Personal Pieces postsSunday April 21, 2013
Change You Can Count On
Here's a bureaucratic adventure from this morning.
Patricia and I visited her family on the peninsula this weekend and were fairly lucky with the WA state ferry to and from Bainbridge Island. We had to wait maybe 10 minutes on the way out and no minutes on the way back. This morning it was waiting at the dock for us like it was trained. Like it cared.
On ferry boat rides, Patricia tends to read magazines inside, in the front seats, while I, with a history of motion sickness, often stand on the prow of the boat and take in the Sound. Lately I've been switching up my routine, walking back and forth, up and down the steps, generally staying outside. I did this for half the trip.
Back inside I passed a “Seattle's Best Coffee” vending machine, which, on the way out, had been plastered with OUT OF ORDER signs. Not now. Maybe we were on the other ferry (the WENATCHEE rather than the TACOMA). Maybe it was fixed. Either way, I decided a cup of coffee sounded good right then. But the machine wouldn't accept my $5 bill. Didn't even whir at it. A sign flashed that it wasn't accepting credit cards, while another sign flashed something like “Insert Mug.” Was it out of cups? Were we supposed to bring our own mugs now? Like canvas bags at the grocery store?
Next to the coffee machine stood a change machine and I thought, “Maybe coins will work.” So in went my $5 bill. And out came four $1 gold coins and a fifth gold coin reading NO CASH VALUE.
What do you do? You look around. There's no one around. I tried a $1 gold coin in the Seattle's Best coffee machine. Spit it right out. Tried the NO CASH VALUE coin. Ditto.
You feel like a schmuck. You wonder: Is it worth it to try to get a buck back? Of course not. But you shrug and think, What the hell.
So I talked to the guy at the convenience store at the front of the ferry.
“Hey. I put a $5 bill in the change machine...?”
Dryly: “Those things work great, don't they?”
“Right. Four $1 coins and a coin that says NO CASH VALUE.”
“That's not us. Talk to the second mate. He can help you.”
“Around that corner. Right before the women's restroom. Dutch doors.”
I found him, explained.
“Yeah,” he said, “that's not us. But there's a number on the machine. Call that number and they can help you.”
It was a Sodexo coin machine, from Sodexo, Inc.: “World Leader in Quality of Daily Life Solutions.” The woman I spoke with asked for the CV number on the machine. For a second I wondered if they had the capability to remotely discharge another $1 coin from the machine. Nope. She took my name, phone number, address. I assumed they would mail me a buck. Nope again. They're mailing me a $1 check.
A $1 check? I have $50 checks I haven't cashed.
Anyway that was my ferryboat ride this morning. I wanted a cup of coffee and got no coffee, four $1 gold coins, a NO CASH VALUE coin, and a $1 check coming in the mail.
Fight the power.
My Pharmacy, My Insurance Co., and Me
Here's a story of modern inconvenience.
Eighteen months ago I was diagnosed with something called subacute thyroiditis, which, after a year, necessitated taking a thyroid supplement every day: levothyroxine sodium. Num.
My pharmacy parceled this out in 30-day supplies. After several months I asked, “Can't I just get this in a 90-day supply? So I don't have to come here all the time and bug you guys?” The prescription was in fact written for a 90-day supply but I was told my insurance company didn't allow it. I made a mental note to contact them. Or it.
It contacted me first: an old-fashioned letter in which I was admonished for going with three 30-day supplies instead of one 90-day supply, which it preferred. The letter included this warning:
If you fill another 30-day supply of your long-term medications without contacting us first, you will pay the full cost of your medications.
Ah, an old-fashioned showdown. But before calling the insurance company, I called the pharmacy to double-check my facts. Good thing. Apparently I'd misunderstood or been misinformed. The problem wasn't my insurance company; it was my pharmacy's supplier, United Drug. The pharmacy rep told me, “We're not contracted to do a 90-day supply [with United Drug].” She didn't really know the reason why. That's just the way it was.
So I called my insurance company to apprise them of the situation and ask if there were pharmacies in the area that were contracted for 90-day supplies. The rep I spoke with didn't really know. He was nice enough, though. As was everyone in this story. Even me.
Anyway, an annoying flake of modern life. My doctor, my pharmacy, and my insurance company all want me to have a 90-day supply of a drug to keep me healthy, but United Drug, a company I didn't even know existed until the other day, has, for reasons unknown, blocked our efforts. Here is its website. And this is what it says about itself on its website:
Our ambition is to be a dynamic, leading international healthcare services company, fostering enhanced patient outcomes through partnerships with healthcare manufacturers, government agencies, providers and payors
50 Birthday Cards
My first thought was, “Hey, I got a birthday card!”
It was Thursday evening and there was a stack of mail on the dining room table when I got home from work. The top-most was in the red envelope of greeting cards, hand addressed, so I picked it up to see who it was from. Then I saw a similar card behind it. Then another. And another. “What the hell?” I thought. I'd been expecting one, maybe two cards for my birthday. It was my 50th but I know people tend not to send cards much anymore. Me, either. You get e-cards and emails and birthday wishes on Facebook. But here, on one day, three days before my birthday, I'd gotten ... how many? Five? Ten? And three from my brother? What the fuck? What was he on?
It was when I noticed the numbers on the backs of the envelopes—11, 12, 14. 32, 33, 34—that the other shoe dropped.
“No,” I thought. “They're not sending me ... 50 cards ... for my 50th birthday ... are they?”
So cool. We were having a party Saturday night, and I was hoping to have a few birthday cards around as decoration: to let my friends know that, you know, I had friends.
I immediately suspected my sister Karen and called her up. They were in the basement watching “The Big Bang Theory,” Jordy's new favorite show, but she denied culpability. She knew about it certainly, she'd participated in it certainly, but she didn't organize it. So who did? My sister, who is an editor at the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, has always been a good reporter, in part, I think, because she keeps digging at people until they give her answers. She just doesn't accept no. And she may be good at this because she knows the power of secrets and the overwhelming desire to spill them. Which is to say she gave up the name in seconds: my friend Kristin, who runs a Waldorf school in south Minneapolis, loves crafts projects, and is generally a sweetheart.
The next day, when I got 20 more cards, I phoned her.
Me: So how long have you been planning this?
She (feigning innocence, poorly): Why do you think it was me?
It was such a great idea, I was curious if, a) she'd thought of it, and b) had done it before. Yes and yes. She came up with it last year for her friend Chrissy's 60th birthday. Chrissy lives by herself in Boston, she has all these people who love her, so what was a good way to let her know that? Out of such dilemmas, great ideas are born.
I love the numbers on the envelopes. When I was putting them together on Friday, I felt like I was a kid again collecting baseball cards. Ok, I have 3, 4 and 5, but I still need 1 and 2. Plus 50. Don't have that one yet. And dude I'm totally missing most of the 20s! Saturday I got 1, 2 and 50. I still needed about 12 more to complete the set. I opened more than half yesterday and put them on my desk for the party. Saved some for today. Which I'll open soon.
It is such a lovely idea, feel free to steal it. It makes getting the mail, for the time involved, a pleasure rather than a chore.
In the Shape I'm In
Among the 6400 items in my iTunes library are four birthday songs: The Beatles' song, first and foremost; “Happy Birthday, Lisa” from “The Simpsons” (and Michael Jackson); that Altered Images' song from the early 1980s, which I associate with a girl I had a crush on; and Loudon Wainwright's song “The Birthday Present,” from his album “The BBC Sessions.” The one I've listened to the most is the Loudon Wainwright song. No contest. I guess I'm the right age for it. I already wrote about it on this blog three years ago but it's worth repeating, particularly since today is the day. I've reached that ripe young age, that halfway point, when life surely begins. Here are some of the lyrics:
And I know that in nearly four years
I’ll be hitting 50
That ripe young age
That halfway point
When life really begins
But Saturday let’s celebrate
Neither the past nor future
But the present
Here I am
In the shape I’m in!
Love that last line.
Countdown to 50
Question: What's a good, smart answer to: “So how does it feel to be 50?” Since I'll most assuredly get asked that question. An answer that doesn't involve punching anyone. I usually miss.
ADDENDUM: Early front-runner: “A lot like 49. But rounder.”
Your faithful blogger, far left, in tennis sweater, age...7 (?), behind his best friend Mark (in tie), at the birthday party of lifelong friend Doug (center, with flag). It's our version of “50 Up.” Doug was born the day before me: January 19, 1963. Our mothers used to have to consult so our birthday parties didn't conflict.
How's Your New Year Going?
New Year's Day, morning, Patricia and I are moving a heavy mirror in the bedroom. She recently bought a new bed frame that we put together (with the help of our friend Vinny), but which necessitated moving the dresser, which necessitated moving the heavy mirror above the dresser. We were doing this when I slid my hand on the bottom of the mirror to get a better grip. And that's when I got the sliver. Deep sliver. It took about five minutes of wrangling with tweezers and pins and hydrogen peroxide to get it free and clear, and even then I thought we'd missed the brunt of it. Right near the wound I saw a thin blue line that looked like a sliver deep beneath the surface, and which reminded me of the sleek blue shadow of a shark beneath the surface of the water. I stared at it. I pressed on it. I compared it to veins in my hand. It looked like a vein. Surely it was just a vein. Or was it? (It was.) But I wasted half the day obsessing over it. That was my first day of the new year.
Yesterday afternoon, the second day of the New Year, I was returning to work with lunch, chicken coconut curry soup from Metropolitan Market in lower Queen Anne, when I felt something splat on top of my head. Things have landed on my head before, of course, but they invariably turn out to be water from a nearby air-conditioner, or some such, but this felt different. It felt wrong. I had napkins in my hand for the soup and I rubbed them on the back of my head ... and the napkins came away smeared with the yellow of bird shit. I spent the next 15 minutes cleaning up at work in the bathroom, then showered when I got home. The chicken curry soup for lunch didn't look or taste as good as it ought to. That was my second day of the new year.
A new year is an artificial construct, of course, which gives us the illusion of a new beginning. I enjoy that illusion—for a day or a week or two. Sometimes I look for signs in it. What will the new year bring? Will the first few days tell me what kind of year I will have?
Per the signs this year: I will be obsessed with the inconsequential; then I'll get shit on.
Today's the third day of the new year. Here I come, world.
HOMER: Sitting here and complaining isn't going to do anything. You got to pull up your diaper and be the best damn Barney you can be.
BARNEY: HERE I COME WORLD!!! (Runs outside and into trash can.)
My Weekend in iPhotos
After work Friday I walked from my office in lower Queen Anne to the new ferris wheel along the Seattle waterfront, envisioned by Hal Griffith, called “the Seattle Great Wheel,” and recently opened for business. Patricia wanted to ride on it for her birthday, which was over a month ago, but it took this long to get a Friday all her friends could attend.
On the way, I encountered more people than I'd anticipated. Lower Queen Anne, Belltown, the waterfront: they were everywhere. They were also ... how shall I say this? ... really stupid-looking. One woman in a bikini was topless. Most eyes were glazed. I assumed a concert was going on so I asked one of the passersby what the what. “Hempfest, dude,” I was told and he encouraged me to come along. It was a spirited crowd. But man did they look dumb. Not the best advertisement for their product. The Associated Press has a good article on the Hempfest crowds, some of whom, believe it or not, are against legalizing marijuana via I-502. I'm in favor of it—the crowds I encountered notwithstanding.
Finally I arrived. P was already there, with surreptitious margaritas, and we were soon joined by her brother and sister-in-law, Alex and Jayne, her brother Jack, his significant other, Tess, along with friends Laura, Paige, Vinny and Ward.
I was actually nervous about the Ferris Wheel. It goes way up and I'm kinda afraid of heights.
It turned out to be completely enclosed and incredibly smooth, and it was a beautiful night for a ride and a view. We had to split up—the max is eight to a compartment, and we had 10—and our group of five (Alex, Jayne, Patricia, Ward, me) enjoyed ourselves, although some thought that along with a HELP button (a red button on the top of the comparment) there should be some kind of ADULT BEVERAGE button. To better toast the city. And ourselves.
Ward and Patricia talking adult beverages.
Alex in his element.
The southern view: Smith Tower, stadia, Rainier, the Bainbridge ferry.
Then we went to Green Leaf in the ID for dinner—the place that is fast becoming my favorite restaurant in Seattle:
The next day, P, Alex, Jayne and I hiked Annette Lake. I did it last year and remember it being a breeze. This year was a little tougher. But it's been a tough year.
That night, my friend Tim and I took in a game at Safeco. The M's won their fourth in a row, 3-2, on a sac fly in the bottom of the ninth. Mid-game I bought some Ivar's fish-n-chips and a beer and realized that it cost the same as my portion of the fantastic meal at Green Leaf.
Sunday, as is the tradition, I rested.
How was your weekend?
AARP Card Minus One
I'm 49. I've run out of room. I'm bumping my head against it. But maybe these minstrels will soothe my jangled nerves.
All week long Seattle has been celebrating with an extra coat of frosting on the city. It's nice what they'll do to make a Minneapolis boy feel at home, but it is beginning to feel a bit like the relatives who overstay their welcome: Initial joy followed by fun followed by “Oh yeah, this” followed by “Really?” followed by “Seriously, dudes.”
Here's to joy and fun.
Seattle University, Sunday, January 15, 2012
Karl Show! (Starring Jason), with Special Guest ... Me
A friend of mine from bookstore days, Jason Lamb, hosts a radio show Friday nights in Portland called “Karl Show! (Starring Jason)”—great name—and Jason, and Karl, were nice enough to invite me on a few Fridays back to talk about movies, reviewing movies, specific movies (mostly “Tree of Life” and “Ides of March”), along with a few excursions into bookstore days. We also listened to music that I provided, including Steve Earle, Pearl Jam, Decemberists, Van Morrison and the Tropicals. (Somehow we never got around to Joe Henry. Bummer.)
The episode is now up on their site. Feel free to listen here.
There's talk about having me back at Oscar time, which would be fun.
The drawing below is one of the few images I have of Jason. It was done by our mutual friend Scott Tolson, who died in 2003. “Lucky Bastard Club,” I believe, was a book coming through the bookstore warehouse, which we unboxed for the store, or boxed to return to the publisher, and the title inspired Scott, who created his own club. Of us. I'm Lungs. Jason is Angry the Kid. Mr. B comments on the site frequently. Tea Time still hasn't been found.
Dreams: Don't Present at the Academy Awards with your Shirt Untucked
A dream last night. Freudians, start your engines.
I was in a conclave of tables off to the side at an awards ceremony—backstage yet onstage—and was about to announce one of the awards. Was Ben Stiller there somewhere? I wasn't thinking anything of the task, figured it would be a breeze, but when I stood up I had problems with the flap of my fly—it was turning out, exposing the metal teeth—and trying to fix it I wound up pulling out my tucked-in shirt, even as I was being pulled toward the stage. Introductory music was playing and I was walking with Patricia and my name was announced in grand fashion. It was the Academy Awards and I was walking onstage with my white dress shirt untucked and slightly wrinkled. Would that look cool? Wouldn't that look...disrespectful? Worse, I couldn't remember what award I was presenting. What was it again? And where were my glasses? I couldn't read the cue cards! I whispered all this to Patricia in a panic and she calmed me and said we would get through it, but the walk to the lectern seemed to take so long that by the time we arrived we felt we were behind. The music stopped and everyone waited and I glanced hurriedly over the lectern, which was electronic, flashing different kinds of data, including something in the upper right corner about ... was that the award?
“And now, the award for ... ” I stumbled. “...sexiest...”
“... new male lead,” Patricia finished.
There was silence. It seemed wrong, what I'd said, but I clutched onto the hope that it was right. Then a film clip started, an older woman being interviewed about a tragic event, possibly the Holocaust, and it was over and we were backstage and I'd been wrong, and I was trying to both justify myself and sort through the enormity of just how wrong I'd been.
Shitty But Not Illegal: Two Tales of Microsoft
This is a story about a missing $500.
It’s also a story filled with bureaucratic inefficiencies and general corporate horribleness. Meaning it’s a story for our time.
In the mid-2000s I wrote regularly for MSNBC-Movies—nearly 100 articles between 2004 and 2008—but that work was drying up by the summer of 2008 when the editor of MSN-Movies, Dave M., with whom I’d made tangential contact, invited me to the Microsoft campus for a big meeting with writers from around the country. MSN was revamping its movies site and he wanted me to be part of it.
A few days later, I pitched an idea to him called “The Smart Knight”: How the movie “The Dark Knight,” which I’d seen at an advanced screening, was avoiding the traditional traps of the Batman character (lawman; bat signal) and thus staving off the character’s inevitable decline into camp. Dave liked the pitch and gave the go-ahead; I wrote the piece and sent it to him the day before the film opened. It was posted to MSN.com the following Monday.
Now they had to pay me, $500, and since I was not yet in their system Dave began the work to make it so. He contacted Julie D., a human resources contractor, to help with a Statement of Work, or SOW, which all vendors need to sign. Julie then asked for my vendor number from MSNBC. I gave it to her. It didn’t work.
“It seems that you are set up as a vendor for MSNBC only under company code 8000,” she wrote. “I have contacted legal to see if I can just have that transferred to Microsoft’s company code of 1010. If we can do that, then it should be an easy process—possibly a signature needed from you. If not, then I have to go through the whole vendor set up process which can take awhile.”
It took a while. Two months later, in mid-September, I contacted Julie to see where we were in this process.
“Julie is gone,” Dave wrote back. “Adding Shirley.”
“Have you invoiced?” he asked Shirley H., the new HR contractor.
“Invoiced who and how and where?” Shirley answered.
It turned out, of course, that I would have to be set up as a vendor, but Dave promised it would be painless. Then he passed me on to a group called ProHelp, which, true to groups with the word “help” in their name, wasn’t much help.
Dave to ProHelp: I entered Erik into the Vendor tool three days ago. What is the hold up?
ProHelp to Dave: Please provide the NVJ number assigned when you entered them into the vendor tool. We will then research further to determine the status of the request.
Days became weeks. I contacted Dave again about the delay.
“What’s your phone number?” he wrote back. “Need it and the SOW will be done and ready to process.”
Finally I was welcomed into the MSN family with this email:
- New Vendor Request Number NVJ1010109302 has been approved and has been sent to the candidate vendor.
- Sponsor/Requester, please follow up with the vendor for completing the application.
- Welcome: Erik Lundegaard
Attempting to input the NVJ number into the online form, however, led to this message: “The request number is invalid.”
“You need to fill out the application,” Dave told me. Meaning the two contracts they’d sent along: the SOW, which was shortish, and the general contract, which was more than 10 pages.
It was now October 3. I had already put more time into getting paid for the “Dark Knight” piece than I had in writing the “Dark Knight” piece. But at least we were nearly done.
Until I read the general contract. It included the following section. Feel free to skip. The basic gist is that in the future I couldn’t write anything about Microsoft that wasn’t already public knowledge:
Confidential Information. Confidential Information includes without limitation the following in any form: (a) the terms and conditions of the Agreement and each SOW, (b) Microsoft products, services, and their marketing or promotion, (c) Microsoft business policies and practices, (d) Microsoft customer and supplier lists, (e) information received from third parties that Microsoft is obligated to treat as confidential, (f) personal identification information, (g) transactional or sales information, and (h) intellectual property created by or on behalf of Contractor in connection with performing Work. Confidential Information does not include information or items, however designated, that: (i) are or become publicly available without Contractor's breach of an obligation owed to Microsoft; or (ii) are known or become known to Contractor from a source other than Microsoft, other than by a breach of a confidentiality obligation owed to Microsoft.
“I can’t sign this,” I wrote to Dave. “I'm writing a piece for The Believer magazine about testing Xbox at Microsoft, and signing the contract, as written, would prevent me from doing so. Any way to make the contract specific to MSN rather than Microsoft?”
Dave turned the question over to Shirley, who turned it back to me: “Erik … do you have a vendor number with your work for Xbox? If not, how are you doing work for them?”
I told her I’d done the work as a contractor from 1999 to 2003.
She seemed to understand: “Ahhh ok.”
Then she didn’t. “So Can you follow the steps on the previous e-mail I sent you? You said you had filled it out once but doesn’t appear it was received by the vendor set up folks. Do you know if someone else is trying to set you up as a vendor?”
She thought it was another procedural problem. But we were past procedural and into contractual.
After that, silence. Microsoft does not write specific contracts for someone like me. Microsoft does not negotiate with someone like me.
In November Dave M. moved on, replaced by Dave S., and by January we were no further in the process. I assumed I would never write for MSN again. But could I at least get paid for the “Dark Knight” piece?
I contacted Dave S. It took a while to get him up-to-speed, at which point he wrote: “I’m not sure if it’s better to just start over or not.”
He added this mea culpa: “Sorry for the delay in getting you paid,” he wrote. “This is truly unacceptable.”
And that was the last I heard from anyone at Microsoft.
* * *
Since then, as things have only gotten worse for freelance writers and the economy, and as I’ve seen acquaintances from that MSN meeting in the summer of 2008 gain national attention, I’ve often wondered if I made the right decision in not signing that general contract. The choice was certainly stark: write for Microsoft but never about Microsoft; or occasionally write about Microsoft but never for Microsoft. I chose the latter, which was more freeing but less lucrative. And lucre comes in handy.
I’m writing all this now because my domestic partner, Patricia, after more than 10 years at Microsoft, was fired last month. She worked hard for that company. She left early in the morning and came home late at night. She lost weekends. In July, I visited family in Minnesota but she couldn’t come; she had too much work. In August, we went camping on San Juan Island and every day I had to drive her into Friday Harbor so she could plug in and move projects forward. The Sunday before she was fired, while I went hiking in the Cascades, she worked all day on yet another project.
The reason she was fired? “Not meeting minimum performance standards.”
We saw a lawyer, of course, but he told us there wasn’t a case. The whole thing boiled down to a she said/she said, a two-year conflict with her boss. For two years, this boss had been awful to her but there was nothing discriminatory about her awfulness. She’d been awful to other employees, too, over the years, employees who were fired or who quit, but none of it was specific to gender, or race, or age. She was just awful generally.
“It’s shitty,” the lawyer told us, “but it’s not illegal.”
The firing occurred during Patricia’s annual meeting, after which Patricia was escorted to the HR office and from the building. She was not allowed to go back to her office to collect her belongings. There was no severance package and she was warned against showing prospective employers the work she’d done at Microsoft for 10 years. The work was theirs, not hers, and couldn’t be shown as something she’d created even though she created it. She was warned not to contact anyone at Microsoft but the HR rep.
Colleagues and co-workers flooded her with emails. “I’m flabbergasted...” one said. “You are very, very special, with enormous talent and such a completely cool-to-be-around personality that it will be MSL’s loss and somebody else’s gain,” another said.
The day after seeing the lawyer, Patricia’s belongings arrived from the Microsoft campus in four boxes, and, with a heavy heart, she sat on the living room floor and went through them. One of the first things she removed was her 10-year anniversary gift from Microsoft. She’d received it la few months before but had yet to open it. She did so now, and held up a heavy, green, crystal obelisk. A thick card, green and white, with an embossed “10” on the front, went with it, and inside were these words:
On your tenth anniversary, we would like to thank you for your incredible commitment to Microsoft. As a company, we are only as great as the individuals who work here. Fortunately, we have some of the very best employees anywhere. People like you. Thanks for all of your efforts over the past ten years.
To your continued success,
I’m glad I didn’t sign that general contract with Microsoft back in 2008. I didn’t get my $500. But now I can write whatever the fuck I want to about them.
The Steve Jobs Speech; the Kurt Vonnegut Lesson
Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford University spread pretty fast around the Internet yesterday—the day after his death. My friend Jim posted it to Facebook in the morning, I put it on this blog shortly thereafter, beating Andrew Sullivan to the punch by a few hours. Wil Wheaton blogged about the same portion of the speech I did. Other friends on Facebook posted their favorite moments. Good for them. It's a worthy speech.
Jobs talks about dropping out of college and following his dream. Among the things he says is this:
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.
He also says this:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Words of wisdom. At the same time, I felt slightly guilty hearing them. I certainly like doing what I'm doing—writing and editing what I write and edit—but it's not necessarily what I'd be doing if it were the last day of my life. So, listening to Jobs' speech yesterday morning, some part of me thought, “I wish I hadn't settled. I wish I'd been like Steve Jobs and followed my dream so that I could love what I did.”
It took a few hours before the other shoe dropped: “Wait a minute. I did follow my dream. I just failed at it.”
I wanted to be a writer of fiction. In the early 1990s I quit grad school and got a job at a Seattle bookstore, first as a cashier then in its warehouse, and did this for several years to support myself, while, with what free time I had, I wrote short stories, novellas, attempts at novels. None of it ever panned out. I could line the walls of my office with the rejection notices I received. Most were form rejections, but every once in a while I'd get an encouraging, personal rejection notice—once even from The New Yorker—saying that while the story I'd sent was good, it didn't fit in with their current plans, etc., etc., but please send something else. But the subsequent stories were never good enough, either. For a time, I even considered writing a story called “Something Else.” You wanted something else? Here it is.
So I failed. I think I failed for several reasons. One, my goals were high. Two, my talent was limited. And three, I was attempting to prosper in a dying industry.
By the early 1990s, few general interest magazines published short stories. There were certainly literary quarterlies everywhere, associated with universities, but the stuff I wrote was a bit too general, or silly, or straightfoward for this crowd. I wasn't doing anything new with language or form. I was just telling my stories with my minimal talent.
In 1999, several years after I stopped writing fiction (without really realizing it), I head the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Vonnegut for The Seattle Times. Vonnegut had just released “Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction,” his short stories from the late 1940s and '50s, and we talked about his early literary career. In a foreword to “Bagombo,” he writes about TV killing the short story culture that allowed him to flourish and become the novelist he became, and I asked whether he had foreseen this. This was his answer:
You saw TV coming in almost like a stormfront. Suddenly everyone was buying TVs, and the entertainment was on quite a high level, too. TV was a much better buy for advertisers than the magazines. The magazines had been very rich at one time, because they were the way to get ads inside a person's front door.
[But] what TV does, which we ink-and-paper people could never do, is give people artificial friends and relatives. Right inside the house. ... Peter Jennings really is a relative, and a charming one. Please come into my home any time, Peter.
The culture I needed to flourish, in other words, died before I was even born.
I mention all of this in case anyone else felt guilty listening to Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address. Steve Jobs didn't settle. He did what he loved. Every morning in the mirror he asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And he usually answered “Yes.”
Steve Jobs was talented, and tough, and he took the road less traveled. But he was also very, very lucky. The thing he loved to do was just beginning.
The Shot Heard 'Round the World ... Except in New York
Sixty years ago today, in the third game of a best-of-three playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Giants, who had been 13 games out of first place in August but came storming back in September to tie the Giants on the last day of the season, were down 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth when Alvin Dark singled off starter Don Newcombe. Then Don Mueller singled. Monte Irvin fouled out but Whitey Lockman doubled to score Dark, send Mueller to third, and put the tying run, himself, in scoring position. A well-placed single would now tie the game. Which is when Brooklyn manager X called for reliever Ralph Branca to face Bobby Thomson, who was, by modern stats (OPS: .948), the best hitter for the Giants that year. Branca threw two pitches. The first was a strike on the inside corner. The second was the shot heard 'round the world:
That's Russ Hodges' voice. I have a clip of it, from the Ken Burns' “Baseball” soundtrack, and I used to include it at the end of mixed tapes I made for friends, even if they weren't baseball fans. There was just such joy in his voice. I wanted to share it.
I first remember hearing about the Thomson homerun when I was 10. It was the summer of 1973, and as part of our almost annual trip from Minneapolis to the east coast—to visit friends in New Jersey, dad's parents in Philadelphia, Mom's mom in Finksburg, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Del., for fun—we spent a few days at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Was it a way for Dad to extend his vacation? Because it was work. He was writing a feature on Ken Smith, the director of the Hall of Fame, for the The Minneapolis Tribune. I believe we even stayed in Ken Smith's house.
From Ken Smith, my older brother Chris and I got a transcript of Abbott and Costello's “Who's on First?,” which we then memorized and performed (me as Abbott, he as Costello) for several years thereafter. I still remember most of the dialogue.
My father got a great anecdote, which went something like this. Ken Smith was at the Thomson game as a sports reporter, but he had to leave early to visit someone in the hospital. Was it his wife? Was she having a baby? As he rushed to get there, as he rushed inside, he asked passersby, New Yorkers all, about the game. And everyone had the same answer: The Dodgers won. None of the people he asked knew the true outcome of the game. Thus the so-called “shot heard 'round the world” wasn't even heard in the city where it took place.
That anecdote might be hard to believe; but it's a lot less hard to believe than Bobby Thomson's actual homerun. We'll give it a pass.
My Weekend in iPhone Photos
September 11th: Ten Years with Erik Lundegaard
All this month, the New Yorker has been asking the following 9/11-related questions of its writers and editors. I thought I'd give it a go.
Notes on Washington and the world
9/11: TEN YEARS
For the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we asked New Yorker contributors to look back on how their work, and their lives, were changed. Here are Erik Lundegaard’s answers.
1. What were you thinking about, or working on, the day the attacks occurred?
I was visiting my sister in Detroit, thinking about the Tigers game we were going to that evening and my upcoming planetrip home to Seattle the next day, while reading Mitch Albom in The Detroit Free-Press in the breakfast nook of my sister's house. Then my brother-in-law, Eric, who had just left for work, stuck his head back in the door. “You might want to turn on CNN,” he said. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”
2. Did 9/11 change your work plans?
At the time I worked at Microsoft, Xbox, “NFL Fever,” and 9/11 didn't change anything there. We were worried about sev 1 bugs not al Qaeda. But we did get security badges and parking passes. The folks at Microsoft were suddenly serious about security. For a few years anyway. Then not. You still see those parking passes on the rearview mirrors of cars all over Seattle: That person works at Microsoft, so does that one, so does that one ... They're like tags; there's nothing secure about them at all.
3. Are there places you’ve gone, or people you’ve met, that you wouldn’t have if not for 9/11? Are you different than you might have been?
I stayed in Detroit a few days longer than scheduled but otherwise “no” to the first question. “Of course” to the second question. I became disappointed in my country more than I would have otherwise. I've thought about issues of freedom vs. security more than I would have otherwise. A few years ago, I interviewed a San Francisco civil rights lawyer, Robert Rubin, and when I brought up the freedom vs. security issue he said the following, which has always stayed with me: “You see these studies saying people are ready to sacrifice personal liberties for security. It’s a false dichotomy. ‘Sure, I’ll trade your personal liberties for my security.’ No, are you willing to give up your rights? ‘His rights. I’ll give up his rights.’”
4. Is New York a different city for you now?
I have deeper feelings for it. Still hate the Yankees, though.
5. Is there one image or scene that evokes that day for you?
The plane striking the second tower. Over and over again.
6. What piece of work to emerge from 9/11 has stayed with you the most?
I recently read Lawrence Wright's “The Looming Tower,” which is deep and necessary history. I thought Paul Greengrass's “United 93” the best movie of 2006. But I'd have to go with “Man on Wire,” the 2008 documentary about Philippe Petit, the French funambule, and his high-wire act across the World Trade towers in 1974, which probably wouldn't have been made without 9/11. That's stayed with me. The doc and the image from the poster. The bravery and artistry in that act and that image. The celebration.
My Long and Winding Road to a Piece of “Twin Peaks” Cherry Pie
In 1990, I watched most of the first season of David Lynch's “Twin Peaks” at my father's house in Minneapolis, caught the second-to-last episode at my sister's place in Seattle, and saw the final episode of the first season about a month later, in Taipei, Taiwan, when my father (finally!) shipped it to me. You could say I was hooked.
Initially I assumed its locale was Michigan: all those Douglas firs and proximity to Canada, I suppose. Turned out it was Washington state, where I moved in 1991. For a time I worked at the University Book Store, where the diary for Laura Palmer had been bought by someone on Lynch's production team, and every so often I visited North Bend, the true locale for the show, for a hike up Mt. Si. But I never went into Twede's Cafe, formerly the Mar T Cafe, home of cherry pie and that damn fine cup of coffee. Hey, is that how the whole coffee thing began? Does Howard Schultz owe his fortune to David Lynch and Special Agent Dale Cooper?
Haven't really thought about the show much since, to be honest, but Sunday I drove out of Seattle early to hike up Bare Mountain, whose trailhead is approximately 24 miles north of North Bend, mostly on dirt roads. The hike turned out to be a bust. In the first hour I had to climb over five trees that had fallen on the trail, each one an omen; then the trail became so overrun with vegetation, six or seven feet high, that I practically needed a machete to keep going. I fought my way through one patch, then another, weeds scraping my shins and drawing blood; but when the third patch appeared, and I couldn't for the life of me see where the trail might finally rise above the tree line, I feared I was on the wrong path and backtracked, then wound up backtracking all the way to the trailhead. So instead of summiting on a sky-blue day, I had a two-hour walk in the woods and weeds. Not that there weren't rewards:
Driving back over the dirt road, I decided, in order to salvage some part of the day, to finally stop at the Mar T, now Twede's, to check it out.
It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the restaurant. One o'clock on a Sunday but the place was bustling. A few booths were open but I opted for the counter, then opted for a burger and fries. So far that day I'd only had coffee and sweet things (trail mix, etc.), so coffee and cherry pie didn't appeal. As I was eating, I did something Dale Cooper couldn't do back in 1990: I checked my email on my smartphone and found a back-and-forth between Patricia and our neighbor Ward about an outdoor dinner party we were all attending that evening in downtown Seattle. Ward talked about picking up the ingredients for a peach pie; Patricia suggested she and I get bread or cheese on the way. To me, an alternative immediately suggested itself:
Two birds. We wouldn't arrive empty-handed and I could finally have my “Twin Peaks” cherry pie after all these years.
Patricia was initially against the idea. Ward was baking a pie, she said, so it seemed gauche, or at least territorial, to bring a pie of our own. Ward overruled her. “You can never have too much pie,” he wrote.
The dinner party overlooked Puget Sound. Drinks and food flowed. The sun set over the Sound.
But as the sun faded, so did Patricia. She'd just had arthroscopic surgery and was still in the recovery phase. In fact, the dinner party was her first night out. So we left. Before the pie. Which we left behind.
The next morning after the usual chores and ablutions—feeding Jellybean, showering, making coffee—Jellybean, now fed and sassy, was meowing by the door. We live in a condo but she still meows by the door to be let out into the hallway, which she thinks is hers. It's part of her morning ritual. And just try to stop a cat from her morning ritual.
When I opened the door, I noticed something on the floor: A white cardboard box. Jellybean began sniffing at it. I lifted it up and, yep, there it was, three-quarters of the Twede's Cafe cherry pie, which Ward, my hero, had brought back for us.
So after more than 20 years, I finally had my slice of damn fine cherry pie. And it was.
Now if I could only get me some of that grapefuit—freshly squeezed.
Captain America: From Hitler Puncher to Commie Smasher to Man Without a Country
If you'd asked me in 1974, when I was 11 years old and a year into my serious Marvel-Comics-collecting phase, for the names of my two favorite superheroes, I would've immediately given you Spider-Man; then after some thought, after mentally sorting through Superman and Batman (the only DC heroes worth a damn), and the Hulk, the Thing, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, I would've added, “Captain America.”
Spider-Man is easy to figure. A teenager who feels sorry for himself but has the proportional strength of a spider. Identification and wish-fulfillment in the same package.
But Captain America? He was tall, blonde and strong-jawed. He was draped in the flag when there was no cache to being draped in the flag. He looked like a young adult but was actually older than my father.
Wish fulfillment, sure, but why did I identify?
Drawing taken from Captain America #1, March 1941
Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in March 1941, for what was then Timely Comics, and on the cover of the first issue he's seen decking Adolph Hitler—meaning Captain America was fighting the Nazis eight months before America was fighting the Nazis. He was soon joined not only by the rest of us but by many superpatriotic superheroes: The American Eagle, The American Crusader, Minute-Man: the One-Man Army, Major Victory, Man of War, Uncle Sam, U.S. Jones, The Shield, The Defender, The Flag, Super-American, and V-Man, as well as a character named Yankee Doodle Jones, an artificial man, who, in one of the more gruesome origins ever, was created from the body parts of crippled World War I veterans. Then he was injected with a super serum.
This last bit was Captain America's origin, too: scrawny kid, tries to enlist, 4-F, but volunteers to be injected with a super serum from a Professor “Reinstein.” The kid is to be the first of a super army. But the Gestapo shoots Reinstein, his formula dies with him, and we're left with Steve Rogers and the legend of Captain America.
Scan the covers of those early, World War II-era comics and they are, albeit with greater Kirbyesque attention to the energetic motion of the human body, typical of the period: carryovers from the lurid pulps, with damsels or young boys (Bucky Barnes) tied up and imperiled, and our hero decking yet another round of sinister Krauts or buck-toothed Japs or various yellow or green grisly monsters and henchmen. My favorite imperilment may be on the cover of Captain America #9, in which a Mephisto-like creature is painting himself in the act of strangling Bucky Barnes. Jack Kirby's wish fulfillment?
Most of the superpatriots either didn't survive or barely survived the war, and Cap was no exception. Captain America #42 was the first issue where Cap is fighting civilians on the cover—bank robbers rather than Nazi or Jap soldiers—and several issues on you can sense the desperation. Cap's dynamic silent covers suddenly became very wordy. A Clark Kent-like private life for Steve Rogers was created. Women went from being imperiled to being the peril. For a time, as horror comics took over the medium, the magazine was retitled “Captain America's WEIRD TALES.” At the height of McCarthyism, the magazine was retitled “Captain America COMMIE SMASHER!” None of it worked. Captain America #78 was the last issue.
Captain America covers, 1942-1954: the struggle for survival.
In 1974, I knew none of this history. I merely knew the story Stan Lee created in resurrecting Cap in Avengers #4: How, at the end of the war, as he's fighting Baron Zemo with Bucky, the two climb aboard a missile in flight to redirect it. But Bucky stays on too long and gets blown up, while Cap, screaming “Nooooooo!,” falls in the ocean, is encased in ice, and is thus preserved, World War II-era ready, when the Avengers find him in 1963.
In a way Cap never gets over losing Bucky. He never gets over his lost 19 years. He remains, in the Marvel comics parlance of the time, trapped in a world he never made!
That was part of the appeal for me. In 1974 my parents were already separated and in the midst of a divorce, and I felt trapped in a world I never made. I felt I had lost something, as Cap had lost Bucky, as Spider-Man had lost his Uncle Ben, and I identified with their respective losses.
The storylines in Captain America were also fascinating. I began collecting Cap with #169, which was the first issue of an six-issue arc in which Cap battles a group called “The Secret Empire,” who first besmirch Cap's name via television propaganda (anticipating FOX-News by 25 years), then frame him for murder. But Cap and the Falcon (now with wings!) infiltrate the organization and stop it literally on the White House lawn. 1974 was a very political year and Marvel, to its credit, didn't run from it. They embraced it. Inside the White House, Cap unmasks the Empire ringleader, a man with “high political office,” whose power was “still too constrained by legalities,” who subsequently kills himself. An issue later, in the exact month Nixon resigned the presidency, Steve Rogers, fed up with what his country had become, resigns being Captain America. A few issues later, with the help of Hawkeye, Steve Rogers becomes Nomad, man without a country. That arc lasted for about a year.
My favorite Captain America storyline, though, was one I discovered via back issues at Schinders, a magazine store on 7th and Hennepin in the then-grungy part of downtown Minneapolis. Captain America #s 154-156 would now be called a ret-con storyline: “retroactive continuity.”
Fans, you see, delving into the history, had begun to wonder how Captain America could have been frozen in a block of ice during the 1950s when there were in fact real issues, “Commie Smasher” issues, being created in our world. This was Marvel's solution. Scripter Steve Engelhart and artist Sal Buscema created a second Captain America and Bucky, both injected with the super serum, who became America's McCarthy-era heroes. The original serum, though, included “vita-rays,” which weakened, slightly, the serum but preserved the subject's sanity. McCarthy-era Cap wasn't so lucky, and, like the worst part of his country during that decade, he became an intolerant, racist superpatriot, a commie smasher who, after Nixon opened China in '72, is resurrected by another commie-hater within the State Department. 1950s-era Cap then goes after 1970s-era Cap, whom he doesn't know is the original until it's too late.
Our Cap, the sensitive 1970s Cap, beats the fascistic 1950s Cap in a battle in Miami. But check out the last panels (taken from the original comic book). He wins but he sees himself in the loser. The victory doesn't make him feel good:
Here, meanwhile, are similar last panels from the Secret Empire storyline:
Admittedly Captain America is a cool superhero. He's got a cool name. He's got a shield that, like a bullet-proof frisbee, always returns to him. He rides a motorcycle. Plus he's a tortured soul in the Mighty Marvel Manner. He's suffered a great loss. He has an original sin. He's stuck in a world he never made.
In his post-1963 incarncation, he's also never been a superpatriot. The opposite. He has nothing but doubts about his country. Representing America, he is forced to question it all the more.
But I think the above panels demonstrate Captain America's real appeal to my 11-year-old self. After his incredible victories, against incredible odds, using his incredible muscles, he resembles no one so much as me dragging myself back to my room to mope.
“And Off to the Right? A Massive Thunderstorm Bearing Down on Us”
Has this ever happened to you? My flight home from Minneapolis Sunday night was supposed to leave at 9:35 but departed 15 minutes early to avoid thunderstorms. All well and good. Full flight, so I assume everyone was on board. But in the air—20,000 feet? 25,000 feet?—we saw the thunderstorms off to the right, which I assume was north, since we were heading west, but may have been west and we were heading south to avoid them. Either way, it was quite the show. We didn't hear much thunder over the drone of the airplane but we saw the flashes of lightning every few seconds and saw the actual bolts of lightning zinging down. Went on for 10 minutes.
That was a long, freakin' 10 minutes.
I was already semi-paranoid about the flight, too. In the Humphrey terminal bar—you know the one: there's only one—I struck up a conversation with a Brit, Matt Chapman, on his way to LA to making a living, or to improve his chances of making a living, as a freelance movie writer. He writes regular features for DVDreview.com.uk. We had a good time talking celebrity interviews (he's done many, me a handful), blasting “Green Lantern,” and talking up DVD commentaries. I asked him for his favorite DVD commentary but his answer has already slipped my mind. Apologies. (Matt, if you read this, please add it below.) Mine is still Craig Wright's commentary from the episodes he wrote for “Six Feet Under.”
As airport bar conversations go, it was pretty decent. In the middle of it, though, something was said, or thought, that led to a pretty strong deja vu moment for me. It was as if I flashed back to a dream I'd had years earlier—a dream that ended with me about to die in an airplane crash. Now, I felt, I'd reached that point in time. I tried to shake the feeling but couldn't but refused to allow it to change my course. Then, at 20,000 feet, the whole thunderstorm lightshow began.
Do you pray on planes? My airplane prayers tend to consist of entreaties to God to look out for various loved ones I'll leave behind. For some reason, it calms me down. Not until now, not until writing this, did I realize the mild threat implicit in these prayers: Really? You're gonna take me? OK, then this is who You have to look out for ... Maybe secretly I'm hoping God thinks, “Oh, man. Seems like a lot of work. OK, I'll let him live ...”
In the end, of course, we passed by the thunderstorm not only safe but with hardly a bump, and life, in all its pettiness, picked up anew.
The lightning-bolt-striking-Air-Force-One scene from “Superman: The Movie” that I kept flashing to during those 10 long minutes of our thunderstorm lightshow.
A Walk Through the Old Neighborhood in South Minneapolis
It’s muggy. Seven in the morning and already muggy. Last night, leaving the Humphrey Terminal at 10:30, the air felt soft, but now it’s too soft. Muggy. Mugg-ee. Even the word sticks together.
I feel like a giant here. That’s the way, isn’t it? The cliché? Return to the place where you grew up and everything seems small. Except it feels smaller than it did a year ago when I was 47. The distance between Dad’s garage and the end of the alley is supposed to seem longer and longer, as I get feebler and feebler, but now I feel like a giant bestriding it. How did this alley ever wear me down? How many times, as a kid, did I slink home? Weighed down. By what? What weighs down a kid again? I couldn’t ride a bike. I wet the bed. My parents were fighting, then separating, then divorcing. There were bullies. The world was big and violent and strange and I was small and soft and strange.
Ah, that spot between the two garages, that narrow spot with the slanted concrete wall, where Mark Noel and I—eight years old? nine?—ran and hid with the cigarette pack. My parents had a cocktail party the night before, and in the morning light the living and dining rooms, scattered with remnants of grown-ups—martini glasses and wine glasses and napkins smeared with lipstick—seemed stiller than usual. Mark and I walked through it carefully, reverentially. Then we spotted the cigarette pack on the mantle and whoosh! Why do I remember this moment out of all the other moments? Mark had no problem with the cigarette. He could do it. I took a puff and nearly vomited. Kept me away from cigarettes all those years.
They’ve kept the mailbox on the corner of 53rd and Dupont. When do they...? One p.m., weekdays and Saturdays. It feels like it’s from another era. A mailbox, out here where there’s little foot traffic, in the digital age. But I’m glad it’s here.
Take the creek? No. Muggy equals buggy. Those high-school cross-country practice runs along the creek, shirtless. The bugs, the no-see-ums, dying on contact with your sweaty body. You’d come home speckled in death.
Parkway is good. Man, look at these homes. When I was a kid they were just homes, other people’s homes, but now they seem ... like places I’d like to live: stucco and limestone and brown trim. Particularly compared to that clapboard crap they tossed up in Seattle.
Don’t really know this side of the parkway well. I always took the other side, the Friendlys’ side. This was the Premacks’ side. Where does this lead again? Right. Nicollet Bridge. Why that big embossed “T” on the column at the front of the bridge? Is it a “T”? Nicollet. Where’s the “T”? A reminder to pronounce the “T”? Effin’ Minneapolis.
Look down there. The wide, clean pathways next to the creek, amid the green grass and green trees, for bikes and pedestrians. A kiddie-land for adults. Minneapolis used to seem large and sharp-edged and now it seems small and carefully cultivated. That thought from “Eli, the Fanatic.” Have children ever been so safe in their beds? Parents so full in their stomachs? Never in Rome, never in Greece. Here was peace and safety—what civilization had been working toward for centuries. Minneapolis.
Keep going down Nicollet or through Tangletown? Tangletown. Let’s get off the grid, man. Let's get off the grid plan. “The Cruise.”
Wow, these homes are even nicer. Holy crap, that one’s got a gate and a drive-up entrance. Did I know this back then? Why didn’t I go into Tangletown more often? I guess my friends were elsewhere, and by the time I hit high school, Washburn, I found the lack of right angles confusing. My streets made sense: 54th led to 53rd led to 52nd; Aldrich led to Bryant let to Colfax led to Dupont led to Emerson and all the way to Zenith. Too much sense, probably. I expected order from the world. I expected peace and safety. I was for the grid plan.
So does this come out at Ramsey? No, Washburn. Have I stepped back in that building since graduation 30 years ago? Don’t think so. Is my aversion because of what happened there or what’s happened since? Because of who I was or who I am?
The rocks. We’d paint them the school colors, orange and blue, and other schools would paint them their school colors, then we’d paint ‘em back. They’d come in the middle of the night with their paint cans and paintbrushes and show us. It was supposed to matter. Your team vs. my team. What is my team now? Are those the original rocks? They look flatter. Didn’t I hear something about kids from another school actually stealing the rocks rather than merely painting them? Bad form. Would make it my team again.
Doug and I used to do our Spanish dialogue here on the way home. “Hola, Douglas.” “Hola Enrique, como estas?” “Muy bien, y tu?” “Oh, asi asi. Adonde vas?” “Voy a mi casa.” That’s as far as we got. We merely kidded around with being smart. We really wanted acceptance and girls. We kept our eyes off the prize.
Somehow that dirt strewn over the sidewalk feels so Minneapolis. Or is it dirt? Ick, ants. Hundreds crawling after a pop spill or something. So Minneapolis. We don’t get that in Seattle—that constant reminder of the life beneath. The creepy-crawly smallness of it all, swarming outside, invading your home. The reminder of what you’ll come to, the dirt to which you’ll return, and who rules it. What’s it like—that smallness? That subterranean living? How are ants part of the plan? No, no plan. There can’t be a plan, not with ants. No wonder Minneapolis stays carefully cultivated. Keeps the ants away. Keeps the bad thoughts away.
Should I try this Caribou place? Seems busy. Too busy. Keep walking. The Boulevard Theater, now an Anytime Fitness place. Effin’ Hollywood Video. They took it away and couldn’t maintain it. It should still be a theater. Could it be turned back into a theater if you had the money? That would be nice. A neighborhood theater again. Except you can’t go back again. We can go back, it can’t. Red Owl is Kowalski’s, Salk Drugs is Starbucks, Little General is a doctor’s office. Beek’s lives.
I need a better way to post when I'm away from home. Last week, in Minneapolis, I brought along my iPad with wireless keyboard for such a purpose and it kinda fell flat. It worked well with almost everything except this blog. Specifically it didn't recognize the window I normally write in as a window to write in. Plus there was no way to upload photos from the iPad. So still a few bugs in the system. A long way of saying some of the upcoming posts might have the flavor of last week. Apologies for that.
In the meantime, as St. George used to say, I'm back, baby.
From the Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis, the July 4th fireworks gave one the impression of being in a war zone. Speaking of: the museum is currently closed because of the state government shutdown.
Conversation with Jordy, My Nephew, Turning 10 on Thursday
Sunday night I gave my nephews, Jordy, 10 on July 7, and Ryan, 8 on July 4, a book I wrote for them: “Jordy and Ryan at the Superhero Museum.” I'd written them a picture book, in verse, three years ago in which they were superheroes, Soarin' Jordan and Flyin' Ryan, but this was, as the kids say, a chapter book. Jordy immediately began reading it. After the first chapter, which deals with me coming down into the basement, where Jordy is playing Wii and Ryan is playing with Legos, and the two get into a fight, and after much back-and-forth I introduce the idea that there might be a superhero museum we could go to if they were good, Jordy looked up at me.
Jordy: Uncle Erik, is this contemporary realism?
Me (startled, practically gagging): Do you know what that means?
Me: What does contemporary mean?
Jordy: Like... now?
Me: Good. So does the story seem like it's happening now? In this time period?
Me: And does it seem real?
Jordy: Yeah. Except for the superhero museum.
Me: Right. So maybe it's magic realism more than contemporary realism.
Jordy (nodding): Maybe.
Fifth grade next year.
My friend Kim Ricketts, an event coordinator and book planner and the last of the big-time readers, died last month at the age of 53. She’s one of three friends who died this year and I haven’t written about any of them. I’ve written about the deaths of movie stars and baseball stars but not friends. Feels wrong. But of course the death of those we don’t know, even when their deaths aren’t easy to take, are so much easier to take.
Kim was full of energy. I worked at the University Book Store in the late 1990s, in the warehouse, and suddenly she was there. She would corral me in the hallway, grab my arm, ask me about this, tell me about that.
“Who are you again?” I asked.
“The events coordinator.”
“I thought that was Whatsherface.”
“I’m the new one.”
She arrived, bursting with energy and ideas, which is always the wrong way to enter certain rooms, particularly certain Seattle rooms, where the clothes are casual and the people are buttoned up. She didn’t care. That’s how she arrived.
She made enemies fast. She came up with a million dollar idea and shared it with the dull folks at the top who weren’t in it for the books, who were just in it to be in it. They didn’t get her idea. Or they thought it a threat. They probably thought she was a threat. They were right.
Here’s the idea: Instead of forcing people to come to see an author at, say, a bookstore, why not bring the author to the people? At, say, Microsoft, or Starbucks, or Boeing, or whatever big corporation is in your city. You can see why the bookstore honchos hated the idea. Looked at in a narrow way, it rendered them irrelevant. When they didn’t bite, she left to implement the idea herself. It became Kim Ricketts Book Events. Within a few years, she was being written up in The New York Times.
Here’s my favorite memory of Kim. I'd already left the bookstore, she was still there, and I stopped by one evening to buy something when I noticed an author reading across the room. For ... oops! David Shields and his new book “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” which, the day before, in The Seattle Times, I'd panned. Badly. I immediately tried slinking away but Kim saw me and ran after me. When she caught up with me she kissed me on the lips. I nodded toward the event and half apologized for the review. She gave me that thick-as-thieves look. She said: “Honestly, somebody needed to say it.”
I saw her maybe a dozen times after that. She was always full of energy, always moving forward, always ready to introduce you to A, B or C (with “C” being Michael Lewis), always interested in what you were reading and doing and thinking—probably in that order. Whenever I left her, I’d think, “Now that’s the way to do it.”
It was 20 Years Ago Today...
...that I first landed in Seattle: May 22, 1991. Let's just say things didn't go as planned.
I stayed with friends of my sister's in the Ravenna neighborhood, hoofed it around town looking for work, got a job filling in for the friend of a friend at the Chukar Cherry Stand in Pike Place Market, then lost it when the owner of the Chukar Cherry Stand came around and wondered who the hell this guy was selling his product. Hoofed it some more. Keep gravitating to bookstores. Look, books. I know those! Bad idea. I was impressed by the lush landscaping around the city and depressed by the weather: 50s and overcast. By mid-June I wondered if this damned city ever warmed up.
Found a place to live with a couple of art students in a dilapidated house in the University district ($120 a month for a basement room), and a job at the University Book Store nearby. Bought a word processor and wrote and wrote and wrote: short stories, novellas, essays. The personal essays got published on the back pages of Seattle Weekly. The first was about looking for a place to live:
[Shared-housing folks] seemed to be looking for someone who was self-confident but not overtly so, someone who would be involved in the house but not take it over; a clean person but not anal; a funny person but not crude; a person without eccentricities who would tolerate theirs.
I tried to review books at the Weekly, too, but the books editor there, after several months of silence, turned me down. “Your aggressively captious voice,” she wrote, “while it suits your personal essays, would, I feel, overwhelm a book review.” I had to look up “captious”: Overly argumentative. For a book reviewer? My intro to that kind of Seattle disconnect. “If you can't say anything nice...” Why so few people in Seattle ever say anything.
One of my new roommates got a cat who got fleas all over my futon. I went from part-time to full-time at the bookstore. I bought and read Paris Review. I kept re-reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I kept writing. I kept pressing my nose to the glass.
Anyway, that was 20 years ago today.
Like this, but darker, colder, more crowded, and I was a dude rather than a chick.
Harmon Killebrew (1936-2011)
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
I first read that phrase in reference, not to Teddy Roosevelt and his vision of America at the turn of the last century, but to my childhood hero, Harmon Killebrew, the Minnesota Twins first/third baseman during the 1960s and '70s. It was the title of a chapter on him in the book Baseball Stars of 1967. So much of life is like that: We learn the allusion before the reference point. But even when I learned a bit of history, of Roosevelt and the Monroe Doctrine, even then “Speak softly and carry a big stick” reminded me more of Harmon Killebrew. It fit Harmon Killebrew better. America never really spoke softly. There was always something loutish about our country. But Harmon Killebrew? In baseball, no one spoke more softly. No one carried a bigger stick.
Growing up in mountainless Minnesota, he seemed like a mountain to me: big and powerful and silent and ever present. Back then every August we’d have “Camera Day” at Metropolitan Stadium, in which, before the game, fans would line the warning track and get their pictures taken with their favorite players, who moved slowly around the field, in uniform, carrying bats or gloves. I’ve got photos of myself with Tony Oliva and Rod Carew and Cesar Tovar and Leo Cardenas but not with Harmon Killebrew. Photos with Harmon weren’t allowed. The Twins organization felt there would be such demand, the promotion would bleed into gametime. Instead, he’d moved slowly around the field, alone, his face placid, and we’d watch him from a distance, the way we’d watch a mountain from a distance. Invariably during that game he’d hit a homerun. Or two homeruns? Memories are faulty but I remember that a lot. We’d go to the park, sit in the sun on the wood benches along the left field foul line, and Harmon Killebrew would hit two homeruns.
This was around 1969, the year the Twins won the first A.L. West division championship, the year Harmon Killebrew won his first and only MVP award. He led he league in homeruns (49), RBIs (140), walks (145), intentional walks (20), and On-Base Percentage (.427). It was the seventh time in his career he hit over 40 homeruns in a season. He would do it once more, in 1970.
He deserved that award. He probably deserved to win it earlier. In 1962, he led the league in homeruns, with 48 (no one else was even in the 40s), and RBIs with 126, but he came in third in the balloting to two Yankees: Mickey Mantle, who had better percentage numbers but 200 fewer at-bats and 18 fewer homeruns, and Bobby Richardson, who hit .300 but never walked and never had much power. Folks focused so much on batting average back then. Bill James hadn’t come along yet to correct matters.
How much was he overlooked by the national press? He retired fifth on the all-time homerun list with 573, with only Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and Robinson ahead of him, and it still took him four years to get into the Hall of Fame. I was in college by then, focused on other matters, but it still bugged me. He played way away in Minnesota, where we speak softly, and so the Baseball Writers Association of America gave him only 59.6% of their vote in 1981, then dropped him to 59.3% in 1982, but ratcheted up to 71.9% in 1983, the year Brooks Robinson, in his first year of eligibility, and Juan Marichal, in his third year of eligibility, made the cut. Harmon would have to wait another year. And even then he finished behind Luis Aparacio and his .653 OPS. Harmon’s was .884.
By the 1990s I was living with several other people in Seattle, and one day, in the room of my friend Mike, I watched an ESPN rebroadcast of the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit, which is memorable for the towering homerun Reggie Jackson hit off the transom in right field—one of the longest homeruns ever recorded for television. But the game turned out to be memorable for another reason. One after another, famous players, Hall of Fame players, hit homeruns: Johnny Bench in the 2nd, Hank Aaron in the 3rd, Reggie Jackson and Frank Robinson in the bottom of the 3rd. In the top of the 6th, Harmon entered the game, replacing Norm Cash at first base, and I was excited enough by that, happy enough to see that. Then in the bottom of the 6th, against Fergie Jenkins, Al Kaline led off with a single and Harmon came up and promptly hit a homerun to left. I went bananas. To Mike’s amusement, I began cheering as if the game were new, as if it weren’t 20+ years old. Roberto Clemente added another homerun in the 8th, and that was all the scoring, all on homeruns, all by six Hall-of-Fame players, including no.’s 1, 4, 5 and 6 on the then-all-time homerun list. Clemente’s homer went to center but all the others went to right, because the wind was blowing out to right. Only Harmon went deep to left, where the wind was blowing in. It felt like a piece of my childhood, watching that homerun. It always feels like a piece of my childhood when I see Harmon Killebrew swing.
Harmon died this morning, at the age of 74, of esophageal cancer.
A gentleman. You’re going to hear that word a lot in the next few days. In Bob Showers’ book, “The Twins at the Met,” that’s the word the other players use for him again and again:
Harmon was a gentleman, he was easygoing and he never lost his temper.
Harmon was the first guy to shake my hand when I joined the Twins. He exemplifies class. Although he never sought the leadership role, Harmon was the quiet leader of the ballclub. He is probably the most respected Hall of Famer in baseball.
You want Harmon to be the role model for your child, because that’s how special he is. Even today, he’s still the same Harmon Killebrew that I met for the first time in 1964. He hasn’t changed at all.
When you talk about class, Harmon has to be no. 1. He’s the nicest gentleman I’ve ever been around.
Harmon is so nice—he’s too nice to be a ballplayer.
My friend Jim Walsh provided a link to an old promo for the local Minnesota show “Kent Hrbek’s Outdoors,” in which Herbie went fishing with Killebrew; and Killebrew, to the camera, says something you don’t hear many people, let alone ballplayers, say. He says: “The reason we’re here on Earth is to love and help one another.”
Jim adds, “Turns out there is crying in baseball.”
My father, 79, gives tours at Target Field, and he says he already chokes up when talking about Harmon. He quotes Harmon’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech. As a kid, Harmon's mother complained that the boys were running around too much and ruining the grass. “We’re raising boys, not grass,” his father replied. That’s the line that gets my Dad. Now he worries how he’ll handle himself on upcoming tours. He hopes he doesn’t break down.
This is a sad month in a sad year for me. I attended a memorial in Minnesota in January, and two more this month in Seattle, all for friends who died too young. At some point you think you’re inured, particularly to the deaths of people you never knew personally, but that’s not that way. That’s not the way now anyway. This one still hurts.
Kent Hrbek, who provided his own Minnesota memories, was one in a long line of “Next Harmon Killebrews” the Minnesota Twins organization trotted out in the 1970s to try to make up for the void Harmon left behind. Craig “Mongo” Kusick was another. But the organization should have known. There is no next Harmon Killebrew.
Rest in peace, Harmon. Touch 'em all. And thank you.
On the wall during the Target Field tour.
My nephew Ryan, 7, goes deep next to the statue of Harmon Killebrew outside Target Field in downtown Minneapolis: May 2010.
My History of the U-S-A Chant: With a Benediction from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
I'm not much of a fan of chants. On the left we have this old chestnut: “What do we want? X! When do we want it? NOW!”
On the right there's “USA! USA!”
It didn't used to belong to the right. In the winter of 1980 it belonged to all of us, all of the new hockey fans around the country watching a team of college kids beat the best players in the world, a Soviet machine who had dominated everybody, including U.S. professionals. The Olympics were imbalanced back then, restricted, as they were, to amateurs, to non-professionals, when non-capitalist societies had nothing but. Their players were state-sponsored non-professionals, trained since infancy, drilled daily, while ours were college kids: Mike from Minneapolis and Mark from Madison and Mike again from Wintrop, Mass., and Neal from northern Minnesota. Guys. As in: Hey, why don't you guys get together and play some games?
I'd followed their run through the Winter Games peripherally but was assuming the worst when, flipping channels one Friday night (literally: hand on the knob, kids), I came across a newsbrief informing us that the U.S. hockey team had beaten the Russians. Immediately I flipped back to the Olympics, to the tape-delayed game, just in time to see Mark Johnson (from Madison) slide between two defenders and flip it in the goal with one second left in the first period to tie it, 2-2. Holy crap! We win this? I watched the rest of the game on tenterhooks even though I knew its outcome, then went out into the night pumped beyond belief. It was an odd sensation. I'd grown up in unpatriotic times, when patriotism was the last refuge of squares rather than scoundrels. I'd watched the country fall apart militarily (Vietnam), politically (Watergate), economically (OPEC, stagflation). We had gas lines and hostages. Now we had this. What was this? It felt good. USA! USA!
Four years later the chant was already the province of louts. In the interim “USA Today” had been published, full of its dull news and patriotic charts, and capitalizing on the acronym “USA” as much as possible. Then we heard it all the time during the '84 Summer Games in Los Angeles, which the Soviet bloc, responding to our boycott of the 1980 Summer games in Moscow, boycotted. So we weren't going up against the eastern bloc's professional non-professionals; we were going up against ... Trinidad and Tobago. We weren't underdogs anymore, we were overdogs, beating our chests and reveling in our expected triumphs. Why chant for that? You'd hear it on the campaign trail, too. Ronald Reagan would reference the Olympics and get the chant going. Eventually the chant became his. And theirs. It turned my stomach.
I thought Homer Simpson killed it in 1993. I really did. There was an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer and Marge, driving to a parent-teacher conference, argue over who gets Lisa's teacher (an easy gig) and who gets Bart's (trouble). Homer, who had Lisa's teacher the previous year, whines and wheedles his way into getting Lisa's teacher again, and when Marge finally capitulates he does this:
Brilliant, I thought. That's that. They'll never be able to use it again.
Wrong. Too many scoundrels in this country. Too many louts. Now we use it to cheer on death rather than college kids.
I don't know if there is a proper response to bin Laden's death. Mine is, as I wrote yesterday, muted. I'm glad he's gone, glad he was killed in the way he was killed, applaud the men who did it; but I assume someone somewhere will take his place.
I suppose the response closest to mine comes, ironically, from the website of David Frum, the right-wing originator of the phrase “Axis of Evil,” written by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a man of God 11 years my junior, in a piece entitled “Is it Wrong to Feel Joy at Bin Laden's Death?” Rabbi Herzfeld writes:
First there is recognition that even when our enemy falls, this does not signal an end to all our troubles. Just because one enemy or one army or one threat has been removed does not mean we are entirely safe.
Second, we must acknowledge that the destruction of the enemy did not necessarily arise from our own merits. We are perhaps not worthy of the good fortune that we have received and so we do not want to tempt God, as it were, or remind the Angel of Death of our own defects.
At the same time, I can't admonish those who have the impulse to chant “USA! USA!” for the death of the man who perpetrated this. Herzfeld again:
The Talmud tells us that “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.” As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the Children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy.
The chanters are in good company. It's the impulse even of the angels.
Osama's Death Certificate
In June 1989 I was 26 years old, recently returned from a year in Taiwan, and driving around at night with some friends in an unfamiliar warehouse district north of downtown Minneapolis when the news came on the radio: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, was dead at the age of 86. We were a fairly liberal group in a very liberal city but a spontaneous cheer went up in that car. Khomeini had been a thorn in our country's side for 10 years, we'd been hearing about him for 10 years, and it was nice to know we wouldn't be hearing about him much anymore. A minute later we sobered up. It felt classless, cheering for death.
Last night Patricia and I had some friends over for Sunday Movie Night. We used to do this fairly often but got off course this winter; but some of our members, who've been through hellacious springs, needed it again, so we gathered in our living room for homemade pasta and wine and salad, to watch Martin Scorsese's “Goodfellas.” Afterwards, before going to bed, I checked my email and received one from Ward, the man who made the homemade pasta:
FW: BREAKING NEWS: An AP source says Osama bin Laden is dead
See what we miss watching movies?
I immediately went to the New York Times site for confirmation, then Andrew Sullivan to read his thoughts, then Salon to read their headlines (which were already aftermath headlines; “And now what?” headlines). I looked up Abbottabad on Google maps. Finally I went to Facebook. “Oh right, Facebook,” I thought. I scrolled backwards to see who posted the news first. It was a friend from Delaware who referenced, obliquely, how happy Wolfie B. had made her with “those five words.” Two people had already posted this photo, which made me smile, since it encapsulated the seriousness of one side of our political debate versus the decided lack of seriousness on the other:
Someone wrote “The world feels better tonight.” Another: “I wish I had some fireworks to set off,” to which her friend, our mutual friend, replied, “I just heard one go off in my neighborhood.” People were gathering at the White House, and in Times Square, to cheer. A local journalist admonished his readers: “I hope people (esp. liberals) don't overthink this. Bin Laden dead is a good thing.” A movie critic wrote, “If you're in Times Square in a Navy uniform tonight and don't kiss a nurse, you have no sense of history. And no game.”
There were also the usual status updates about weekend trips, Sunday concerts, and funny things the child said.
Despite the wine, I stayed sober. I didn't disagree with the local journalist—“Bin Laden dead is a good thing”—I just knew the world wasn't much of a changed thing. Bin Laden has been a thorn in our country's side for 10 years, and it was nice to know he was gone, but there will be others, because there are always others. I simply hope he was the worst of it. In this way, and perhaps only this way, Osama bin Laden and I were in accord. He wished to be the western world's greatest enemy for the 21st century, and I sincerely hope, when the century's history is written, he's gotten that wish.
- Today's front pages via Newseum
- David Remnick on Obama vs. Osama
- Also from the New Yorker: What did Pakistan know and when did they know it?
- Via NPR: The Pakistani who tweeted the news without realizing it
- David Weigel on the gathering outside the White House
- ABC News footage of the bin Laden compound
- One more time: Andrew Sullivan liveblogs the news of the death of Osama bin Laden
“This Isn't Me”
Heading home from work through downtown Seattle the other day, I biked, for the first time in two weeks, up that steep hill under the Convention Center that places you near Town Hall. I usually do this hill every day, or at least every weekday, but a few weeks ago we'd had some snow and I don't bike in snow; then I caught the crud that knocked Patricia for a loop at Oscar time and was knocked for a loop myself for about a week. So I was not only out of practice, but, thanks to the lingering cold in my chest, out of breath. I'm sure my face exhibited strain. And near the top I caught sight of a pedestrian looking at me and smiling.
We tend to project our feelings onto the world, so I assumed she was smiling at the strain I was exhibiting. I assumed the smile was slightly disparaging. And I thought the following in response:
“This isn't me.”
I'm usually better than this. I usually make it up this hill a little more quickly and a little less out of breath. Come back in two weeks. You'll see.
Even as I thought that phrase I knew it was only partially true. I also knew it wasn't my phrase. I associate it with a friend's mom, 88 now, who often held forth at parties, martini in one hand, cigarette in the other. I knew her as fiercely independent, a voracious reader, a lifelong Republican who turned against the party when George W. Bush began his shenanigans. But life closes in. Macular degeneration took away much of her eyesight, and thus her beloved books, and thus a great aspect of her independence. She has balance issues now. She falls a lot. She's confused by the telephone. Last year, at a family gathering, she motioned me close, and, holding onto me with the strong grip of the elderly, told me the following in relation to almost nothing going on:
“This isn't me.”
In Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, is captured by an alien race, the Tralfamadorians, who have a different perception of time. They see it as we might see a mountain range. They look at a being and see all the various beings it's ever been—all the limbs and eyes and mouths and all the different heights and weights.
It's Vonnegut's most famous novel but I read it late, after most of the others, about 25 years ago when I was in the midst of pining for a recently ended relationship. At the time, the notion of time as a mountain range gave me comfort. If it were so, the relationship that I wished hadn't ended, hadn't ended, the way the peak of a mountain still existed. You just looked over there. See it? Why would you feel sad, or cry, over that mountain peak. It's right there.
Someday I would like to live into the wisdom of that view of life and time; but I know me, this constantly changing me, all too well.
My Bike Ride: the 2nd and Broad Intersection
I live in the First Hill neighborhood in Seattle, work in lower Queen Anne, bike almost every day. Not a bad ride: 15 minutes. Bit hilly on the way back but hills are unavoidable in Seattle.
Case in point. At the beginning of the ride home, one-way streets and busy streets basically force me to go up that hill on Thomas near the Space Needle, only, a block later, to go down that hill on 2nd Avenue, just before Mercer. So: go up only to go down. That's Seattle.
When you bike up to 2nd and Thomas, you always get a glorious view of the Space Needle.
The true drag is the traffic light at the bottom of 2nd. It's long, and rarely green when I need it to be green, so increasingly I find myself stopping halfway down the hill and hanging by the curb for the green so I can get some benefit of the hill. So I can go: fooosh!
Or so I can go fooosh for a block. Then I run into the mess at 2nd and Broad.
Second Avenue, a one-way street heading south, is the only downtown street with a bike lane, which is cool, but this leads to its own problems. Whenever a car turns left on 2nd it's essentially turning into the bike lane, and 2nd and Broad is a popular left-turn intersection. Worse, the stoplights are timed so that, with or without the foosh, that light seems to turn green when I'm about 10-20 feet from the intersection. Which means I have no idea if the cars in the left lane see me as they're about to turn left. So invariably I have to brake and lose my foosh.
This would be less of a problem if people in Seattle actually used their turn signals. But many refuse to, almost stubbornly, as if this passivity is part of what makes them Seattleites—just as the passivity of pedestrians not crossing against the red when no cars are in sight makes them Seattleites. Too often I've had to stop completely at 2nd and Broad because a car, gloriously oblivious and turnsignalless, began its turn into my lane. As a final insult, it often turns on its turn signal then. When its intentions are obvious. When it does nobody any good.
On the plus side I'm still here.
Even the Google Maps photo at 2nd and Broad shows a turnsignalless car turning left. (And at evening-hour rush hour, this intersection is always busier, and, invariably, rainier.)
Frontier Airlines: New Babysitters Club
Do airlines no longer handle suits? I mean the clothing kind. Just last May, on a Delta flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, the flight attendants took care of my suit—hung it in a closet—but this past week, flying to a memorial service in Minneapolis, both US Airways (to) and Frontier (from) had nothing for me. “You can lay it on top of the suitcases in the overhead bin,” I was told. “If there's room.” On the last leg, I didn't even get this option. I was told, because I had a bag in the overhead bin, to stuff my suit under the seat in front of me.
This wrinkle, so to speak, fits the way airlines increasingly treat customers: as children rather than suit-wearing adults. The Frontier flight attendants in particular, on both legs of the journey, had a kind of hectoring, head-shaking attitude toward its customers. Listen people, keep moving. Stay in your seat. Hey! I said stay in your seat, young man!
Admittedly we're an unruly crew in this country. Admittedly it's a tough, cramped job. But is it necessary to resort to the methods of the worst babysitters? We were given a single chocolate-chip cookie and essentially put in front of the TV set. Each seat, on that final leg of the journey, came equipped with a TV screen, which you could dim into nonexistence, but which few people did. Thus everywhere you looked: a multitude of screens watching a multitude of shows. I know Louis CK has mocked modern complaints; but that last leg of the journey, stuck on the Denver runway for an hour before takeoff (de-icing), with a baby wailing and 180 people channel-flipping and landing on crap, well, it felt like a new circle of hell.
My own fault. The book I brought (“Freedom”) was digital, on an iPad, and had to be powered down for the hour we were on the runway. I'm sure my report card would've read poorly: “Erik tried to read while we were on the runway and he refused to watch TV. Plus he brought a suit along. But he did eat his cookie.”
Finally makes sense why they keep showing us how to use a seatbelt.
Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.
Monday night, the last night of the three-day weekend, Patricia was reading in bed while I was taking off my shoes on a nearby chair. I was a little down. Friday night, with all its possibilities, seemed but a moment ago, and here it was, Monday night already. It had been a fairly productive weekend but it was still Monday night. I sighed. Patricia looked up from her book.
“Three day weekend,” I said, then pantomimed a small explosion with my hand. “Poof.”
“Although I suppose no matter what I’d done,“ I said, ”we’d still be at this point in time.”
It wasn’t until I said it that I realized I was actually feeling guilty. Not about anything that had or hadn't been done; simply about the passage of time. If only I’d been more careful or attentive, I was feeling, this three-day weekend wouldn’t be over just yet. But I hadn't been attentive enough, and here we are, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Long way of saying I turned 48 yesterday. And I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
My friend Doug's birthday party, circa 1969. I'm the leftmost kid, wearing what looks like a tennis sweater. In front of me, in shirt and tie, is my friend, Mark. The birthday boy is center stage, holding a small flag.
“Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro" at Rap Thang 8
Read Part 1 here.
On our last day in Hanoi, along with buying last-minute gifts for friends and returning to Cha Cha La Vong for the fried fish lunch, Patricia and I went to “Rap Thang 8.” which sounds like the worst MC Hammer song ever, but is in fact a movie theater frequented by Vietnamese, to see a movie called “Những nụ hôn rực rỡ.” Google translates those words into “The Brilliant Kiss” but at the time we had no idea what it was called or what it was about. We just wanted to see a Vietnamese movie and it was the only one playing in Hanoi that day. The woman selling tickets even warned us. “Vietnamese,” she said. I nodded, made hand motions and smiley faces that indicated we wanted to see it anyway. She giggled. With reason.
The cafe next door, “The Majestic,” was under construction, and I remember a lot of equipment and sawdust in the exposed lobby. The innards of the Majestic itself were exposed. It looked like the place had been bombed out. It was the exact opposite of the ultraclean MegaStar Cinema from the day before.
The posters for all three movies, along with TVs looping trailers for each, were on display behind the ticket-taker. In Phong Chieu 2, we could see “Legion.” Hollywood. In Phong Chieu 1, some kind of samurai horror movie. Japanese? And in Phong Chieu 3, our movie, “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro,” a Vietnamese musical comedy.
We were told Phong Chieu 1 was through that door to the right. It looked like an exit. But we walked through it ... and into an alleyway.
“What the hell,” I said.
“Did you get the directions right?” Patricia asked.
I returned, pointed to the ticket, and the ticket-taker again pointed me to the exit. “No,” I began, “That’s...” What could I say? I wished for the zillionth time I could some semblance of the language.
Sensing my confusion, the ticket-taker pointed out the door and then down the alleyway.
“Really?” I asked. “Okay...”
This time we saw the sign at the end of the alleyway: RAP THANG 8, Phong Chieu 3.” Except there was nothing at that sign even remotely like a movie theater. We stood and looked around.
“What the hell,” I said.
“Well, you wanted a different movie experience,” Patricia said.
“Not this different,” I said.
“Phong Chieu 3 is past the bombed-out cafe and down the dank alleyway. You can't miss it.”
Patricia was the one who finally found Phong Chieu 3. It wasn’t all the way down the alley, where the sign was located; it was about three-quarters of the way down the alley on the right-hand-side. You parted some heavy curtains and there you were. The floor was almost level, the theater seated about 50, flies buzzed around. It felt like something out of community theater.
There were no subtitles to the movie, of course, so we had to figure out the plot for ourselves. In the end it wasn’t hard for anyone raised on 1960s sitcoms.
The movie is set on a remote island resort, where a member of a boy band (which are still popular in Asia) shows up ... to get away from it all? One assumes. The owner of the resort, a good-looking woman, then finagles him and his bandmembers into giving a concert to get the customers to save her resort. Or something. Shenanigans, mistaken identities and romance ensues.
Just another resort owner greeting another boy band frontman in Viet Nam.
It’s a colorful, poppy, probably supremely dopey movie, but there are two things worth noting about it.
One of the supporting players, an assistant at the resort, is an over-the-top gay character. He’s there mostly for comic effect. During montage sequences, for example, in which Girl A is pursuing Boy A, or Boy B is pursuing Girl B, he’s pursuing, haplessly, the quietest member of the boy band: a kid with one eye hidden by his hair, a la Veronica Lake, and a fedora, a la Sinatra.
No surprise that he was unsuccessful in his pursuit. One of our guide books, “The Rough Guide,” mentioned that, while there was no law in Vietnam banning homosexual activity, “Officially, homosexuality is regarded as a ‘social evil,’ alongside drugs and prostitution.” The surprise was that there was a gay character in the movie at all.
Then we got to the end, and the big concert, and the onstage confessions of love from Girl A for Boy A, and Boy B for Girl B. And everyone getting together.
Except for our gay character. He comes onstage. He talks into the microphone. He becomes emotional about what he’s saying. But no one comes out to sing with him. He’s alone. Tears well up. He’s comforted but it’s sad. The message is clear: Don’t be gay.
Except suddenly the Veronica Lakeish boy-band member comes onstage, singing the love song they’ve all been singing. And the two meet in the center of the stage and hold hands. And everyone applauds.
Then the lights go off, along with fireworks, and you see silhouettes of the principles embracing. Including our gay couple.
Then the lights go up and you see everyone kissing. Including our gay couple.
Then we get our happy ending.
Wow, I thought. Much more enlightened than I anticipated. Not only are the Vietnamese not behind us in this particular area, but ... they seem ahead of us.
A confession is made: “We're more enlightened than you.”
That’s the first thing worth noting about the film. The second is more of a punchline than anything.
I wanted to see this particular film because it was the only Vietnamese film playing in Hanoi that day, and I knew, from trying to see Vietnamese movies before we left, that they’re few and far between in the States. All that’s available is a handful of art films (“Cyclo”; “Scent of Green Papaya”; “Owl and the Sparrow”), and the long, messy history of Vietnam War movies.
But I was wrong. “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro” is available in the States. You can watch the entire thing, in 10 segments, on YouTube.
Alice in Hanoi
Because, I suppose, I write about movies, I like going to movie theaters when I’m abroad. I’m curious not just what they watch but how they watch it.
In Taiwan, for example, when I lived there 20 years ago, they played the national anthem before each show. We’d all stand and sing along while they ran a short, government-created film. In 1987, when I first arrived, the theme of the film was martial in nature: troops and tanks and such. (China and Taiwan were still at war, after all.) By 1988, it became more cultural: dragon boat races, etc, and by 1990 it showcased the beauty of the Taiwanese landscape: Ya Ming Shan, waves crashing on rocks, etc. Not that “martial” was forgotten. That final film ended with the characters Jung Hua Ming Guo (“Republic of China”) dominating the screen, then appearing on a map of Taiwan. Except it wasn’t a map of Taiwan. It was a map of mainland China. The two countries were still at war but both agreed on this most important fact: there was only one China.
Then we watched “Ghost.”
So at the tail end of our Vietnam trip last spring, after all the museums and mausoleums and parks and restaurants, Patricia and I agreed to check out some movies.
We had two options. I’ll write about the second one, Rap Thang 8, tomorrow. It’s a smaller theater, shows some Vietnamese movies, foreigners rarely go there. Often for a reason. But we did.
On our second-to-last day in Vietnam, however, we went to MegaStar Cinema on an upper floor of the Vincom Towers in the southern part of Hanoi. It looks like almost any shiny megaplex in the States. They serve popcorn and colas and M&Ms and Mars bars. Also sausage and seaweed. I should’ve gotten the seaweed.
Eight movies were playing that day, seven from Hollywood, one from Hong Kong (Jackie Chan’s “Little Big Soldier”). The biggest of the bunch was Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” in both its 3D and 2-D incarnations, on its way to grossing more than a billion bucks worldwide.
I’m not sure who was responsible for marketing “Alice in Wonderland” in this megaplex in Hanoi, the capital city of communist Vietnam, just two miles from the former Hanoi Hilton where prisoners of war were held and tortured, but the results were a capitalist’s wet dream. Employees were wearing “Alice” T-shirts. There were “Alice” posters and tables and a little set in the lobby where you could sit in big-sized “Alice” chairs and pretend you were small.
It was a quiet, weekday afternoon in early April, and a few kids were hanging out in a lounge area set up just off the concession stand. There was also a big fan board for Robert Pattinson, and pleas for him not to forget his Vietnamese fans, as part of a “Remember Me” promotion. It was all very clean and empty and kind of depressing.
We had assigned seats for the movie and listened to music from XONE FM, including, oddly, “The Girl Can’t Help It,” as we watched the last of the couples straggle in. The ads before the feature were of the superloud, superbright, supercheery Asian variety: teeth whitener, a product called “Diana,” another for a drink (0°?) in which everyone is refreshed by synchronized swimmers. I don’t know if knowing Vietnamese would’ve made sense of these things. Then theater ads:
- No smoking
- No chewing gum
- No cameras
- No outside food and drink
- Please remain silent
The movie was the least interesting part of the exercise.
Tomorrow: Nung Nu Hon Ruc Ro at Rap Thang 8.
Scene at a Barnes & Noble II
Scene: The Barnes & Noble on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas. I enter the store for the second time in the span of an hour to buy a DVD (“How to Train Your Dragon”) for my nephew Jordy. That's when I spot an author table near the door. The table is small, the author ready, no one is paying attention. Too bad, I think. Wonder what the dude wrote? Then I see the book propped up around the table:
I go over, pick up the book, leaf through it. I exchange pleasantries with the author, Bob Showers. He begins to explain how the book came about.
Bob: I contacted the Twins organization for official photos from the period. See these? I got all of these from the Twins. Then I brought them along when I interviewed the players to jog their memories.
Me: Oh, so it's an oral history, too. Wow, you interviewed Killebrew?
Me: Hey, has anyone written a biography of him?
Bob: Well, biographies have been written, back in his playing days, but...
Me: I'm talking about a big bio, like Mays and Aaron just got, but about Harmon. There'd be less interest nationally, of course, but ... I don't know. All the more reason to do it. I'd like to read it anyway. Hey, the Beatles!
Bob (nodding): Beatles played at the Met in '65, Eagles in '78.
Me: I remember that concert. The Eagles, not the Beatles. God, great photos. Cesar Tovar, Rich Rollins, Ted Uhlander. Love the '60s uni. That “Twins” script and the TC caps. Hated it when they went to the red cap and the beltless stretch pants in the mid-seven- ... Holy crap!
Me: It's ... me.
I'd come across a photo that I knew well but hadn't seen in decades: Dave Edwards, on June 13, 1979, bounding toward the Twins dugout after hitting a late-game, two-run homer to give the Twins an 8-6 lead over the New York Yankees. The shot is from behind so you can see his name and number (33), the Twins players in the dugout, including Kenny Landreux and Johnny Castino, smiling and ready to congratulate him, and about ten rows of cheering fans. The photo made the front page of the sports section of The Minneapolis Tribune the next day, and I kept it for years, because I was in it. Me, my father, and my friend Dave Budge sat in row 8 that night.
Me: Right there.
Observer #1: That's you?
I look up. By now we've drawn a crowd.
Observer #2: Right. Sure, that's you.
Me (vaguely amused): Why would I make that up?
Bob: The guy in front of you is wearing a CheapTrick concert T-shirt. When was the photo taken? June 1979? I bet he was at that CheapTrick concert at the Met around that time.
I flip through more pages. I'd planned on buying it anyway. Now it's a done deal. Me and two other guys start talking about the last Twins game at Met Stadium. Turns out we were all there.
Me: How odd. Because that crowd was, like, sparse.
Observer #1: Less than 25 thousand.
Bob: 15 thousand.
Observer #1: That low?
Me: Right? So it's weird that 30 years later three of those 15 thousand would be in the same Barnes & Noble at the same time. Weird but cool.
And remember to check out author tables. I'm not saying you'll find yourself but you never know.
Scene: Small family dining room. Five adults in postprandial conversation as a six-year-old squeezes by after using the bathroom.
Mother: Hey hey. Did you wash your hands?
Mother: Go back and wash your hands.
Son: Mom! I haven't finished eating yet.
Cue adult laughter.
Scene: A larger family dining room. Six adults in postprandial conversation as a nine-year-old plays with the potatoes on his plate. The adults are talking about opera. He looks bored. He looks at his uncle.
Nephew: What's opera?
Uncle: It's a form of music. Like rock n' roll. You know.
Nephew: Oh. You mean like the Opera Winfrey show?
Cue adult laughter.
Scene: Target Field in winter. Two families are being led on a tour by a 78-year-old man, my father, Bob Lundegaard, who began his career as a tour guide earlier this year. One of the familiies is ours: Patricia, my brother Chris, my sister Karen, her husband Eric, and their two kids Jordy and Ryan. The other family—an upbeat woman, a really knowledgable baseball guy, and three kids—is from...Iowa? I forget. They arrive last-minute, don't know the tour guide is our father, and keep us on our best behavior. They keep us from being us. Partially. Early in the tour Dad shows off a shot of Met Stadium, where the Twins played from 1961 to 1981, and the really knowledgable baseball dude asks about all of these empty seats along the third-base/left field line. The place is almost filled but these seats, bright orange, are all empty.
Dad: Good question. I'm not sure why those seats were empty. I believe there was some construction going on.
Me (feeling cheeky): I wouldn't be surprised. I know the seats just above those were among the cheapest in the park. I know because my father, a notorious skinflint, always made us sit there.
Dad (without missing a beat): Sounds like a very intelligent man.
Scene at a Barnes & Noble
Scene at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas...
Clerk: May I help you find something?
Me: I'm alright. Wait. Actually, yeah. I'm looking for a book: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.” Where would that be exactly?
Clerk returns to information desk and stands before computer.
Clerk: What was the name again?
Me: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.”
Clerk clatters on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: How do you spell that?
Me: Saul? S-a-u-l.
Clattering on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: Is that one word?
Me: Um. Saul: S-a-u-l. Then there's a space and it's Bellow, B-e-l-l-o-w. Saul Bellow.
Clerk: Here it is. Yes, we should have several copies.
Clerk comes out from behind information desk. He's wearing a button that says: “I'm NOOK Smart.”
Cool Hand Me
Last Friday night a group of us went to Sitka & Spruce for our friend Paige's birthday, where the following photo was taken:
That's Paige on the left, Patricia on the right, me with the shit-eating grin in the middle.
Something about the photo, particularly the lucky bastard in the middle, the way he's leaning, a little bit of the charlatan in him, seemed familiar somehow. Today it finally hit me:
I guess if you have to model yourself on someone...
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Going Back from Whence We Came
In the end it’s all about the beach.
My father used to say there was nothing like that first dip in the ocean after the long, hot, sweaty haul to get there, but this never made sense to me. It was just another odd thing grown-ups said. Now I’m that grown-up.
Our long, sweaty haul started on a Friday at 9 p.m. in Seattle and lasted through a red-eye to Chicago, a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., a morning car trip over the Bay Bridge and through eastern Maryland and into Delaware, with a few wrong turns along the way, until we crawled, in the mid-afternoon heat, along Highway 1, with all of the other Saturday arrivals, before making that final, impatient, left-hand turn onto Rehoboth Avenue and into the offices of Jack Lingo Real Estate to collect the keys, and into the Lingo’s grocery store to collect the weekend necessities, and over to Mom’s place to drop off her stuff, and over to our place to drop off our stuff, and then the two-block trip back to Mom’s place to drop off her car—but not before being confronted by a cop who asked why I’d parked a quarter into someone’s driveway (there’d been a neighborly complaint), and I explained that it was temporary, that we were staying in that small cottage at the back of the driveway there, and this was my first time in Rehoboth in 25 years, and, hey, how old are you anyway?, which got him to smile and admit, “Twenty-one” and merely issue me, 26 years his senior, a warning—and after all that it was 5:00 and the sun was lowering in the sky, but I didn’t care and changed into swimsuit and flip-flops and grabbed a towel and walked the half block to the boardwalk and over the hot sand and through the departing crowds and dropped everything by the driest part of the high-tide mark and stepped into the cool, salty water, feeling the spray and hearing sizzle of the waves, and in past my calves and thighs and, oof, groin, until I dove into a wave and rose on the other side, and thought, as the ocean washed away the day of travel, the month of troubles, the year of work, “Dad was right.”
Why does it feel so good? Because it’s the water we emerged from? Because we ourselves are salt and water? It feels heavier than most water, cooler than most water, and the waves provide their own challenge. The ocean doesn’t automatically accept us, like other, more placid bodies of water. It’s trying to expel us even as it tries to pull us in further. It has mixed feelings. I floated on my back, watched my toes emerge, and felt lucky.
My sister, Karen, set up the vacation. Her husband, Eric, is a Muschler, and every year three of the Muschler boys and their families vacation somewhere for a week, which allows parents to get together and all of the various cousins to create havoc together, and this year Rehoboth was chosen because it’s where our family vacationed in the 1970s, and where Karen worked during high school and college summers in the 1980s. The Muschlers rented a big house on Stockley Avenue (pronounced Delawarean: “Stow-klee”), two and a half blocks from the beach; then she asked if Patricia and I wanted to come along. Normally we vacation in fairly exotic spots—Little Corn Island, Nicaragua; Hanoi, Vietnam—but I was in the mood for a less exotic spot. I wanted a place with cotton candy.
We rented our own cottage, also on Stockley Avenue, but a half block from the beach. The online photos were vague, which had me worried, but we found it charming enough: living room, small kitchen, separate bedroom, bath. There was even a back deck where we locked up the bikes that we rented for the week. The back deck was also where the Muschlers stored most of our beach gear—chairs and umbrellas—so they wouldn’t have to keep carting them the extra two blocks every morning. Or afternoon.
The Muschlers tend to be late risers—or, with so many kids, late goers—so we were rarely at the beach early. Sometimes we arrived around 11:00, which didn’t make much sense in the “danger danger danger” UV-ray world of 2010; other times we avoided the morning altogether and showed up around 2:00 and made an afternoon of it.
My nephew, Jordy, 9, took to the waves like a champ. Whenever he was at the beach, he was in the water: diving into the waves, riding the waves, wondering why the waves weren’t bigger. His brother, Ryan, 7, took to the sand like a champ. He wanted to bury and be buried. Who doesn’t want to be at the beach? One day, my mother, 80, put on a swimsuit and dipped her toes, too.
My favorite day was our last full day. On Thursday, Rehoboth was drenched with two big rainstorms: one in the early afternoon that cleared the boardwalk; one in the late evening as we sat, protected, at Ed’s Chicken & Crab joint in Dewey, and watched people run in breathless and soaked from the downpour and the flash-flooding in the streets. As a result, there was a freshness to everything Friday morning as Patricia and I took our coffee and went for an early-morning, barefoot stroll by the ocean. The waves were bigger than usual, but overall it seemed like a normal morning.
We’d decided on a bike ride that morning. Several days earlier, on a misty Monday morning, we’d scoped out the area north of Rehoboth—Henlopen Acres, where the rich folks lived, and Gordon Pond Wildlife Area, where the frogs lived—so Friday morning we headed south, past Silver Lake, but quickly got caught between small neighborhoods and Highway 1, as Delaware, a narrow state already, narrowed to a thin peninsula, and didn’t allow us much space. Eventually we doubled back. The bike rental place, Bike to Go, had given us a brochure that included, along with the oddest of quotes (“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” — President John F. Kennedy), the seven best rides in the area. We’d kind of done #s 1 and 2 already, and #4 was what we’d just avoided, but #5, the Junction & Breakwater Trail, had been recommended not only at the rental place but by our neighbor, a friendly, newbie lawyer from New England. He said the trail paralleled Hwy 1 but went through quiet woods and marshlands and neighborhoods and wound up in Lewes, the town north of Rehoboth.
Patricia before the crash.
Patricia and I have different paces, though—I bike all the time, she seldom—and four miles along on the wide trail, in the middle of sparse woods, I realized I was too far ahead and stopped and waited. And waited. Finally I doubled back to find Patricia standing sheepishly by her bike. She gestured impotently. I assumed a flat but it wasn’t a flat. She’d been biking along, close to a fence, then experienced that odd sensation of being pulled into the very thing she was trying to avoid. Crash. She scraped her arm, bent her back tire, and now the back tire wouldn’t turn. The best I could do was release the back brakes so the tire would at least turn and she and I could hobble back to Rehoboth. Initially I was bummed—all that way without Lewes—but it turned out for the best.
After refueling at a co-op on Delaware Alt 1, and returning our bikes to the bike rental shop (had I spent the $5 on insurance last Sunday...? I had! Ka-ching!), we walked over to Dolles on the boardwalk to buy salt water taffy for the folks back home.
And that’s when I noticed the waves.
They were huge. How huge? In our absence the waves had come up almost to the boardwalk, and there were warm, stagnant pools of water on the beach proper, where adults pulled small kids around on boogie boards. It felt like an event. I immediately called Karen.
Half an hour later, Eric Muschler, Jordy, and I, were all trying to find a way to navigate into the water. Foam slopped everywhere. Few people were in the water but the pull to be in the water was as strong as any undertow. This was where it was happening and I wanted to be in it as it was happening. But how? I’d get out knee deep and a wave that had broken 10 feet in front of me still rumbled with enough force that, even bending beneath it, it would still push me a few feet closer to shore. Then I’d trudge back out again. In this way we danced. One time the wave broke late, right in front of me, and, even diving beneath it didn’t help. I was yanked off my feet and pushed and somersaulted to shore, where an awestruck, soaked Jordy stood watching.
“Poseidon is angry today,” he said.
I needed 10 more feet of courage. Eric had it, and went out beyond the breaking waves and sometimes rode them in, like bucking broncos. But the ocean out there seemed so deep and roiling and chaotic that I didn’t have that extra 10 feet of courage.
Instead, for an hour, I stood in the midway point, in the worst place you could possibly stand, and engaged in a shoving match with the ocean that the ocean always won. It was glorious.
Eric Muschler, Jordy and I and the “No Swimming” warning flag on our last day at the beach.
How I'm Like Dick Cheney
This morning I had an epiphany: I realized I was like Dick Cheney. Not a pleasant thing for a lifelong Democrat and fervent Obama supporter to realize. But helpful nonetheless.
I realized I was like Dick Cheney when I was making a sandwich before work. Patricia has been sick for four days now, and I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and so for four days I’ve been extra careful about touching things around the house, and washing my hands after I touch things around the house, particularly if I’m going to make something that goes in my mouth—like a sandwich before work. But it’s been four days now, and Patricia is feeling better, and I’m hoping that the cold germs have passed through our home like a bad wind.
Even so, as I was making that sandwich, I thought, vis a vis the cold germs that might be lingering: They only need to succeed once.
And that’s when I realized I was like Dick Cheney. Because that was his attitude after 9/11. Terrorists were germs, they only needed to succeed once, and once they infiltrated our body they would make us sick.
It helped me better understand Cheney. Yes, “understand,” a word that the extreme right likes to sneer at, because they feel they already understand it all, and anyway understanding often leads to sympathy and they want none of that. To them, sympathy and understanding make us weak. And in a way they do. My epiphany this morning about Dick Cheney, for example, weakened some of my hatred for Dick Cheney. I saw him in a new light. “Oh. So Dick Cheney’s like me when Patricia’s sick.”
Here’s the key. I don’t like myself when Patricia’s sick. I don’t like being super paranoid about everything I touch. It’s no way to live. I’ve said this often. I try to change. Paranoia gets in the way of living my life. It upends my life. My fear of getting sick actually sickens me—not physically so much as mentally and spiritually. We’re scared enough already, but to be that scared? That’s really no way to live.
And that’s Dick Cheney. The left sees him as a monster, and in a way he is, but at the same time it must be awful to be Dick Cheney. To be so fearful and paranoid all the time. It must warp your mind and sicken your soul. Cold germs, after all, pass.
What Did You Dream About The Night After You Saw “Inception”?
I'm curious if people's dreams were more vivid after seeing “Inception,” the movie about dreams. I don't know if mine were but here's the one I remember. Apologies in advance for doing something so dull as recounting a dream.
I go downstairs with a friend and her child. It's like a hospital cafeteria with lots of light and windowed walls—like at the Seattle Opera—and we sit at a lunch table across from another woman. I'm wondering if she's thinking the child is mine, that we're a couple and this is our kid, when she begins to talk. She actually begins to pitch. She has these movie reviews that she wants us to read. Does she know I used to review movies for The Seattle Times and MSNBC? No. But when she hears my name she recognizes it from my MSNBC days and strengthens her pitch—her need to get me to read these reviews. I look at them. There are about four, each about three pages long, each individually stapled. The top page is slightly mottled, and there are coffee stains and crumbs, and I'm thinking, “God, what a waste of time.”
I read somewhere that we're pretty lousy at figuring out our own dreams but here I go. I'm that woman. Those mottled reviews? They're mine, posted here, once a week. The thought I have in the dream is the doubt I have every day.
Give me a dream about Marion Cotillard any day.
Talkin' (and Talkin' and Talkin') Baseball with a First-Timer from Lebanon
Two nights ago I took my friend Robert to a baseball game. His first.
Robert was born and raised in Tripoli, Lebanon, moved to the U.S. in August 2001, and doesn't know from baseball. That needed rectifying. And wasn't I the guy to do it? I had once been the SME (Subject Matter Expert) for Microsoft's "Baseball 2K," a PC video game, and I'd taken a friend from Spain to a game several years ago and explained it to her. Promises had been made to Robert last year. Promises were finally kept two nights ago.
As Robert and I walked from our First Hill neighborhood through downtown Seattle and toward Safeco Field, I began the tutorial. There are two teams, I said: one on offense, one on defense. The team on defense is "in the field," and at various positions around the field, to better, um, field the ball. (The editor in me shuddered.) The team on offense sends up one player at a time to home plate.
"Home plate?" Robert asked.
Yes, there are four bases.
OK, there are nine innings, and in each inning, or half inning...
OK, wait. A team gets three "outs," which are, um...
Let me start over.
The team on defense has a "pitcher," who stands 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate. The team on offense sends a "batter" to home plate with a...um...stick.
"A bat," Robert said.
Yes. The pitcher throws the ball toward the batter and tries to get the batter to swing and miss or hit the ball weakly. If the pitcher gets the batter to miss three times, that's an "out." A "strikeout." (The caveat is the foul ball, I thought, but first things first.)
There are different ways to make an out, I said. I explained the ground out, the fly out. the strikeout. Three outs and the two teams switch sides.
But the point of the game is to move the players around the bases, from first to second to third to home, and score.
"Points," Robert said.
In baseball, I said, they're called "runs." And after nine innings the team with the most runs wins. (The caveat is extra innings, I thought, but...)
We kept going. Balls and strikes. "Strike zone." A walk. A single. Moving from base to base. I didn't know it but I was doing a Bob Newhart routine. Was I making the game seem less bizarre to Robert? All I know is, the more I talked, and the more I explained the game at this elemental level, the more bizarre it seemed to me. Who could invent such a thing?
As we entered Safeco Field, I apologized to Robert for the weather, which was overcast and drizzly. I apologized for the Mariners, who were not that good. I apologized for the sparse crowd, eventually announced as 20,920, but probably half that. Eight years ago, I said, this place would've been packed.
We bought Ivar's fish and chips and beer, and grabbed our seats: 300 level behind home plate. I explained road-gray uniforms and home-white uniforms. The players were being announced, which necessitated further explanations: line-up; batting order. "And they can't deviate from this order?" Robert asked. "And after they switch sides and return to offense, do they start at the top again?" Robert asked.
The first Major League pitcher Robert saw in person was Doug Fister, who, the scoreboard proudly displayed, was leading the league in ERA. "What's ERA?" Robert asked. The first Major League batter Robert saw in person was Austin Jackson, the Tigers' rookie center fielder, with a .333 batting average. "What's batting average?" Robert asked. These were easy ones. "Earned runs," admittedly, was tough. It led to "unearned runs" and "errors" and "official scorers" and this question: "Does it change the outcome of the game or is it just for individual statistics?"
And in the first Major League at-bat Robert ever saw in person, Austin Jackson struck out looking.
"So what if the ball is outside the strike zone and the batter swings and misses?" Robert asked. That's a strike, too, I said. "What if the ball hits the batter?" That's a hit-by-pitch, I said, and the batter goes to first base. "So how come the batter gets out of the way?" he asked. "Doesn't he want to go to first?" Well, I said, if the umpire thinks he didn't try to get out of the way, then he might not let him go to first base. Besides, it would hurt. The ball is small and hard and thrown between 85 and 100 miles per hour. "Yes," Robert agreed. "That would hurt."
Things began to click for him when, with two outs and runners on first and second, Brennan Boesch hit a high, high pop fly to left field to end the inning. That's an out, I said.
"Ahhh!" Robert said. "So it doesn't matter how hard he hits the ball, if the fielder catches it before it hits the ground..." Yes, I said, the batter is out. You can hit the ball all the way to the wall, you can hit the ball over the wall, but if a fielder leaps up and catches it before it touches anything, it's an out. Just an out.
Robert nodded. At the same time, throughout the game, he seemed equally impressed by balls that were hit high as those that were hit far. Dull pop-ups to me were majestic things to him.
For the Mariners in the bottom of the first, Ichiro and Figgins went down quickly. When there are two outs, I said, a team is less likely to score any runs. Which is when Franklin Guttierez promptly slapped a single to left and Milton Bradley hit a line-shot homerun over the right-field wall. We stood and cheered. We bumped fists. 2-0!
The M's gave it right back with sloppy play in the top of the second. They couldn't get to ground balls. Double play balls were booted. "It seems the best plan is to hit the ball on the ground," Robert said. Well, I said, not really. Line drives are the best kinds of hits, but those, too, can be caught for outs. There's a lot of chance in the game. You can perform well and still make an out. You can perform poorly and still get a hit.
A Tiger slapped a single to left and took a wide turn. "He was thinking about going to second," Robert said, "but he did not want to take the risk." Exactly, I said.
In the top of the third, the Tigers threatened again: men on first and second with only one out. But Don Kelly lined the ball to Chone Figgins at second, who doubled off Brandon Inge at first. Doubled off. OK, when the ball is hit in the air, the baserunners can only advance when...
After that, things went quickly. We had several 1-2-3 innings. Three up, three down. I worried the game would seem long and boring to Robert but he thought it moved fine. He thought American football was long and boring in comparison. "So many timeouts," he said.
I filled his head with unnecessary minutia:
- The Tigers were one of the original 16 major league teams, dating back more than a century, while the Mariners existed only since 1977.
- Major League Baseball didn't start playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before games until World War I and it didn't become codified, I believed, until the late 1930s (although it's apparently World War II).
- The 7th inning stretch supposedly began when William Howard Taft, president of the United States from 1909 to 1913, went to a game and stood up after the top of the 7th and everyone followed suit—but I told him this story was probably apocryphal.
- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which we sang during the 7th inning stretch, was over 100 years old.
After 9/11, I added, they also played "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch but that's mostly stopped. Then we talked about 9/11. He had the perspective of someone who grew up in the midst of a civil war and didn't expect life to run smoothly. "I thought, you know, this might be bad," he said about being Lebanese. "It might be like the Japanese with internment camps. But everyone treated me nicely. I didn't have any bad incidents."
In the end, for all of my apologies at the beginning, we watched a good game. In the 8th it was 3-3, and I was beginning to explain the concept of extra innings to Robert—who, instead of being appalled, rather liked the idea that no game could end in a tie—when, with runners on first and second and one out, Milton Bradley lined a two-strike pitch to right field. Here came Figgins from second! A play at the plate! Safe! I showed Robert the umpire calls for "safe" and "out." I talked about how it was good that Guttierez was now on third because he had speed and might score on a sacrifice fly, which I also explained, and which was promptly demonstrated when Jose Lopez lofted a shallow fly to center. Guttierez ran. Safe! "He took the risk," Robert said.
In the 9th, the M's closer, David Aardsma, was announced by the PA announcer with a pirate drawl ("Aarrrrr-dsma"), and to accompanying heavy metal music and heavy metal graphics on the scoreboard. "Quite a production," Robert said, looking around. Then, referring to Shawn Kelley, who had relieved Fister in the 8th, he added, "The other guy didn't get such a welcome."
The 9th went quickly. Avila fought off several pitches before popping out to short. Raburn smacked the ball to center but Guttierez drifted under it easily. Then Austin Jackson, who began the game with a strikeout, ended it with a strikeout. The sparse crowd stood and cheered. I looked over at Robert, who smiled.
"So we win," he said.
We win, I said.
He looked around the field. "You know," he said, "once you know the basics, this game isn't so difficult."
Earlier this month I visited friends and family in Minneapolis and took in a game at the new Target Field. It's a great park, surprisingly compact, with narrow foul lines and grandstands right on top of the action. We sat in the left-field bleachers, third-deck, with the Hale Elementary crowd (my nephews' school), which is about as far away as you can get from the action, and we didn't seem that far from the action. It's a vertical stadium, I heard Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer say the other day, where the winds are trapped and swirl around on the field. It wasn't windy where we were, but man was it cold. It was the day after the first rain-out in Minnesota in 20 years, and temps stayed in the 40s throughout the game. We bundled up, I bought a Twins wool cap at the park, but we were still chilled. Occasionally, to warm up, we'd leave our seats and stand under the heaters outside the Town Ball Tavern. I know: Bud Grant wouldn't approve. But this is baseball.
Here's hoping for a World Series in Minnesota. With snow. To point out the absurdity of Bud Selilg's post-season schedule.
My nephew, Ryan, 6, en route to the game.
A VIP room on the second deck, where we weren't allowed (not VI enough), but which has the decency to plaster their outer walls with Minnesota heroes: Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew.
My father and I walked around the stadium for an hour before gametime—both to see the place and stay warm. Here he is on the second deck on the third-base side, enjoying a rare moment of sunshine. “Minnie” and “Paul,” the original Twins, shaking hands over the Mississippi river, rightly lord over center field.
Outside the Town Ball Tavern, photos of Minnesota “town ball” teams from the turn of the last century are displayed—including this suprisingly integrated team, with three black ballplayers, from the 1910s.
Two Minnesotans exulting: Ryan, in the middle of a 2010 loss to the Orioles, and Kirby Puckett rounding the bases after his walk-off homerun in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series: “Jump on my back, I'll carry you,” he said before the game.
The statue of Harmon Killebrew, who hit 573 homeruns and retired fifth on the all-time homerun list in 1975, behind only Aaron, Ruth, Mays and Frank Robinson. Ryan, emulating, hitting his first.
Birthday Lyrics of the Day (47)
“And I know that in nearly four years
I’ll be hitting 50
That ripe young age
That halfway point
When life really begins
But Saturday let’s celebrate
Neither the past nor future
But the present
Here I am
In the shape I’m in!”
—Loudon Wainwright III, “The Birthday Present”
Happy Birthday, Charles M. Schulz
Charles M. Schulz, who created some of the first fictional characters I ever cared about, was born on this day, November 26, 1922, in St. Paul, Minn. There's a good personal essay on the “Peanuts” universe by Jonathan Franzen in his book of essays “The Discomfort Zone,” which I read about five or 10 years ago in The New Yorker. You can read it here. At one point Franzen writes:
Schulz never stopped trying to be funny. Around 1970, though, he began to drift away from aggressive humor and into melancholy reverie. There came tedious meanderings in Snoopyland with the unhilarious bird Woodstock and the unamusing beagle Spike. Certain leaden devices, such as Marcie’s insistence on calling Peppermint Patty “sir,” were heavily recycled. By the late eighties, the strip had grown so quiet that younger friends of mine seemed baffled by my fandom. It didn’t help that later “Peanuts” anthologies loyally reprinted so many Spike and Marcie strips. The volumes that properly showcased Schulz’s genius, the three hardcover collections from the sixties, had gone out of print. There were a few critical appreciations, most notably by Umberto Eco, who argued for Schulz’s literary greatness in an essay written in the sixties and reprinted in the eighties (when Eco got famous). But the praise of a “low” genre by an old semiotic soldier in the culture wars couldn’t help carrying an odor of provocation.
All of which I agree with, particularly the Spike criticism; but even in his later years Schulz had his moments. This is one of them. In a series from 1988, Charlie Brown is outside the house of the little red-haired girl, hiding behind a tree and lost in his usual reverie. Then suddenly she comes outside:
When I first saw this I was living in Taiwan and dealing—with about as much courage and luck—with my own little red-haired girl, albeit the tall, brown-haired version. I identified, in other words. As a child I identified with Snoopy and as an adult with Charlie Brown. You can argue that Charlie Brown is the most adult character in the strip: he feeds Snoopy, takes care of Sally, organizes the little league team, sees the psychiatrist. Linus may be the philospher, the potential minister, but Charlie Brown is already the nervous, overworked parent.
I wound up cutting the strip out of the English-language newspaper in Taiwan and bringing it home with me seven months later. Ever since I've kept it in an old cigar box (PHILLIES BLUNT), along with autographs, old political buttons, my high school tassle. Stuff that's tough to throw away.
I recommend the Franzen book. I recommend The New Yorker. I recommend a song called “Charlie Brown” by Gavin Osborn:
It's all a lot of oysters and no pearls
But I recall the little red haired girl
How I used to sit on this bench in school
And stare at her across the playground
All I wanted was to sit next to her
Talk to her just be with her
That wasn't asking too much was it
But it never happened
Then she moved away
And I don't even know where she lives
Still got my lunchbox just in case
I even saved her a sandwich and a drink
Happy thanksgiving, everyone. Happy birthday, Sparky. Good work, Google, combining the two:
Why Blogging Isn't Writing—I
The other night my friend Tommy and I were talking about a game we both play. When the latest New Yorker arrives in the mail we turn to the “Talk of the Town” section, read the first graph of the first piece, and try to guess whether it’s Hendrik Hertzberg. Usually we can tell. His writing tends to be clearer, more insightful, more playful than the other writers—often very good writers—who also appear regularly in that space.
But I admit I play that game less often now. That first section of the “Talk of the Town,” which once seemed so essential, increasingly feels like old news. Which it is. I think: “They’re still writing about that?” (Something that happened last week.) “I want to read about this.” (Something that happened yesterday or today or an hour ago.) In this way the Internet has made children of us all.
And that’s because blogging isn’t writing. Writing is rewriting, and usually rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and hardly anybody spends much time rewriting a blog post. “To get it wrong so many times,” laments E.I. Lonoff, Philip Roth’s fictional writer, of the many drafts he goes through before he gets a novel or a short story or a sentence just so. His line could describe our online world, which is about immediacy rather than getting it right. It could be the epitaph for our age. We get it wrong so many times.
Me, too. I’m the first to admit that after two years I haven’t figured out what this thing is for yet. In the best blogs—such as Andrew Sullivan’s—the internal process, the thinking process, how one arrives at the thoughts one arrives at, is presented externally. That’s fascinating. But it’s not writing. It’s something else. Milan Kundera has written essays about sweeping up around the final product (the essay, the story, the novel) so that the process is not visible to the reader, so that the product stands alone, like Stonehenge, leaving readers to wonder, “Wow. How did this thing get here anyway?” That’s 20th century thinking. We’re process now rather than product. Even if there is a product, we use the process to sell it. DVD extras and cut scenes. Alternative tracks to popular songs. Here’s what we deemed uncecessary. Here’s where we got it wrong so many times.
This post, too, is process. It's not leading anywhere. It's not really suggesting anything. It's just pointing out mixed feelings.
Dying for Tomatoes
So Patricia and I were driving home after two days of camping with my sister's family at Moran State Park on Orcas Island. The plan was to buy tomatoes, etc., on the way home, which is why, after the ferry-boat docking at Anacortes, Wash., P and I left Highway 20 and headed south toward La Conner, home of the tulip festival in April. It was after 6 p.m. and most stands were closed, and most of those stands just sold blueberries and raspberries anyway. We were on Samish Road, a two-lane highway (one lane heading north, one heading south), when we spotted a more-promising stand to the left. I slowed the car, put on my turn signal, and was beginning to turn...when the car behind us barreled past us in the left lane, the lane I was turning into. If I'd turned a second earlier he would've slammed into the driver's side of our car going 50 and we'd be dead.
It shakes you up. It's such a nothing moment and an everything moment. It shouldn't have nearly happened but it did (nearly happen), and some part of me keeps imagining the wreckage in the silence after the crash, and the people who came upon us, and the gawkers. It's like something out of an old drivers ed movie. Sudden death. Because we were looking for tomatoes and the guy behind us couldn't wait.
The promising stand, by the way, was closed.
"I Know, Captain, a Thousand Questions..."
...or 50 anyway. This is a Facebook meme but I'd rather you read it here than on Facebook. There's usually an intro but you get the idea. There are questions and I answer them. You can, too, if you like.
1. What time did you get up this morning? 6:00 A.M.
2. How do you like your steak? Medium rare.
3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? "Funny People." Recommended. Highly.
4. What is your favorite TV show? "The Wire"
5. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? Paris
6. What did you have for breakfast? Coffee. Joe's O's with blueberries.
7. What is your favorite cuisine? If I had to pick one I'd go Italian, but Thai and Indian are close.
8. What foods do you dislike? "Honey?! What foods do I dislike?!"
9. Favorite place to eat? Cafe Presse.
10. Favorite dressing? What Patricia makes.
11.What kind of vehicle do you drive? 2000 Specialized Crossroads.
12. What are your favorite clothes? What Patricia likes
13. Where would you visit if you had the chance? I do have the chance.
14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full? Both answers are correct.
15. Where would you want to retire? Someplace to warm my cold, cold bones.
16. Favorite time of day? Early morning. Before the world is up and causing problems.
17. Where were you born? Minneapolis, Minnesota
18. What is your favorite sport to watch? Baseball. There is no second.
19. Who do you think will not tag you back? Irrelevant.
20. Person you expect to tag you back first? Irrelevant.
21. Who are you most curious about their responses to this? Sorry.
22. Bird watcher? No. But I love people who have that kind of knowledge and passion, who do the thing for the doing of it.
23. Are you a morning person or a night person? Morning.
24. Do you have any pets? Jellybean, the cat. Who's crazy.
25. Any new and exciting news you'd like to share? I'm going to L.A. tomorrow. Don't know if it's "new" or "exciting" or "news," but there you go.
26. What did you want to be when you were little? Fireman, policeman, baseball player.
27. What is your best childhood memory? Best as in happiest? Happiest then or happiest in memory? Whichever way, I'm not sure. Rehoboth? Bedstefar? Kickball? Camera Day? Fireflies? Charlevoix? It was a pretty good childhood, considering.
28. Are you a cat or dog person? Dog, generally. But condo life is tough for a dog. I feel bad enough cooping up Jellybean.
29. Are you married? No.
30. Always wear your seat belt? Pretty much.
31. Been in a car accident? Fender benders. Not for a while, though. Knock wood.
32. Any pet peeves? Many. Here's one: Capable people who stand on escalators, who don't walk up or down. Here's another: How about using your turn signal? And before you enter the intersection. To quote George: "We live in a society!"
33. Favorite Pizza Toppings? Pepperoni, sausage.
34. Favorite Flower? Whatever Patricia likes.
35. Favorite ice cream? Sebastian Joe's Angelica (hazelnut + coffee)
36. Favorite fast food restaurant? Probably Dick's. Every once in a while I get a craving for a Big Mac. But probably a Big Mac circa 1972.
37. How many times did you fail your driver's test? Didn't.
38. From whom did you get your last email? Nathalie.
39. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card? I wouldn't choose to max out my credit card.
40. Do anything spontaneous lately? Bought a gelato on the way home from the movies. Hazelnut and coffee.
41. Like your job? Yes. Even before I was just happy to have a job.
43. What was your favorite vacation? When I was a kid: Rehoboth. As an adult: Probably the trip through Europe with Joan.
44. Last person you went out to dinner with? Patricia.
45. What are you listening to right now? Traffic on Boren. Jellybean meowing for dinner. Patricia getting a phone call. It's a wonder a person can think in here.
46. What is your favorite color? Blue.
47. How many tattoos do you have? I'm clean.
48. How many are you tagging for this quiz? Irrelevant.
49. What time did you finish this quiz? 5:36 P.M.
50. Coffee Drinker? Yes, but that's an odd last question. Shouldn't 49) be last? Shouldn't this one be earlier? Not to be an editor or anything.
Things I Learned on Vacation in Minnesota
- Legos are insanely popular.
- What Bakugan is.
- Left to their own devices, kids will reduce the vastness of the world to Wii and Cheezits.
- When attempting to extract young, Wii-playing nephews from the basement, even to go to a place where they want to go (swimming pool, Lego Land), never begin a sentence with: “Do you want to...?”
- Losing your temper with children is way counterproductive.
- “Tin Tin” still works for eight-year-olds. Even though it has “bad words.”
- For eight year olds: If you’re writing all the bad words you know for your friend, who doesn’t read and write as well as you do, and you don’t want his parents to know who the author is, don’t sign your name.
- The best time to go to the Mall of America is just as it opens, particularly on a holiday, say the Fourth of July. It’s still relatively calm and manageable. The huge crowds, and the unrelenting din, haven’t arrived yet.
- On a weekday afternoon, you can still walk for blocks in south Minneapolis and see no one.
- Kids in south Minneapolis still put up lemonade stands.
- South Minneapolis is still a great place to grow up.
- Roseanne Cash has pipes. Her voice transcends genres. (Thanks, Jim and Jean.)
- It helps to know someone at Coastal Seafood. (Thanks, Doug.)
- Minneapolis is solving the unemployment problem with more summer road construction than is humanly possible...and yet that stretch of Hennepin between the Walker and Franklin Ave. still sucks.
- When putting helium-filled birthday balloons into a car, make sure the sun-roof is closed.
- Eight-year-old nephews can almost outrun their 46-year-old uncles now. And around a bouncy house in the backyard? In socks? The uncles have no chance.
- When unable to win at conventional warfare, everyone resorts to unconventional warfare. And by “warfare,” substitute “a game of Monster versus four kids around the bouncy house.” And by “everyone,” substitute “me.” I.e., Unable to capture all four kids in the dungeon (the hammock) without one, usually the eight-year-old nephew, freeing them, tell that nephew, currently in the dungeon, that the other kids, currently on a “water break,” are enjoying cool, refreshing water while he has none. And yet who always freed them? He did! And yet were they helping him now? No! They were enjoying cool, refreshing water.
- Caveat: Such psychological warfare won’t help you win the game but it’s still satisfying.
- The kid version of this is to call for a water break just as you’re about to be captured.
- Iphones are great for checking work e-mail. Particularly to let you know you have no important work e-mail.
- The best time for a conversation with an eight-year-old is while biking to and from tennis lessons.
- Be grateful, and almost melt, when your nephew takes to heart your comments about tennis lessons, and pays more attention to the teacher, and acts more like an eight-year-old should.
- Don’t be surprised that he’s only doing this to get back his “T for Teen” Wii game, which his mother took away from him the night before “until he acts more like an eight-year-old should.”
- The best place for kids to pick out presents for adults, that the adults don’t need but can’t possibly give or throw away, is the Minnesota store at the Mall of America.
- Any woman who agrees, on her birthday, to go to “Star Trek” for the nephews, and then, when the six-year-old balks, to go to a matinee of “Ice Age 3,” is the best woman in the world.
- The best potato chips in the world are Old Dutch Rip-L potato chips.
- The best french fries in the world are at Nick and Eddies.
- The best ice cream in the world is Sebastian Joe’s.
- The time to go on a diet is after vacation.
Words I Learned While Reading Christopher Buckley’s “Losing Mum and Pup”
In 1980, while a junior at Washburn High School in south Minneapolis (before it was sexy), I took two courses of “Word Study” with Mr. Beck, an autocratic teacher who, according to student rumor, had been a POW during WWII, and who often excused himself mid-class to get a nicotine fix in the hallway. I remember his white beard was stained yellow around the mouth.
This was an era of increasing and unfocused student rambunctiousness, but everyone knew you didn’t mess with Mr. Beck. Pejorative version: Once in the middle of class I was smiling because of something a friend said, and Mr. Beck looked at me and asked, sharply, “What are you laughing at, Smiley?” (It was traumatic then; it sounds funny now.) Positive version: I learned a lot. Every period we’d read Newsweek magazine and Mr. Beck would expound on the words we didn’t know. I remember him talking about gaffe, for example, in relation to first mom Lillian Carter’s allusion to the possible assassination of Ted Kennedy, who was then politicking to get the Democratic nomination away from her son. (She said something like: “I hope nothing happens to him. I really do.”) I also remember the word fugacious, which means “fleeting or transitory,” but which my friend Nathan Kaatrud, who became Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, used, in our junior year, for just about everything. “That’s so fugacious.” “Hey, don’t get all fugacious with me.” Etc.
Mr. Beck began “Word Study” in 1962 but retired (and, with him, it) during my junior year. It’s in his spirit that I present the words I learned while reading Christopher Buckley’s short, humorous memoir “Losing Mum and Pup.” All I can say is: Thank god I'm taking beginning French or there would've been a lot more.
froideur (n.): coldness (French). “At length a certain froideur encroached as the thought formed, So, you’re an orphan now.”
minatory (adj.): having a menacing quality; threatening. “A moving vehicle was now, in his hands, a potential weapon of mass destruction far more minatory than anything in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein.”
edematous (adj.): describing a watery swelling of plant organs. “I drew up a chair and held what I could of her hand, which was cold and bony and edematous with fluid.”
amanuenses (n.): those employed to write from dictation or copy manuscripts. “Generations of WFB amanuenses had to learn this cuneiform in order to edit his manuscripts and articles.”
blancmange (n.): a sweetened and flavored dessert made from gelatinous or starchy ingredients and milk. “I was impressed, yet again, by the superiority of the Book of Common Prayer to the pasteurized blancmange of the modern Catholic liturgy.”
adipose (adj.): of or relating to animal fat. “...afternoons I hauled my adipose carcass up and down various mountainsides...”
contra naturam (???) against nature; against the natural order of things. “It is contra naturam (to use a WFB term) to say no to someone who has raised you, clothed you, fed you from day one—well, even if, in Pup’s case, these actual duties were elaborately subcontracted.”
avoirdupois (n.): heaviness; weight, particularly personal weight: “Pup, superbly slender figured all his life, had in recent years added some avoirdupois—as indeed had I...”
consanguinity (n.): the quality or state of being of the same blood origin. “Embarrassing One’s Young is in some ways the entire point of having children. I discovered the joy myself when Cat was perhaps three years old and I did something (a public burp) that caused her to turn crimson with shame and to renounce all consanguinity with me.”
My Proust Questionnaire
Vanity Fair has been publishing the Proust Questionnaire on their back page for as long as I can remember. Hit-or-miss stuff but I liked Dustin Hoffman’s a few months back — probably because I agreed with him most of the time. Mine’s below. It’s tough. My own marked characteristic works against me. Plus you realize how far you are from where and what you want to be. Or maybe that's another marked characteristic.
Feel free to post your own in the comments section.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Writing into a deeper thought or connection. Hiking in the Cascades or Olympics on a sunny day.
What is your greatest fear?
Harm coming to loved ones.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
What is your greatest extravagance?
The amount of time I spend writing. Or maybe the amount of time I spend not writing.
What is your current state of mind?
Anxious. For a change.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Courage and calm.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I got nuthin'.”
On what occasion do you lie?
When it seems funny. When it spares feelings. When not to do so would seem dickish.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
The lack of a jawline.
Which living person do you most despise?
I don't know enough to say.
What do you most value in your friends?
When and where were you happiest?
Wherever it was, the “when” was always behind me.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would have super-powers.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Hopefully it’s ahead.
Where would you like to live?
What is your favorite occupation?
Writing. Hiking. Biking. “I”ing.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Who are your favorite writers?
Chronologically as I read them: Salinger, Irving, Vonnegut, Roth, Doctorow, Tolstoy, Baldwin, Vidal, Capote, Updike, Kundera, Mailer, Hemingway, Tobias Wolff. I’m taking offers for the next one.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Buddy Glass. T.S. Garp. Superman.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The reduction and mechanization of humanity in all forms. The lowest being the final solution.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Which talent would you most like to have?
To dance like Fred Astaire, to fight like Jackie Chan, to field like Omar Vizquel. Something with that kind of grace.
How would you like to die?
When it feels like falling asleep after a good day.
What is your motto?
Who has a motto?
So You Think You're Anal
Housecleaning has always reminded me of the way Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace. I know, sue me.
Supposedly Tolstoy meant to write about the revolutions of 1848 and researched its causes, then the causes of those causes, and then even further back, until eventually he threw up his hands and decided to write about where he was: the Napoleonic period. But he did incorporate this theme of causality and what it means for free will (i.e., do we have free will if one event inevitably follows from another?), into the novel.
Here's the correlation: I was going to vacuum my office today but decided to dust, too, and after I’d dusted my desk, my keyboard, in comparison, looked worse for wear. So I unplugged it and wiped it down, then shook it upside-down out the window to get the schmutz out. But there was a lot of schmutz — I’ve owned it for five years. It’s a Mac keyboard, clear plastic, and it looked like I could just snap the keyboard portion off and get the crud beneath. Trying this, I merely snapped off a couple of keys: shift + control. After a moment of panic, I figured I could just snap them back in place — no biggee — and then got the dustbuster, no, better, the vacuum cleaner, to vacuum up the aforementioned schmutz. Of course I vacuumed up the shift key by accident. Which meant I had to get down on my knees and take the vacuum apart to retrieve it, and by this time my original plan of a quick clean-up of my office seemed a long time past.
OK, so Tolstoy by way of Woody Allen.
My Year in a Meme
Following Tim's lead, here's a year-end meme. Feel free:
1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before? Started a blog. Still haven’t figure out what it’s for. Keep going back to that “Simpsons” scene in which a destitute Krusty holds up a sign: “Will drop pants for food.” Bart and Lisa ask how it’s going and he points to a crazy old man, pants around his ankles, and complains, “Not good. That guy’s giving it away for free!” I’m that crazy old man.
2. Did you keep your new years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year? Might’ve done the usual “write an effin’ book” one, in which case: No. As for 2009, it’s a bit late.
3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes.
4. Did anyone close to you die? Yes.
5. What foreign countries did you visit? Vancouver, B.C. It felt like home.
6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008? A greater sense of national and international stability. Plus less rain. Plus improved French. Should I go on?
7. What date from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? November 4.
8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Enduring? I was kind of proud of the Slate and the Believer pieces. P and I also took care of a lot of kids without injuring any.
9. What was your biggest failure? They were numerous and more-or-less equal.
10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Healthy for 10 months, sick for six weeks. Plus the pulled back muscle. To quote J.T.: "You old."
11. What was the best thing you bought? Probably the HDTV. You could also say “an Obama victory” since I contributed, but...the contribution was small compared to how much I contributed to the HDTV.
12. Whose behavior merited celebration? Well, P put up with me, so that’s something. And Obama here and here. And Andy here. Too many to count, really.
13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? Steve Schmidt? Sarah Palin? John McCain? All those who sacrificed long-term possibilities for short-term profits.
14. Where did most of your money go? Into the housing crisis.
15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? Obama. “The Wire.” Paz Vega. Jean Gabin. That hike Jim and I took near Mt. Baker on an impossible clear and warm Sunday in September.
16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2008? “Oh What a World” by Rufus Wainwright; “F**k Was I” by Jenny Owens Young; “Supernatural Superserious” by R.E.M.; “Breathless” by Dan Wilson; “Ramshackle Day Parade” by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros; “Henrietta’s Hair” by Justin Roberts.
17. Compared to this time last year, are you happier or sadder? More resigned. Also hopeful.
18. Compared to this time last year, are you thinner or fatter? Same.
19. Compared to this time last year, are you richer or poorer? About the same. If I were a stock, my shareholders would be pissed. Although I guess not this year.
20. What do you wish you'd done more of? Travel, write, study French. Should I continue?
21. What do you wish you'd done less of? Watched movies that, yes, everyone was right, weren’t that good. Surfed the net meaninglessly.
22. How will you be spending Christmas? Spent it. Nursed burgeoning bronchitis while two boys went slowly crazy with presents.
23. Did you fall in love in 2008? Every day. Or tried to.
24. How many one-night stands? No singles bars, either.
25. What was your favorite TV program? “The Wire.”
26. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year? Well, I’m still pissed that John McCain dragged Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber onto the national stage and they haven’t left yet.
27. What was the best book you read? “Dreams from my Father”? Really? I've got to read more.
28. What was your greatest musical discovery? I rely on the discoveries of friends.
29. What did you want and get? That HDTV.
30. What did you want and not get? Oh, honey. Where does one start? Some were good not to get, too.
31. What was your favorite film of this year? “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
32. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? 45. I’ve forgotten.
33. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Coalescing my thoughts into something that felt substantial.
34. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008? Is this waterproof?
35. What kept you sane? P. Obama. Andrew Sullivan. Craig. Jim. Jellybean. Music. Anyone doing the hard work to articulate the trouble and see the beauty.
36. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Paz and Penelope and Obama.
37. What political issue stirred you the most? No one issue. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The Republicans keep tossing up figures who aren’t that smart but whose minds are closed. Obama, meanwhile, is the smartest man in almost any room he walks into...and he still wants to hear what you have to say.
38. Who do you miss the most? Sharon and Scott. Plus Jordy and Ryan everyday. Plus about a dozen people around the world I could talk to right now.
39. Who was the best new person(s) you met? I’m sure I’m forgetting someone.
40. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008. I keep learning the same things on hopefully deeper levels.
41. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year. Twofold.
“Too far out
Too far out
This is what they said would happen
We were warned
We were warned
We were too far out”
— The Tropicals
Honey, it’s alright
Long as I know that you love me, baby,
— Sam Cooke
From the Vault: Freelance Writing 101
The following is a piece I wrote four years ago that was never published. Some of it is still relevant.
On a Tuesday morning in 2004 I received a phone call at my apartment and a male voice asked, “Do you have time to speak with Karl Rove?” A second later, the senior advisor to the President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
The next morning a female voice informed me that Walter Mondale was waiting to speak with me. A second later, the former Vice President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
Who am I that such powerful people contact me at home? I’m the most powerless person in the world. I’m a freelance writer.
In his novel “Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow got the job description right. “Most freelances are nervous craven creatures,” he wrote, “it is such a tenuous living after all…” Indeed, the same week I talked to Karl Rove and Walter Mondale I drove down to the unemployment office for a seminar on how to search for a job. Maybe I should’ve just asked Karl Rove for one.
This is the most bizarre aspect of being a freelance writer: You’re poor and powerless and yet – if the gig is right – you’re constantly rubbing elbows with the most powerful people on the planet. One of my regular jobs is writing for a law magazine, “Law & Politics,” which was founded in Minnesota in 1990. Seven years later, they created a Washington state version, which is where they met me. Then they created lucrative “Super Lawyer” magazines all over the country, which is where they sent me.
Last year they flew me to Dallas and Houston and L.A. and Chicago. I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, boxer George Foreman, “Godfather” producer Robert Evans and former Microsoft general counsel Bill Neukom. While calling an acquaintance of a Houston lawyer to set up a quick interview for a quote, I Googled him and discovered he was a Forbes 500 billionaire. Yikes. His secretary answered, put me on hold, then, 30 seconds later, put me through. “Yes?” he asked. I fumbled for my notes. If I’d known I was going to talk to a billionaire that morning I might have showered. Or at least worn pants.
The entrée in that case was the Houston lawyer’s name, but generally my entrée is the pub I’m writing for that particular day, which is often no entrée at all. “Who do you write for? And that’s what kind of publication?” Yet somehow it all works, and in this manner the powerless hook up with the powerful.
Unfortunately the powerless are only getting moreso. Fees are dwindling. writing contracts expanding. One place sent me a 10-page contract for a thousand-word article – three times as many words in the contract as in the piece. Another place – OK, the same place – hired a third party to create online invoices, but the process is so cumbersome and non-intuitive that your per-hour wage (which one part of your brain tries to keep track of) bleeds away as you attempt to master it. If I got paid for the hours spent trying to get paid I might actually make money.
The language in these contracts is enough to scare away the best writer in the world: “The publication [and its sublicensees] acquires exclusive worldwide rights in all languages to unrestricted use of your work in all media, existing or to be invented in the future, including in all editions of the publication.” To be invented in the future? Obviously they’re worried another Internet will take us all by storm but can a contract really lay claim to the future? Why not the past, too? Why not other dimensions? The publication [and its sublicensees] retain exclusive worldwide rights on the Bizarro planet and in The Land That Time Forgot, unless otherwise agreed.
Did I mention the dwindling pay? Two years ago, one newspaper paid me $50 less for the same work I’d done the year before. Last year they tried to cut it another $25. I balked. It’s often the puniness of the amount they’re trying to extract that’s insulting. A check arrived last week five dollars short. I searched for an explanation and found it in the invoice: “Deduction: $5.” As long as they had a good reason.
Yet it’s often editors who cause the most heartache. Let’s face it: Most freelancers aren’t in this for money or fame but for the joy of stringing a few words together, and editors often stomp on this joy. If I’ve been lucky lately with my editors, it wasn’t always so. My early editors were often uncommunicative and tin-earred. In my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Timequake,” I sketched a scene in which Kilgore Trout tries to wake people in a stupor with this call-to-arms: “You were sick, but now you are well, and there’s work to do!” I wrote: “The metaphor for our time is obvious,” but my editor changed it to, “The metaphor for our time becomes obvious.” Becomes obvious? What does that even mean? Who wrote this crap? “By Erik Lundegaard.”
That was a mere pinprick. Years ago I was working in a bookstore warehouse to make ends meet, and one Sunday morning, lugging books down to the basement in a gray metal tub, one of my co-workers, Chris, mentioned in passing, “Hey, saw your article in the paper the other day.”
I looked up, puzzled. “I didn’t have an article in the paper the other day.”
“Didn’t you? I thought it was you. Yeah, that was you.”
“What was it about?”
My jaw tightened. A week earlier I’d sent the local paper a humorous piece on postage stamps but hadn’t heard back. When I finally saw what they’d printed, my piece had been mangled beyond recognition. I felt like Brando in “The Godfather” pulling the sheet back from Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse: “Look what they done to my boy.” Mobsters at least have the decency to send along fish.
The next day I phoned the editor. “I sent you a piece last week.”
“It was in the paper on Friday.”
“Nobody told me.”
“Oh?” A chuckle. Then nothing. In his silence was a challenge: What are you going to do about it? I brokered a deal for money when I should’ve just blasted him. Kids: Curse today, for tomorrow the prick may retire, as this one did.
I’ll say it: Freelancing is truly an awful way to live. You start out with big aspirations – a novel, a play – but one day you write a little essay and lo and behold they publish it. Sure, they chop it up, but there’s your name, and suddenly you’re addicted. Even as they change the rules on you you’re addicted. The playing field gets smaller and smaller (1000 words...no, 800 words...no, 600 words), and the rejection notices pile up. You study the pubs, because that’s what people tell you to do, but they’re either celebrity-laden and corporate, or radical and ironic, and you don’t see where you fit in. You write specific pieces for specific pubs – bending your personality to suit theirs – which makes the form rejection notices sting even more. Maybe you’re doing bad work? You’re often doing bad work (“The metaphor for our time is obvious” is a pretty bad line), but what they print is usually worse. You tell yourself your skin is thickening but you doubt it. You feel weaker, not stronger; smaller, not bigger. The silence surrounding your rare successes is deafening. And then you’re at a dinner party and the executive next to you finds out you’re a freelance writer and says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write,” and it’s all you can do not to slug him.
My friends and family gave me metaphoric backslaps when I got an editing job this winter. It was seen as a step up and it is. Now I’ll send out the contracts with the threatening legalese, and now I’ll have final say on which words go where. But it’s not writing. The writing I’ll still do in the mornings before work. The editing? I’ve spent 15 years learning what kind of editor not to be. Hopefully some of it has sunk in.
My Election Day
One day I'll live blog one of these things (World Series, unprecedented presidential elections), but here's the retroactive version:
5:30: Woke up, showered, coffee, etc. Read Andrew Sullivan. Wrote a bit.
6:30: Left our place and walked in the rain to the T.T. Minor Elementary School to vote. My first time voting there. Usually my polling location is within five or six blocks of my home but this was over a mile away. Seems a bit screwy but Seattle often seems a bit screwy. Got wet despite the umbrella. Rain forecast for the entire day, with thunderstorms in the afternoon.
7:05: Arrived at the school to find a line of about 100 people. Again: new. Usually it's just me and the old ladies in the basement of the church. The school is a sweet elementary school (Andy's daughter goes there) and has kids' names on all of the lockers. The woman in front of me commented on what great names the kids had — not the dull Marys and Davids of our childhood — and I pointed out one name and said, “Yeah, when I was growing up, 'Isis' was just a heroine on a Saturday morning TV show.” She then surprised me by repeating the whole “zephyr winds” line and we got to talking about “Shazam” and “H.R. Puffenstuff” and how the creators of the latter must've been high while making it (a magic talking flute?), and how the star of the show, Jack Wild, had played the Artful Dodger in the 1968 musical Oliver! and may have been the best thing in the movie. I was pretty sure he'd been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor. He also sang the film's most memorable song: “Consider Yourself.” This woman then began to sing the song to herself. Consider yourself...one of the family.
7:45: Voted. (Psst. Barack.)
7:55: Walked to Broadway on Capitol Hill. The rains had stopped. Passed a garage on John Street between 12th and 13th where the owner had painted the famous “Barack Hope” poster on the door. Painted it well, I should add.
8:05: Arrived at Starbucks ahead of the precinct captain, Stuart. Phoned him. He said he was still at campaign headquarters on Pine — that there were tons of people there — but he had our packet and would meet me in about 10 minutes.
8:05-8:15: Sat in the back of Starbucks on a couch. Starbucks was giving away free coffee to anyone who voted and the woman at the table in front of me, overhearing the barrista talking about it, said to her friend, who was sitting on the couch next to me, “Oh, is it election day?” I thought: “And that's why we have a GOTV effort. Some people just don't know.” Then the woman asked the man who was gonna win:
He: Well, Obama's ahead nationally but the electoral college is close. It might come down to Hawaii.
Me (butting in): If it comes down to Hawaii, Barack wins. Hawaii always goes Democrat and he's from there. No way he's losing Hawaii.
He: No, I'm just saying it might be close.
Me: Uh huh.
She: I've heard he might have trouble anyway. Because he's against the second amendment and all.
Me: He's not against the second amendment.
She: (Exchanges meaningful glance with the man as if to say, “Lookee here who's been brainwashed.”)
She (to He): So how long have you been hypnotizing people?
He: Oh, about 45 years.
They then went on to have a serious talk about hypnosis.
8:15: Stuart arrives. Hallelujah.
8:15-9:15: Stuart and I walk the precinct that he's walked four times in the last month, usually alone, getting out the vote. We only had about 20 names left on his list, and a couple were his neighbors with whom he'd just spoken. They'd voted. Off the list. Getting down to the bare nub. The goal.
Stuart was from Chicago, had lived in Seattle for...8 years or so? I'd met him the night before and given him shit about his Chicago Cubs cap. “You know, Barack's a White Sox fan,” I said. He smiled and said, “Well, I think we have room in the party for both Cubs and White Sox fans.”`Some part of me was actually worried about that Cubs cap: That it might transmit its losing ways into the campaign. I wondered who the Steve Bartman of the Barack campaign might be.
9:15: Stuart and I finished the packet, we said our goodbyes, and I walked the packet over to Obama's Capitol Hill headquarters on Pine. It was getting chillier but the rain wasn't coming back. In fact, the sky was beginning to clear. Nice.
Campaign headquarters was packed. I'd arrived planning to phone-bank into the early afternoon but looked at the second floor, where phone-banking was supposed to take place, and thought it made more sense to split. They had more volunteers than they knew what to do with. Again: Nice. On the walk home, ran into our neighbor, Laura, who was on her way to vote.
10:00-4:00: Got our place ready for what I continually called a “gathering.” Didn't want to jinx us with the word “party.”
4:00: First results. McCain leads in the electoral college 8-3: Kentucky vs. Vermont. Damn!
4:15: Andy and his girls arrive. Mathilda, the youngest, wears wings. I ask her if that was her Halloween costume but she says, No, she went as Dora.
4:30 and on: More people arrive. Jeff and Sullivan, with two kids. Chasing games ensue throughout the condo. Charges of “schnookering” are made. Balloons are blown up. Balloons are played with. All evening.
Around 25-30 people show up. At some point we order Indian food. I drink: beer and saki and red wine and champagne. By which time the gathering has become a party. I began to use the word: party.
You know the rest. I was worried about Virginia, initially, but when Pennsylvania broke early and clean for Obama, I thought: Good sign. By the tme Ohio broke, giving Obama 207 electoral votes, Jim and I did the math. The three western states, California, Oregon and Washington, would give him 280. It was all over but the shouting. Then came the shouting.
Today: A new day. Welcome.
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