor a Christian.


Play Pinguin

Don't know what to do with yourself on a Monday morning? Interested in new ways to decrease US productivity? Try this simple computer game. (If I can play it, you can bet it's simple.) The latest subversive decadent import from Europe.

Click once and the penguin falls from the cliff. Click again and the polar bear swings his club at the penguin. Object: to send the penguin flying as far as possible across the ice.

Top score recorded: 328.

Top score by Agents 95 & 97 (my children): 319.

Hat tip: my cousin Lois.

December 11, 2005

Portrait of an Artist

Ellis Gallagher, a 32-year-old Brooklynite, began as a graffiti artist, but quit after a friend was struck by a train while painting in a subway tunnel. Then Gallagher was mugged by a guy wielding a machete. The traumas somehow led Gallagher to invent the genre of shadow art: he goes around Brooklyn with sidewalk chalk, outlining the shadows of common objects such as stop signs and bicycles.

Read about him here.


The Agents' Late Night

Last night we went out for drinks and snacks with a large group of friends and classmates, and for the first time in their lives Agents 95 and 97 had a table – a booth – to themselves, sitting with a couple of their fellow preteens at the far end of the room from us. The waitress gave them menus and we gave them no instructions; when we got the bill, we learned that Agent 95 had ordered a Caesar salad, Agent 97 a quesadilla. Both ordered root beer, but the waitress messed up and brought a Dr. Pepper and a Coke instead, so the Agents ended up drinking caffeinated beverages at 10 pm. An hour later they were sitting at the bar, playing a video game console and surrounded by a small cluster of grownups.

We came to collect them at about 11:30. “We’re looking for two small children.”

“You mean Agents 95 and 97?” The grownups parted to reveal two boys in parkas fending off alien invaders.

“Have they been bothering you?”

“No, they’re really smart, they’ve been teaching us how to play.”

Friendly goodbyes were said all around, and on the drive home Agent 95 claimed that he couldn’t possibly fall asleep for hours, since his system was charged with caffeine.

But in fact, he was sound asleep within minutes of his head’s hitting the pillow.

Before waking this morning, I dreamed that the reverse of the Agents’ sudden maturation had happened to me. I was in my early twenties and had just graduated from college. I was eagerly entering the big grownup world: specifically, I was training myself to write. The things I was writing were shockingly rudimentary: I would read a pulp science fiction story and then imitate it closely, keeping the plot motifs and describing the same scenes but changing some words. It was okay, though, because I was starting at the beginning and had a lot of time to develop. And in fact there was already an interesting melancholy complexity underneath the second-hand pulp surface, because I’d already lived thirty extra years.

Waking up, I actually did feel that I was starting again at the beginning, and could afford to.

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December 09, 2005

Lamb, Okra, and Honesty

Where can you find a good recipe for southern-style lamb stew with okra? That's right -- you guessed it -- on the blog of Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh, "Musings of a Jewish Soul." He's thinking of instituting a class wherein he cooks a dish related to the Torah readng portion for each particular sabbath. This week's portion, or parsha, is about Jacob tending Laban's sheep for twice seven years in order to win Rachel's hand in marriage.

Rabbi Karsh got the recipe from a southern cooking website.

And while you're savoring the aroma and flavor of that delicious stew, how about scrolling down to his previous post, which is about necessary lies and their consequences. Here's an excerpt:

we cannot
without consequence
when it was
the right thing
to do.

this is not
just true about lying
the same is true
with cruelty
and so many other
tools of tough love

they all have their
and we always
for their use

You'll have food for your mind and soul then, too.

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December 08, 2005

December 8, 1980

We were living in an NYU-owned studio apartment on the fifteenth floor of Washington Square Village on Bleecker Street. I was awaiting the publication of my first book and writing the second one; Ann was in her last year of law school and pregnant with our first child, who, three months later, we decided to name John.

The clock radio woke us, and the first sound that came over it was an announcer’s voice: “We’ll have more about the murder of John Lennon after this.”

We sat bolt upright in bed. Had we heard correctly? It had come to us at the tail end of sleep, maybe he had really said some other name, or not the word “murder.”

But when the commercial was over, we learned that it was true. Then we remembered hearing an unusual storm of sirens when we’d gone to bed around midnight, sirens which we now learned had been a couple of miles north of us.

I remember the disc jockey, Scott Muni, vowing that morning that as long as he remained in the business he would open his program each day with a John Lennon song. It was no harsh restriction, there were so many songs. Scottso had been one of the first wave of deejays to interview the Beatles in America. He was legendary in New York from the doo-wop days of WABC-AM, and in 1980 he was program manager at WNEW-FM, which was at that time the leading progressive commercial rock station in town.

I remember getting two phone calls in the next half hour or so, one from each of my younger brothers. The middle one was a rock musician up in Albany, and we sobbed together and agreed that Lennon was the most important of all of them, and like a father to us. The youngest brother was a newspaper reporter in Binghamton, just a year out of college, and he was so upset he didn’t want to go to work that morning. I told him it was important for him to go to work: he was a journalist, he had to confront hard things.

Our style of wisecracking had been learned from Beatle interviews and press conferences. Countless times we’d quoted his lines from HELP or A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, and sung along with “I’ll Cry Instead” and “Slow Down” and “Hide Your Love Away.”

Once in the 1970s, when we were living up in Yorkville, Ann and I went with a childhood friend of mine to a fancy French restaurant, Residence, on First Avenue in the lower Eighties. Sitting at the next table were John and Yoko. It was the window table and John’s back was to the room. His hair was shoulder-length, and I don’t remember whether he had a beard or not. We sat near them for almost the full length of our meal. None of the other diners approached them. At one point John and Yoko went to the bathroom together. She was pregnant with Sean. At the end of their meal, the maitre d’ brought them a tray with lots of liqueurs, and they chose samples from it. I have no memory of what I ate, and probably wasn’t noticing what I ate at that moment.

My childhood friend was a Wall Street lawyer at the time and has gone on to much greater prosperity. During our meal, he tried to minimize the importance of this closeness to greatness: he himself, he said, knew all kinds of big shots, such as financier Michael Milken and the president of Columbia University, and so he took such encounters in stride.

“What’s the matter, Cone, why are you acting so intimidated?”

“Because he writes better songs than me,” I said.

Another anecdote: a different friend of mine, who lived on the Upper West Side, was sitting at a glassed café terrace on Columbus Avenue with his Chinese-Filipino girlfriend one day, when John and Yoko went strolling past. John noticed my friend’s girlfriend and stopped suddenly and stared at her through the window for minutes on end, before Yoko came to scold him away. My friend’s girl wasn’t outstandingly beautiful. The man liked Asian women.

Some time on the morning of December 8 I went out for my daily jog, a few circuits of Washington Square Park. Or maybe it was the next day. I think I remember that it was a chilly gray day, much as it is here in Austin today. And I remember how quiet and still the streets were. Few people were out walking. There were no laughing groups of young people.

All that weekend, no one could think or talk about anything else. There were moments of silence around the world. Radios and TVs were on all the time and there was little conversation. We were all waiting for signals about how next to show our grief. I got sick of the song “Imagine,” especially as quoted by the very authorities it challenged. What I imagined was poor John Lennon being reduced to that one song, treacly and nihilistic at the same time. There were so many other songs.

We went to a law students’ party, and one guy, a student’s husband, a short, plump, blond-haired young man, told us that he and his wife lived on the Upper West Side and had been out walking at the time of the murder, just a couple of blocks away, and had heard the horrible sirens, and without knowing anything about what they were for, he had suddenly begun to cry as he walked home.

I didn’t go uptown to join the throng outside the Dakota apartment building or light candles or place flowers. I don’t like displays for the cameras.

That’s all I remember about that weekend, and it’s more than I wish there were to remember.

UPDATE: Read Ann's version here.

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December 07, 2005

Bumper Sticker Patrol, Installment #1

On the right side of the bumper: a line drawing of John Lennon with the words, "Imagine all the people living life in peace."

On the left side of the bumper: "What would Ernest Tubb do?"

Leaving open the question, "Would Ernest Tubb imagine all the people living life in peace?"

Winter Mix

We're about to have our annual taste of a mythical season we've heard about from relatives and seen in movies but never really experienced (except for my 19 years in Michigan and Wisconsin, that is).

It's 47 degrees Fahrenheit this morning and that's going to be the high for the day. Tonight we're supposed to get freezing drizzle with possible snow flurries and a low of 28. Tomorrow it wil be clear and up to 38 -- still very cold for around here.

Freezing rain or drizzle is no joke if you're driving. The whole area will stay home and make cocoa or quesadillas or whatever keeps them warm, except for the unlucky few who have to venture out for work or emergencies. The curbs at the bottoms of hills will be decorated with squashed or dented cars, and police cruiser lights will revolve merrily at streetcorners.

Unless the whole thing turns out to be a false alarm, which storm forecasts around here usually do.

Meanwhile, I hope you'll enjoy these four haiku about nature:

Oaks, old grandfathers,
what are you telling me when
you shake those brown leaves?

Sky, oldest thing here,
older than these rocks, how do
you keep looking young?

Sun, why so angry?
It’s hard to be looked up to,
and always alone.

Sea, stop hiding!
Disgorge, disclose, release, reveal!
Turn your cards face up!

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December 06, 2005

First Browse of the New Yorker

The COMPLETE NEW YORKER doesn’t have a Back button, a frustrating omission. There are indirect ways you can retrace a search, but they’re, well, less direct: you can return to search the archive from scratch, or rehit the keywords of something previously searched, but you can’t just go back to the thing you were doing immediately before. And results don’t come up by title, only by author, date, and department. This isn’t a problem if you already know the title of what you’re looking for, such as “The Country Husband” by John Cheever, but if you’re looking for a story by Mavis Gallant from some time in the Sixties that you only remember vaguely by subject, you might have to click every Mavis Gallant story from the Sixties before you find it.

What I searched for first was what probably ninety percent of all readers will search for first: Salinger. And the first story I searched for was the one that has meant most to me in the past, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” I kept putting in the title keywords and nothing came up. Was I spelling it wrong? Was the hyphen confusing the program? I kept trying alternate methods until finally I froze the software and had to force quit a couple of times. Then, using other research methods, I uncovered the problem: “De Daumier-Smith” was the only Salinger story The NEW YORKER rejected after he started publishing with them.

Okay, on to “For Esme with Love and Squalor.” It came up easily – April 8, 1950 is the issue – and it was a queasy kind of fun to see the corny cartoons that ran amidst its text, and the Phyllis McGinley poem about literary prizes. Queasy, because the ephemeral associations threatened to tarnish the permanence of the literature. “For Esme” held up, last night, as a superb piece of writing, original in concept and design, and deeply felt in its portrayal of a shell-shocked D-Day veteran (which Salinger was in real life), although its most memorable line is a quotation from Dostoevsky. “The Laughing Man” had been treated less well by time: overloaded with dated cuteness. And “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” exuded a creepy pedophilia which you were supposed to be too sophisticated to care about back then; and the suicide ending, which seemed merely arbitrary and out of character before, now seemed monstrously callous on the part of both character and author. The lasting image left by the story – but not described in it – is of a young bride – a “girl” – on her honeymoon, being awakened by the sound of a gunshot next to her in bed, with her groom’s brains and blood spattered all over her.

I think this online NEW YORKER will be best for browsing the lighter features, the Talk of the Town pieces and reviews and cartoons and ads and fillers. These things, which may have seemed like throwaways at the time, are now preserved in virtual amber and give off the scent of an earlier world. In contrast, the more ambitious works, the long articles and book serializations, may show the cracks and gaps and discolorations of fossils. Plus, the onscreen format is visually cumbersome to read, because you have to keep moving up and down the three-column page by clicking buttons. If you want to read a whole story or article straight through, the best procedure is to print it: this gives you a beautiful photocopy of the original magazine page, yellowed by age. If the thing you want to print is very long – if you want to read THE GHOST WRITER by Philip Roth – you’re better off taking the book out of the library (an admission THE NEW YORKER itself makes in the introductory materials).

Still, there’s a world to be explored in there – what was in the issue that was published the week of my birth? I’m guessing an O’Hara story, an Arno cartoon, a Talk piece about the arrival of spring – and endless reminders of how things have changed. A cartoon shows two refined ladies passing the night depository of a bank and wondering, “Shouldn’t they have a night withdrawal too?” The days before ATMs.

And this is the little piece of filler at the bottom of page 36 from April 8, 1950, after the J. D. Salinger byline. It’s one of those silly journalistic misstatements that the magazine likes to mock:

[from the Waterbury (Conn.) American]
Two priests at the Hartford diocese will celebrate their golden wedding jubilees within the next four days.

Little did they know.

December 05, 2005

Today's Earworm, Installment #2

Walk Away, Renee:

Just walk away Renee
You won't see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block
They're not the same
You're not to blame

As sung by Jimmy Lafave on his early live album, Austin Skyline.

First recorded by the Left Banke in 1966, and one of Rolling Stone's Top 500 songs of all time.

Complete lyric here.

View the "Walk Away Renee" home page.


Black Sash

Well, yesterday afternoon I took and passed my black sash test in tai chi chuan, along with eleven classmates, and I’m feeling pretty great about it. For the past two months I’ve been going to eight classes a week to study for it, as well as practicing with classmates on some weekends and lunch hours and studying reading materials at home. It’s the culmination of five years of attendance.

Those of you who know anything about it may have said, “What? Sashes in tai chi?” The fact is, it’s very unusual for a tai chi instructor to rank students and to require tests and uniforms as they do in other martial arts. My teacher is a kung fu guy originally (and still) and he’s often said that tai chi is kung fu practiced slowly; or more colorfully, kung fu is tai chi through the back door. You start out studying it without having any idea that it’s a fighting skill, and then one day you find you have this skill available for use. He’s brought a formal sensibility into tai chi, not without resistance from me and some other students. As he’s instituted sash requirements and testing and tournament requirements and bowing and the use of titles, we’ve been dragged into it kicking and screaming in some cases, and students have dropped out because of it. I’m an informal person and I chafe against the use of titles for any human being, especially the historically repugnant title “master.” (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master” – Lincoln.) Nor do I want my classmates of several years, who know me as Richard, to start calling me Mr. Cohen.

The other side of the coin is that Tom Gohring is a highly gifted teacher and a likable, charming, decent human being, who has taught me more than any teacher ever did in any school subject. The school is his business to run the way he chooses, and adjusting to his requirements is part of the discipline involved in learning. Plus, as it turns out, having a tangible goal to train for, if it’s a goal you care about, can be a stimulus to learning.

In the immediate term I prepared for the test the night before by going out to the Cactus Café and seeing the wonderful Texas/Oklahoma singer/songwriter/Dylan interpreter Jimmy La Fave. A great show and a highly recommended artist, with a keening, dramatically breaking tenor voice and a repertoire of his own slow songs that can make your eyes well up as soon as you hear the opening chords, as well as rockers that are tightly and excitingly played. Read the blurbs on this guy's website and then take the chance and buy a CD. (I don't know him personally.) He always includes some Dylan in his sets, and last night he did “Blowin’ in the Wind” sincerely and beautifully as few people would have dared to; “Mr. Tambourine Man” starting on solo mandoguitar and finishing with his band as if recapitulating Dylan’s folk-to-electric leap of 1965; and beautiful, strong versions of “Just Like a Woman” and “Not Dark Yet” and “Every Grain of Sand.” We got home at 2 am, but I was alert and rested the next day because I hadn’t drunk any alcohol. But I digress.

The test was three hours long, and before our test, there was a 2-1/2 hour black sash test in kung fu, which was taken by only one student, a teenager. His test must have been more stressful than ours because he took it alone, and he ended it by having to spar Sifu Gohring, but our test was physically as well as emotionally demanding. It began with a 70-minute nei kung routine. Nei kung, which means “inner work,” is a system of exercises for stretching and alignment, based on holding postures for a long time and changing them slowly. It doesn’t look outwardly like much of a workout, but when you do it, it feels like one. It was as exhausting and envigorating as the 75-minute workout I used to do a generation ago at the same karate school as Amba -- and I haven't found an equally rigorous workout at any martial arts school since.

After that warmup, we did the tai chi form several times as a group, giving it our best form at a slow speed. Then, as a break, we answered oral questions about the Ten Important Points of tai chi and their meanings: head suspended; close the chest and lift the back; waist loose; distinguish between substantial and insubstantial; sink the shoulders and drop the elbows; use mind not strength; upper and lower follow; inside and outside coordinated; connected without interruption; within motion find quiet – motion and quiet are one. Then we paired off and did several push-hands routines culminating in freestyle push hands. (Sifu’s eye widened when, a couple of times, I sent my 250-pound partner and best tai chi friend flying ten feet without using any force.) Then, also with partners, we demonstrated the martial applications of each move in the form. Then as a group we demonstrated the tai chi staff form and the tai chi sabre form.

Then we were happy and sweaty and hungry and thirsty and chatty and we took group photos and gave presents to classmates who had been especially helpful as tutors in certain skills.

Then I drove home and the family took me out for an all-you-can-eat diner at the local Asian buffet. Unfortunately they weren’t serving beer because they have had to reapply for their liquor license due to a change in ownership; so after dinner I had some of my favorite Spanish brandy, Carlos I, at home, while listening to Jessye Norman sing Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” (I recently treated myself to an amazon purchase of four CDs of that piece: by Norman, Renee Fleming, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, and Lucia Popp. I’ve got Te Kanawa’s version, which may be the best of all, on my computer, and I’ve got Gundula Janowitz and Lisa Della Casa in my CD rack. But I digress. What I want now is Eva Marton’s version, the first I ever heard and my favorite, but it’s 50 bucks used. But I digress.)

The significance of a black sash is traditionally twofold, as I understand it. First, it means you’re a serious student. It’s viewed as the beginning of real study, not the ending. Second, it should mean you’re able to handle yourself in a self-defense situation. This is less easy to assess for tai chi than for the external martial arts, where people go around punching and kicking each other. Tai chi is concealed power. But the other day a kung fu student at my school playfully attacked me from the back with chops and a kick, and I instinctively turned and caught his foot in midair, using the move Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, and pushed him around the room like a wheelbarrow, to his surprise and embarrassment. So I guess that’s all right.

I think I’ll keep studying tai chi.


December 02, 2005

I'm looking at an exceptionally busy weekend and I have some preparation to do for it, so I'll talk to y'all on Monday. Have a great weekend; I'll tell you more next week.

December 01, 2005


I spent most of yesterday compiling my best posts from this first year of blogging -- December 13 will be my blogversary -- in order to assemble them into a book. I'm about halfway done with the selection process and then I'll proofread, write a little preface and a table of contents, and do the other tasks associated with preparing a worok for publication. I'll use one of the reputable self-publishing services, probably iUniverse. I'll sell it online. I hope it will be ready early in 2006.

The book will emphasize fiction and other "literary" posts, not ones on topical issues. Comments won't be included, but I hope that readers who come to my work through the book will be drawn to look up the comments to posts they like.

The book will give my longtime readers a chance to reread favorite posts from the past, and give newer readers a chance to catch up.

It'll be a good one, kids.

Skip This If You Don't Like Cute Little Moments

My Thursday morning ritual with the kids is breakfast at McDonald's. This morning we were in a booth there, and Agent 95, returning from the bathroom and sitting down beside me, leaned close, smiling, and rested his elbow on my shoulder.

"Oh, you know this song?" I asked.

"Huh? What? No."

The speaker system had just begun to play "Lean On Me." The vocal hadn't begun yet when he leaned on me.