October 31, 2005

Rain Haiku

Rain on my windshield.
What a small thing a life is:
pages, photos, tears.

Picking up the kids
early on a rainy day
is all we can do.

Halloween downpour:
Costumes under umbrellas.
“I’m scared of thunder.”

Two Danny Millers

A comment by Tamar on my previous post led me to this post by Danny Miller about the difference between his blogging persona and his -- I don't want to call it "real self" -- his everyday social self. It's funny and touching and perfectly on target. Read it and enjoy Monday morning!

October 30, 2005

Notes from the Interior

Some people are physical daredevils. They climb mountains, they raft through rapids, they hike across rain forests. I almost always enjoy myself when I’m athletically active or when I’m in a place I haven’t been before, but I feel little compulsion to seek physical challenges, to push outward for my adventures. Long ago I bet my whole life on a single gamble – the gamble of becoming an artist – and after that, with the roulette wheel spinning its mad lifelong circle, I’ve more often sought calm and quiet.

I’ve read that people are born with different levels of sensitivity to stimulation. Some people have high thresholds: in order to get their adrenaline pumping it takes a high dose of stimulation, a bombardment of the senses. They get bored sitting around – it seems like nothing is happening – they have to go out and snowboard or hang-glide or get drunk. These are the people who explore new lands and fly fighter planes. People who write are often the opposite. I can get charged up just sitting in my garden, as I’m doing now. I can explore a dark, labyrinthine cave lying on the sofa, and whenever I do that, I know in advance I’ll be bringing back five hundred words or so of interesting prose. I’m never bored when I’m alone.

I enjoy a privileged access to my inner world – or so it seems to me, for I’ve never experienced the access others have to theirs. I can enter a deep theta state at will. I recline on the loveseat with my feet and head up at both ends and my eyes closed, and feel my breath get deep and even. Gradually I loosen my limbs, my muscles. When my arms and ankles uncross, I know I’m relaxed, but there’s no limit to how relaxed you can become, there’s always another downward chamber to explore. Certain pieces of music help. Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis” gets me there. Once I’m there, Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” can take me deeper. (Some great musician was once asked what was his favorite single piece of music, when all was said and done and all evasions put aside. He said Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” and especially the third. I don’t have his knowledge of the repertoire, but I agree.) In another genre, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” and his little-known autobiographical piece “Up to Me,” which I know best in a version by Roger McGuinn.

In that state, I feel unable to open my eyes, unable to move. In order to do so I would first have to awaken myself from trance.

I’ve practiced other types of meditation, outwardly imposed, and have never been able to accept their formalities and doctrines. It’s been hard accepting that this – just lying around -- is my form of meditation, self-invented. When I was a teenager and in conflict with my parents and completely bereft of self-esteem, I used to escape arguments by lying down in my room and sinking away into darkness, unable to move. I sometimes feared I was going catatonic and would have to be lifted away, boardlike, and taken to an insane asylum. As an adult, this tendency to go off by myself and shut my eyes, or stare into the distance, has led me to accuse myself of being lazy, of lacking stamina and drive, of needing too many rest breaks between activities.

The hard thing all my life has been to accept my own way of being. I’ve spent too much time berating myself for not being an outward-oriented person. What has been wrong with me that I haven’t hitchhiked across the continent or joined the Peace Corps? Wouldn’t I have been a better writer if I’d bought a motorcycle and hung out at biker bars? (I took a few motorcycle lessons in my early forties and liked it, but dropped the subject – we were moving to a new state and expecting a new baby and I found out how much motorcycles cost – and I’ve never had much urge to take it up again.) The hardest challenge is to stop thinking, “What’s wrong with me?”

In recent years I’ve become aware of the central role of shame in our culture’s pathologies, and I’ve surmised that a shame of shame and unworthiness has kept me from being a more outer-directed person. But it may be that what I was built for is to go inward as deep as I can, even if it doesn’t change the world or help the less fortunate. And the shame I have to overcome is the shame of that.

Even the fact that I need to keep my eyes open while I write this, and I that I think from time to time of you, cherished readers, seems to me to limit how far inward I can go. But perhaps after all these years I can permit myself to try to go further. And if what I bring back isn’t for the world, but only for me, I may have to accept that too.

October 27, 2005

Should We Hold People Responsible for their Actions in our Dreams?

My wife dreamed that our friends X and Y moved to Austin and had a party. We rode our bikes over there, only to be told we weren't invited.

That's so typical of X and Y! It's disgusting!

October 26, 2005

The Chocolate Celebration: A Reminiscence

Did you know that there are three varieties of cacao tree but that all of them belong to the species Theobroma cacao, “theobroma” meaning “food of the gods”? Did you know that cacao trees, which grow in Africa and belong to the same family as kola trees, can grow to 60 feet tall in the wild, and that monkeys and squirrels break open fallen cacao pods and eat the insides? Did you know that the first chocolate factory in the US was begun by a man named James Baker, hence Baker’s Chocolate?

I didn’t either, but I l know those things now, and so does my well-educated third-grader, Agent 97. For today’s celebration, his classroom, which is team-taught by the two best teachers I know, was decorated with wall posters drawn on colored construction paper and illustrating interesting facts about chocolate. The classroom contains half a dozen tables with two to four students at each one, and students had paired up to research, write, and illustrate their projects. The skills mobilized by this task were many and formidable: planning, discussing, working together, taking responsibility, finding information, drafting, revising, editing, proofreading, presenting information in visual form, and making an oral presentation. English, math, science, geography, and history, all through chocolate. This is cross-curricular learning, and even though it may not transmit as many dogged insistent hammerheaded facts as the old rote methods did, I have a feeling it has more desirable results in other ways.

Plus, I got to drink an eight-ounce carton of organic chocolate milk and eat a chocolate chip cookie and a 17-gram, 0.6-ounce (how do they come up with these sizes?) Hershey bar. (I had fortified myself with high-protein foods – cheddar cheese on multigrain bread, water on the side – before arriving.) It was a lot more pleasant than the half-day’s work I would have done instead.

Every time I visit my children’s classrooms, I’m newly amazed by how warm and welcoming the atmosphere is, how much these seem like places I would have liked to spend time as a child. Children can get up and move around and socialize during class time, within the limits of pedagogical usefulness. Teachers move around from table to table, conversing with students in human tones about their work. In the center of each student table is a box containing a dictionary, a thesaurus, a safety scissors, and writing implements. There are books and magazines all over the room, brimming from shelves and tubs and folders. Kids are encouraged to do things on their own, to take initiative in their projects, and to work collaboratively. There is a low background hum of people enjoying what they are doing. There is laughter which is not the sneaky, guilty laughter of wiseguys cracking nasty jokes about their teacher or classmates. On a bulletin board a display headed “Accountable Talk” gives examples of phrases you can use to maintain a constructive discussion: “I disagree with you, because…”; “I like the point you made about…”; “What you said reminds me of…” If I had ever received that kind of guidance when I was young, neither I nor anyone I knew would have known to take it seriously. It would have seemed like yet another strange intrusion from an outside world where people were polite, unsarcastic, and sincere.

At the chocolate celebration I found a funny unexpected bonus. Inspecting the reading materials, I came upon a rack of small paperback 16-page illustrated readers published by Scott, Foresman. These are leveled readers – little books written at specified reading levels, grade by grade – and I came upon several copies of one that I had written as one of my freelance assignments. It’s called YOUR NEW PLANET and it consists of advice from space-wise kids to kids who are about to migrate to new planets. I wrote half a dozen such little readers for Scott. Foresman a few years ago, at a variety of grade levels. For each volume, my editor specified the genre (this one was fantasy) and the reading level and a comprehension skill to be taught implicitly by the text. (The skill for this one was knowing the difference between realism and fantasy.) Given those guidelines, I conceived and wrote the story, threw in a handful of grade-level vocabulary words of my choice, and thought of illustrations for an artist to execute. YOUR NEW PLANET was one of the better ones I’d done, and I was glad to see it there, and I showed Agent 97 and he showed his friends and then the teachers asked me to sign the books.

Looking at this little book – probably about 500 words altogether – makes me wonder. This is one tiny product out of countless billions of products that human beings make. I know how much education and skill and care and time and effort and cooperation go into it, on the part of so many people – a writer, an artist, a large team of editors each with her own special task, a marketing department, a sales force, a publishing board. And all the people who worked to train and educate those people. Multiply that by the number of products made on Earth. The total amount of intelligence and ability in our species must be overwhelming. It makes me wonder what we’re doing.

The Chocolate Celebration: A Preface

I’m getting up a bit late this morning, showering, dressing, etc., with a shamefully blank mind, -- Sibelius’ “Finlandia” was playing on the classical station, which is coincidental for a reason I’ll explain in a moment – and trying to dare myself to concoct a story-post from nothing – which sometimes happens and sometimes has quite good results – when, like a signal that if I only trust to Providence I will receive all that I ask for – the phone rang and I heard Agent 97’s clear, gentle voice on the line:

“Hi, Dad. I was wondering if you would come to our Chocolate Celebration this morning at eleven o’clock.”

A Chocolate Celebration? I’m there, son! And I’ll tell all you readers about it when I get back.

One thing I can tell you already: when I was in school there was no such thing as a Chocolate Celebration at school, and it would have been unheard of for a child to make a telephone call from the classroom. There were no celebrations of any kind when I was a student, except the planned schoolwide pageants for Thanksgiving and Christmas (yes, we acknowledged Christmas in my school) when we were ordered to wear white shirt and green tie – the school colors of P.S. 105, Bronx – and sit in obedient rows and columns on bolted-down wooden auditorium seats, chorusing the dullest songs that ever implanted themselves ineradicably into memory:

The golden sun shines down in autumn splendor
With russet apples weighing down each tree
And fields of grain, and grapes in heavy cluster
We give our thanks, O God, to Thee…
(sung to Sibelius’ “Finlandia”)

When I was a boy, students running for schoolwide office used to speak a stock line that showed their seriousness, the modesty of their reformist aims, their understanding of the limited powers of a student council president:

“I’m not going to promise you soda machines in the cafeteria…”

Soda machines in the cafeteria were the classic example of student power gone to ludicrous extremes. Well, my kids’ elementary school has a vending machine just outside the cafeteria selling fruit drinks loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, a substance that wasn’t on ingredients labels during my childhood, and many of the parents, including me – parents of the generation that lusted for such things in utopian fantasy – want to get rid of it.

A Chocolate Celebration? There’s a pedagogical link, of course: the class recently had a unit on chocolate, tracing its history from Aztec culture to ours, following the production process, examining the uses of chocolate in different cultures through history. It’s neat stuff – they learn things, they acquire a broad view of the interconnected world. Maybe it's better than learning that in 1624 Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for $24 -- or maybe it's the same.

This afternoon I’ll tell you about the chocolate.

October 25, 2005

White House Vs. Onion

I have a special fondness for the satirical newspaper THE ONION because it started in Madison, Wisconsin, my old stomping ground, and because one of my sons (Agent 81, if you must know) has done some editing for them, and because a couple of his best childhood friends are writers for the publication. So I was alarmed to read today that the White House is trying to force THE ONION to stop using the presidential seal in its regular parody of Bush's weekly radio address.

"It has come to my attention that The Onion is using the presidential seal on its Web site," Grant M. Dixton, associate counsel to the president, wrote to The Onion on Sept. 28. (At the time, Mr. Dixton's office was also helping Mr. Bush find a Supreme Court nominee; days later his boss, Harriet E. Miers, was nominated.)

Citing the United States Code, Mr. Dixton wrote that the seal "is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement."

Read more here.

And for your sanity's sake always read THE ONION!

Blaugustine: God #15

AUGUSTINE INTERVIEWS GOD -- PART FIFTEEN is up at Blaugustine, and it's eleven beautiful frames long. In this one, God and Augustine are sitting on a park bench wondering where to go next, and Augustine decides to give God a tour of her inner self. Augustine's inner self may be a lot like yours.

This is a wonderful series, and if you haven't done so already -- or even if you have -- you could do no better on a brisk October Tuesday than to begin from Part One.

It's nice to see an artistic project that starts out in high gear and keeps up its level, even getting better over a long period of time. Natalie d'Arbeloff is the artist/writer and her blog, Blaugustine, has many other great features, my favorite being THE KINDS OF THOUGHTS WE HAVE.

And thanks to Natalie's commenter Kim for the word "quantumplation."

October 24, 2005

Blogs About Poetry

Good and Happy's post today quotes a poem by J. V. Cunningham "on the fading of ambition, not to be confused with moral or artistic collapse":

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

How well I understand that! Is it just the particularity of my circumstances -- of having tried for and almost established a public career, only to see it dwindle away -- or is it a predictable developmental change of middle age? Both, perhaps. I think there are artists much more successful than I who secretly feel a waning of appetite for the battlegrounds of creation and promotion -- who don't want to go out on the next book tour but woujld much rather sit home and write sonnets -- or blog posts.

Meanwhile, Good and Happy's post sent me to Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium, an intellectually engaging blog concentrating on poetry and poetry criticism from the standpoint of a sophisticated practitioner who gave up "the electric kool-aid of free verse" for the vintage wine of traditional forms. One of the greast joys of blogging, for me, is that I get to know people like this: a whie-beared software developer and mandolin player who writes, and writes about, poetry on a high level, while simultaneously drawing back a bit of the curtain on a life that's as busy and tangled as yours or mine. His book, 44 SONNETS, is for sale on his site, and a review at 2blowhards (another fine blog revealed for me on today's trail)makes me want to buy it. (Read the Snier sonnet, "The Fall," quoted in its enttirety in the review.)

Mike Snider is now on my blogroll. Another terrific poetry criticism site I've blogrolled recently is David Leftwich's Eclectic Refrigerator. David is a passionate amateur who spares me the trouble of having to discover new examples of poetry, jazz, dance, and other arts on my own. All I have to do is click on his site and find out what poets to read and what jazz CDs to listen to.

It's all part of our expanding world.

October 23, 2005

After the Sleepover

Last night we had a sleepover for half a dozen boys, eight year olds and ten year olds. It went remarkably smoothly as such things go – a couple of hours of aimless backyard tackling and shouting, during which we tried vainly to stop them from calling each other names or dousing each other with hoses (our kids being the main guilty parties) – after which it settled indoors for board games – Risk and Go and Stratego, with most of the time spent on debates about the rules. No television was watched except by adults watching the World Series, and the kids went to bed at eleven, the younger ones conking out early and the two ten year olds talking quietly past midnight.

What do ten year old boys talk about in the middle of the night? We didn’t eavesdrop, but this interchange from earlier in the evening gives a clue. Agent 95 and his friend were sitting at the dinner table talking, and my wife was putting away some of the pizza accoutrements. Agent 95 looked up at his mother with grim astonishment and muttered, “I can’t believe she’s had oral sex.”

She paused in the midst of putting glasses into the sink.

“Mom, how many times have you had oral sex with a man?” asked the indefatigable pursuer of knowledge.

Well, we’re liberal parents and we want them to grow up believing that sex is natural and we always want to be truthful with them.

She told him she couldn’t give him an exact count.

October 22, 2005

Return to the Showplace of the Bronx

"It was meant to take people out of their humdrum existence and bring them into a world of unimagined wealth and luxury."

Its reopening will be "the resurrection of one of the most spectacular movie palaces ever built," according to Bronx borough historian Lloyd Ultan.

It's the 45,000-square-foot, 76-year-old former Loew's Paradise, on the fabled Grand Concourse. It was famed for its midnight-blue ceiling sprinkled with stars. In my childhood I saw a fair number of first-run movies there -- it was about a 2-mile bus/bike/car ride from my neighborhood. I'm trying to remember titles of specific movies, but my memory isn't that detailed. Plug in the titles of any spectaculars from the late fifties and Sixties -- MY FAIR LADY? SPARTACUS? -- and there's a fair chance I saw them there.

In the Seventies it was divided into a twin theater, in the Eighties into a multiplex, and in the Nineties it was boarded up. Next Saturday it will re-open not as a movie theater, but as a venue for concerts, boxing matches, beauty pageants, and more. It's another sign of the regeneration of the Bronx.

If I were Danny Miller I could write you a long, fastidiously researched essay about the theater's history, the films that showed there, the famous people who sat in its balcony when they were teenagers -- the Paradise balcony "gave generations of teenagers a haunting setting for the taste of their first kiss" -- along with a gallery of brilliantly chosen period photos. But I don't know how Danny does it, so just read this NYT article instead and look at the photos there.

Your Friend, Momentum

Some more intellectual cuteness from Agents 95 and 97:

They were shopping at Central Market with their mother and the boys got hold of a couple of the helium balloons that the store gives out to children. Their mother, Agent 61, was worried that the balloons were getting in the way of other shoppers, so she told the boys to stop.

“But Mom,” said Agent 95, “I’m investigating momentum. I’m seeing how the momentum of my hand is transferred to the balloon.”

Agent 97 stepped over, intrigued, and asked for an explanation, and a brief science lesson ensued….

Science is all around us: as I typed the above, the football announcer on TV said the word “momentum,” and Texas scored a 75-yard touchdown! Hook ‘em, Horns!

October 21, 2005

What Is Realism?

As an educational writer, it often falls to my lot to write lessons and test questions on the fundamental concepts of literature, such as plot and character, conflict and setting and theme, fiction versus nonfiction, realism versus fantasy. This morning at the breakfast table I was startled to hear Agents 95 and 97, over their raisin bread and cashew butter sandwiches, spontaneously discuss some of these very issues. It began when Agent 97 asked his older brother where to find the nonfiction in the school library. Agent 95 gave physical directions – go left at the front desk – but 97 stopped him:

“You mean the number sections?”

Exactly! I helpfully reinforced the knowledge that the Dewey decimal numbers are for nonfiction, while fiction is arranged by blah blah blah…

“Fiction is basically fantasy,” Agent 97, “and nonfiction is stuff that could really happen.”

“No, Agent 95,” the elder brother patiently instructed. “There’s lots of fiction that could really happen.” And as I was nodding approvingly, and thinking that his exact words could have come from lessons I had written which were stacked up in books in my study, he added, “Like science fiction. Science fiction shows stuff that could happen in the future.”

“Or ghost stories,” Agent 97 said. “There could be ghosts. No one knows if there are or not.”

“So science fiction and ghost stories are realistic?” I asked.

“Yes!” they both said enthusiastically.

Another lesson well learned!

October 20, 2005

Bloggers on Wilma

I don't have anything special to say this morning -- I'm backlogged in freelance work -- so I turn your attention to Glittering Eye's list of links to Florida bloggers in the imminence of Hurricane Wilma.

At least as compelling as any of those is True Ancestor's account of his hurricane dilemma: he was in Ft. Myers yesterday with his elderly parents who refused to leave. TA's father is 88-year-old blogger Ancient Mariner, who so far has not posted anything on the storm.

October 19, 2005

For Those Who Like to Mock the New York Times

If you said aloud, "Computer, write me an article in which a New York Times food writer talks about moving to the Texas Hill Country and living next to a venison ranch," it would come up with this.

Included are priceless details such as:

• a vignette of hearing a venison chili recipe from the local postmistress

• a photo of the author in jeans and cowboy hat, cavorting with an antelope (playing with her food while it's still alive? -- though in this case the animal in question is spared as a pet)

• an explanation of how seeing her meat in its live state has made her "revere the meat more"

• the information that the word "venison" comes from the Latin "venari," meaning "to hunt"

• descriptions of "gutsy" venison burgers (I hate that word, it's so Eighties, so SILVER PALATE COOKBOOK. Imagine people who think their menu choice shows their courage. And what is a gutsy burger, anyway -- a burger made from intestines?)

• an appreciation of the complex flavors of wild game: "In each bite, there is mountain juniper, wild persimmon, sun-drenched limestone, a current of prickly pear and the cool eucalyptus scent of an agarita bush." (If you're biting into limestone, count me out.)

• a sentence beginning, "When I spent time cooking at a chateau in France..."

This article, in other words, takes the gateau. Bon appetit!

October 18, 2005

The Smiling Alarm Clock

This morning as I stood numbly in the bathroom trying to wake up, I noticed the illustration on a box of children’s allergy medicine: a smiling alarm clock with two eyes, two arms, and two legs. Why is it that children live in an animated world, and I don’t? To a child, a stuffed animal is a living creature with a name and a personality. Paint two dots on a rock you’ve found in the backyard, and it becomes a friend and a fortuneteller and a character in any drama you like. Children have an instinctively animistic view of existence: every object is an individual with a spirit. But to me, a rock is just a rock and a stuffed animal is just a hunk of sewn cloth.

I know a child who’s afraid of the dark. It’s been bothering his sleep for most of his years. To him, the night itself is an animated spirit, and it holds within it other spirits that are ready to burst out of places which the daylight pretends are uninhabited. Monsters are ready to come out of his dresser drawers, and burglars are hiding in his closet, and his life is threatened in his dreams. His parents have consulted a doctor and have taught the child strategies for turning the animated, wild, living, fluid nighttime into something tame and solid and inanimate. It’s bound to work. As time goes on, they report, he’s gradually reaching new stages of maturity, taking care of himself when he’s up at night rather than running into their room crying.

I have my share of fears, but the dark has never been one of them. I don’t play favorites between night and day: to me the night is just daytime with less light in it. To the extent I think about it at all, I like the night; it’s romantic, and it hides things that are better unseen. It hides me, too, if I want it to: in the night I can lurk unseen, listening and looking. Maybe I like the night, too, because I’ve learned that bad things are just as likely to happen in daylight. I love sleep – I have a fifteen-year sleep deficit I’m constantly trying to catch up on, because of a sleep disorder – and above all I love dreams, because in dreams I have no responsibilities, in dreams my mistakes have no consequences.

Is it more realistic of me to think that the night is uninhabited by spirits? Or is it just the flattening that occurs with age? Is it something I acquired as I grew in adulthood, or was it always a kink of my personality, an obstruction keeping me from seeing the soul of things? Adults certainly deceive themselves about enough things so that I don’t assume they see the world more truly than children.

Some religions populate the world with spirits, and perhaps thus recapture a childlike animism, but I’m more drawn to religions, like Zen, that clean out the unseen world and leave only what is there before my eyes.

Maybe I'm afraid to be afraid of the dark. Have I turned the nighttime into a false daylight, a world of rational explanations, of brightly lit corners, of appearances with nothing behind them?

I look at the smiling alarm clock on the box of children’s medicine. If it suddenly winked at me and waved its mittened hands, would I know enough to be glad?

October 17, 2005

Hopscotch Girl

A little girl is playing hopscotch on a sidewalk in New York in 1940. She has just hopped off the board, breathing fast from the excitement of going all the way up and back without losing her balance or stepping on a line. She watches the next girl toss the penny onto the first square of the chalked playing field.

Then a man walks up to her, a man with straggly hair that’s partly white and partly black and a long stringy chin beard. He’s wearing a floppy wide-brimmed hat and a long black raincoat, and she doesn’t remember having seen him on the edges of her vision before he popped right in front of her.

“Hopscotch!” he says. “A hopscotch girl. I remember so many of you, hopping up and down the court, in London with the horse-drawn carriages going by. And in Roman Britain, the soldiers in full armor hopping a hundred feet each way, and the children imitating them on their own little courts.”

The man bends down to the girl’s level and points his long finger at her forehead, so close that she gets cross-eyed trying to follow it. “October 2, 2002,” he says.

She laughs uncomprehendingly. “What?”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything about it.” He reaches a little further forward and presses his fingertip to her temple. “October 2, 2002.”

The finger seems to press deep into her without hurting, and the date travels into her brain: she sees it searching out the farthest, darkest corner, where it will stay quietly for a long time. She is already forgetting it. October when? So far from now! What does it have to do with her? When the girl looks outward again the man is gone.

“Your turn!” her playmate calls.

October 15, 2005

Althouse Share Prices Drop!

"From B$7,667.73 to B$3,373.8," according to Blogshares. Read about it here.

I too have no idea what it's all about. When I started typing this a couple of minutes ago, I assumed it was some kind of computer-driven error that put Ann's name into a financial story. Now it appears there really is an online "stock market" for blogs. I assume mine isn't even listed.

October 14, 2005

A Sentence I've Been Waiting to Read for a Long Time

"Amid a mood of intense uncertainty in the White House, Karl Rove arrived at federal court today."

Read the whole NYT story here.

Dan Ramirez' Blog

My pal and traveling companion, artist Dan Ramirez, has begun posting again on his blog Luz. He's got excellent pictures of some of the work he did at an arts foundation in Spain this summer (plus a Goya painting that inspired him), and he's planning to add some more words and pictures about our trip. Those of you who've enjoyed his site in the past will want to go there soon.

Postpandemic TV

Catastrophes follow so swiftly upon one another nowadays that ambitious writers, eager to capitalize on the latest misfortune, must look ahead to ones that haven’t happened yet. With this noble goal in mind, let’s gaze into our crystal ball for a glimpse at the fall programming highlights, 2007. Will the Entertainment State survive? Shadowy pictures begin to form:

CBS is showing its new sitcom, LESS IS MORE, a comedy with heart about a man who has lost his wife and a woman who has lost her husband, combining their randomly surviving children together into a big new plucky family.


NBC’s new season wouldn’t be complete without LAW & ORDER: H5N1. Here’s a preview clip:

[Exterior, Manhattan. A morgue wagon has stopped in front of a luxury apartment building in order to pick up the latest deposit of corpses. Old and young, white and less white, wealthy and more wealthy – the doormen toss all of them onto the pile with equal indifference, though always with a cynical shake of the head at the thought of lost Christmas tips]

Detective: Wait a second! [Approaches the wagon, putting on latex gloves; lightly lifts the head of a blond-haired child.] Look at the bruise marks on his neck. This one wasn’t flu!


Will football stop because of the plague? Not on your lives, sports fans!

Play-by Play Announcer: Green Bay has been lining up without a huddle all game. Dallas shows blitz – the ball is snapped – Favre is sacked, there’s a flag on the play – surgical mask penalty, fifteen yards for ripping the surgical mask. Now it’s second down and – cough, cough, cough…

Color Commentator: Hey, watch it, Biff! If only Dallas’ punts could be as accurate as your phlegm!


VH-1 weighs in with a new reality show, LIVE WITH ME. The premise: six people of varied origins have to live in the same house, using the same bathroom, eating in the same dining room. The survivor, of whichever gender, gets to be kept by Mick Jagger.


And of course there’s FEAR FACTOR: PLAGUE EDITION. Every contestant on this season’s FEAR FACTOR will have to submit to the same terrifying ordeal: sit for ten minutes in an internist’s jam-packed waiting room.


On the religious networks, it’s business as usual:

TELEVANGELIST: And as He struck down Sodom and New Orleans, brothers and sisters, He in his righteous wisdom has now struck down Los Angeles and Washington and all the other depraved dens of sin that once blighted our land. We’re going to build a new America, an America of holiness and heterosexuality – but we can’t do that without your help. Send your checks to – cough, cough, cough…


But to learn more about what’s happening in our world, let’s turn to the cable news:

ANCHOR: President Bush repeated his assurances to America today, saying, “I want all you good people to, you know, you can just keep going on about your normal lives. That’s the way to show these viruses they can’t beat us.” Coming up next on our Science Special: How long will that vaccine take to get here? We’ll have an expert’s view after we get back.

[Insert commercials for facial tissue, allergy pills, life insurance, and an overnight economic phenomenon, a nationwide chain of franchise crematoria.]

ANCHOR: We’re back, and our Science Special’s going to ask, How long will that vaccine take to get here? But first, here’s a story about how one man erected a lasting tribute to a fallen friend…


So many channels, each bravely adapting in its own way! But after so much grim reality we can all use a laugh, can’t we? Never fear, Comedy Central is showing endless reruns of the Three Stooges to cheer us up. Between episodes it shows a still promo, the same one each half hour: a crudely printed sign saying, “Comedy Central is searching for qualified video crew, on-camera talent, and office staff, so that we can continue creating the kind of quality entertainment you expect. Please email your resume – do NOT visit our offices in person…”

October 13, 2005

Author's Photo

I’m looking at the photo in the back of the book I just bought. I want it to tell me more than the book can. I’m looking for the knowledge the author can’t put into words, the being that her sentences can only point to. This author is a woman in her sixties who, with cropped hair and rimless glasses, is cooperating with Time in removing sexuality from her persona: stripping off that layer. The furrows down her narrow cheeks, the brooding upturn of her long thin lips, tell me that she knows more than I do. There will be statements in the book that will put me in my place, illuminating the misguided things I’ve been doing all these years. This book will make me consider who I am, and wish I were otherwise. The book’s message is that I must accept myself and yet continually re-create myself. The photo tells me I probably can’t do that as well as she has done.

The book wisely makes no promises, but offers many opportunities, many tools. The photo tells me the author has come far from where she started. She has acquired confidence and penetration, generosity and patience, resilience and foresight and forgivingness and serenity. She looks irremediably unhappy.

October 12, 2005

One Tree

The old couple sits straight, side by side with gnarled hands joined, facing the interviewer.

“The first time I ever saw her,” the husband says, “she was wearing a green dress – “

“It was blue!” the wife laughs.

“I went up and suavely introduced myself.”

“Are you kidding, you were sweating like nobody’s business.”

“We hit it off right away.”

“You’re all confused as usual. You’re thinking of the second date. At first we couldn’t find much in common.”

“I knew right away she was the girl I wanted to marry.”

Her round face reddens with laughter. “When I mentioned it you practically ran out of the room!”

“And she’s been right about everything ever since.”

“Oh, what a comedian!” she says, and they sit, wrist around knobby wrist, like a pine and an aspen that have grown with their trunks entwined, seeming like one tree instead of two.

October 11, 2005


She was his hairdresser to begin with and at the end too. She liked to do his hair, she said, because it had such interesting tangles. At first he disliked how long it took her to do a haircut – did she think he didn’t have anywhere else to be, anyone else to see? Then he began to feel that he didn’t have anywhere else to be or anyone else to see. He couldn’t believe that someone so pretty was paying such attention to him. Her thighs brushed him as she moved around the chair where he sat draped in a gown dotted with hair clippings. Her breasts brushed him as she leaned forward to snip his top locks.

He could talk more freely to her than anyone he’d ever met, but only about silly, gossipy stuff or about his past loves and losses. Concerning how he felt about her, he was tongue-tied. Couldn’t tell her how beautiful he thought she was. Couldn’t tell her how much she was starting to mean to him. She put his past to rest with knowing putdowns of his exes, whom she’d never met. But when he tried to make a joke about how close her body was to his, she froze silent, took his money with an outstretched arm, and turned away as she said she’d see him next time.

His shyness and her changeability kept him from asking her out. Whenever he had gathered his courage to do so, she was sure to bring up one of her prestigious male clients – the local tycoon who gave her stock tips, the governor’s aide who’d invited her to a formal dinner – as if, telepathically, she knew what he was about to ask. How could he compete with them? And what was with her, that she had so many male clients?

Then one day as she was powdering the back of his neck, she asked, wide-eyed and laughing as if surprised at herself, if he wanted to go with her to a comedy club, where some has-been from an old television series she liked was performing.

“You’re the only person I would go see him with,” he told her, and a cold, disapproving look came over her face.

At the comedy show, she glowed with laughter at the corny, crude jokes of the outmoded comedian. Sitting beside her, twirling his hair into knots, he worked up the nerve to say something.

“Tonight I know the difference between dazzlingly beautiful and radiantly beautiful,” he said. “Because usually you’re dazzlingly beautiful and it blinds me and keeps me away. But tonight you’re radiantly beautiful and it lights my way and warms me.”

She couldn’t put on her cold face when he said that. He gripped her hand tight and laughed at terrible jokes through the rest of the performance.

They were lovers for eight months. But he sometimes disagreed with her, and sometimes loudly, and she had never known anyone to do that. It really started to fall apart when she told him that his old Japanese sedan was too stodgy and he needed to buy something new, with style.

“I’m loyal to this car,” he said. “Wouldn’t you want me to be that way with you?” But she didn’t get it.

After they split up, he tried several new hairdressers in succession. His hair never looked right.

One day a few years later, he met her on the street and she told him she was getting married to a simple, good, local man someone with a butch cut who wasn’t even her client. “That’s great, congratulations,” he said, and told her he had been married for a year to someone kind and honest and true, someone who didn’t play games with him.

“Well, come in for a cut sometime,” she laughed wide-eyed.

So once again he goes in every four weeks and has her cut his hair. It’s shorter now and less tangled, but she takes even longer than ever to give him a haircut because they have so much to talk about. Each month, it is the thing he looks forward to most. They can talk and laugh about everything under the sun except their eight months’ romance. He tried to wisecrack about it once and she froze up. Instead they talk about whether she should leave her boring simpleton husband or whether sex is important enough to keep her married.

He gives her solemn half-baked advice and rubs his good marriage in her face.

He would do anything for her, he thinks. But he’s pretty sure she would never ask. He likes it that they have become staid, predictable old friends.

That’s his version of it, anyway. If you asked her, she would give you an entirely different picture.

October 09, 2005

Photos from Valencia

Photos by Dan Ramirez.

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento at night, from the balcony of our hotel room. Note how discreetly the golden arches fit into the background: the red sign to the left of the traffic light.

Same view in daylight without the zoom.

We forget which church plaza this is -- there are so many of them. Probably in Valencia, but maybe another city. The banner on the wall commemorates a visit by John Paul II.

A meat shop with hanging hams and sausages, at the Mercado Central, which my guidebook calls "the city's true royal palace, Spain's largest and most beautiful market, a confection of iron and glass, topped with a parrot-and-swordfish weathervane."

Me at La Ciudad de las Artes y Las Ciencias, showplace for the work of architect Santiago Calatrava.

More Calatrava. Note the tiny workman standing on the side of the taller building.

A ceiling in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Valencia.

October 07, 2005

Placeholder Post

I'm in the process of getting more Spain pictures from Dan but we've run into a technical glitch. I hope to get some more good photos to you soon.

In the meantime, this is unofficially the first day of a new season here in Austin: the cool months. We turned the air conditioner off yesterday afternoon in anticipation of a cold front coming through, and by evening it was blustery and delightful. Right now it's 53 degrees and breezy. As the kids went outside on their way to school, they cried out, "Whoa! Frigid!" and acted as if they were being blown back by the wind.

I hope we don't need the AC again till April or May, but we probably will.

October 06, 2005

First Photos from Spain

Photos by Dan unless otherwise specified.

A view of Toledo from the tower of a church. Impossible to capture its grandeur in a snapshot.

Hard to imagine a more romantic roadsign, unless maybe it said "Dallas Fort Worth San Antonio El Paso." Photo by me.

A human statue. Throw him a euro and he'll draw. The greatest number of such statues are in Barcelona, but I have a vague memory that this guy was in Madrid.

Tourists examining Velazquez's "Las Meninas." The Prado, Madrid.

Dan at the Cafe de Oriente, our favorite hangout on the plaza of the royal palace: nice atmosphere indoors and out, surprisingly reasonable prices. Oddly, it has a branch in Washington DC. Photo by me.

Me sitting on the steps of El Call, the old Jewish quarter of Girona, a Catalunyan town on the Costa Brava, now an area of fashionable shops.

October 05, 2005

The Biggest Impending Catastrophe

Important people in Washington are finally becoming convinced of the seriousness of the avian flu pandemic which, in many scientists' view, is all but inevitable. According to this month's National Geographic (print edition), it could kill 180 million to 360 million people. The article says that the UK has already ordered enough antiviral Tamifu for one fourth of its population, and France almost as much, but the US has ordered only 2.3 million treatments -- enough for less than one percent of our population.

Read more at the special bird flu website of Nature magazine.

1. The broken link in the first paragraph has now been fixed.
2. Scientists have just announced that the 1918 influenza virus was a form of bird flu that jumped directly to humans. This "confirms the legitimacy of worries about the bird flu viruses that are now emerging in Asia," according to NYT.

October 04, 2005

A Law of Nature

If you are under stress and finding it hard to cope, you will develop car trouble.