Smells Like Grandmothers

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Quick Updates, Tags: , , ,

Glide has several buildings in the Tenderloin, and while I primarily work at one (the Family, Youth and Childcare Center), I often have occasion to visit the others, especially the “main” building at 330 Ellis.

This building is the home of most of our programs, including the free meals program, which serves 1,095 free meals a year, which just happens to equal (365×3).

The fog and condensation of San Francisco around this time of year (or really, any time of year) often creates a moist and damp atmosphere that certainly pervades the main building. After all, the door is always open there (it’s not just a metaphor). The environment, the very texture of the air is almost exactly akin to so many rainy or almost-rainy days in Oregon.

And thus, it just takes the right ingredients during an active or nearly-active meal downstairs in the basement, with all the hot air set to rise, to transport me to a kitchen in the suburbs of Portland, circa the late ’80s and early ’90s. Bacon, especially, helps. And maybe just a hint of cigarettes.

I have been a devout vegetarian for over a decade, but there’s something about the smell of bacon that I will never stop loving. That something is precisely this association. My mother’s mother lived in her bathrobe in the kitchen for a vast portion of the days that I would spend with those grandparents in Oregon. A chain smoker, she would chew on straws between the multiple packs a day. This probably doesn’t seem like a flattering image, but I adored my grandmother, and would make a special effort to be the first one awake every morning when my parents and I stayed at the house. She was always up before my grandfather, and I was always up before my parents. Early morning was our time, in the kitchen. And she would cook bacon and chew on straws and we would talk about politics and our day and play dominos and I would promise her up and down that yes, I would go to college and no, I would never smoke a single cigarette.

Tomorrow will be forty years exactly since the death of my father’s mother. Those of you handy with math can tell that this indicates that we missed each other on this planet by more than 12 years. And as much as I loved my grandmother who I shared nearly two decades of time with, the one I missed would have been my favorite. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of someone who would understand me better than she.

So I can only imagine. But for now, today, on the steps of the main building, they can share. Why not? And I’ll pause, take in a full breath of poisonous smoke and murderous bacon, and smile. This is home. This is a moment, a portal to worlds of youth and before I was born.

Grandmothers, I kept my promises.


Terrorism and Other Myths

Categories: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Strangers on a Train, Tags: ,

File this one next to “Iran will acquire toasters” as part two in a series of explaining basic principles of political reality that the entire world fails to understand.

Was that too harsh? I don’t think this post is going to get any more easy-going.

The inspiration here is an online news article that is (finally!) not from Fox News. It’s this one, wherein CNN elaborates that no less than 21,000 people were mistakenly let into the United States in 2006. Security measures should have stopped each one of these twenty-one-thousand souls from crossing into the precious New Promised Land (USA).

Not only is this a fact, it’s one that the government itself is willing to tell you. Or “leak”, at least. So the actual number could be much higher. This doesn’t really matter, because there’s probably not much of a difference in your mind between 4,000 or 5,000 people and 21,000 or 25,000 people and even 40,000 or 50,000 people. Maybe if you think hard and put it into a context like sports stadiums, you can kind of grasp it, but in the end, sports stadiums of various sizes all start to run together and look the same anyway. At a certain point, numbers all start to look alike and those of us who are not mathematicians (read: everyone reading) really don’t distinguish these big numbers very well.

The point is, a metric crudload of people who were supposed to be too dangerous for the common people to interact with were let into the United States of America.

The rhetoric that is taken as a given (roughly equivalent to “the sun will appear to rise in the morning” or “Senators are doin’ it for themselves”) in the US government is that just one person who shouldn’t be let into the country (or on a plane, or into a stadium, or into a country club) will instantly lead to a breach of security so fundamentally devastating that it will instantly manifest terrorism. After all, there are about a quadrillion people out there who “hate us” (for no reason, of course) and every one of them has no life aspiration beyond blowing Americans into little tiny formerly flag-waving pieces.

Even if some of that is slightly exaggeratory, the general gist is true and is displayed daily. Not just by government sources, but by all sorts of media, ranging from “leftist” to “right-wing”. We need to live in fear of the constant numbers of terrorists chomping at the bit to blow us up where we work, live, and play. The only thing keeping our physical bodies intact is the watchful eye of American security.

The problem with the watchful eye theory is that American security is run by the same people who do all the other jobs in America. And 85% of all people, in work and in life, are asleep at the wheel almost all the time. So we get our stadium full of 21,000 would-be terrorists into the country.

Conservative estimates with this simple formula of mismanagement of the border (21,000) times people who hate us (10% of surreptitious dangerous would-be entrants? 5%? 1%? 0.1%?) would range between 21 and 2,100 incidents of terrorism per annum in the United States. Say you have the most incredible law enforcement ever, that using the combined forces of the Patriot Act, wiretapping, suspension of the Constitution, martial law, and a pod full of those precogs from the movie “Minority Report”, can anticipate and prevent 95% of terrorist acts on US soil, even though the same people let 21,000 dangerous people in the country.

2006, you owe me, conservatively, between 1 and 105 incidents of terrorism on US soil.

Not that I want, like, endorse, or do anything other than abhor terrorism. But hopefully my point is blindingly obvious by now. We have not had any terrorism on US soil since 2001. For six years, despite pursuing a foreign policy hell-bent on generating terrorism and inciting generations of hatred, there has not been a single act. Not one. The numbers above, times six. Or really, to the sixth power, to fully illustrate the beating of the odds.

There are only two possible explanations for this.

Either (A) there are no terrorists or (B) US law enforcement is working at a 100.00% rate of anticipation and prevention.

I think we’ve blown up (B) as though with a rocket-propelled grenade. How do you account for the 21,000 mistakes? How do you account for the math above? And how in God’s name do we have US law enforcement that despite allowing a burgeoning drug trade, endless gang warfare, and sky-high incarceration rates, suddenly learned how to prevent something purportedly likely with 100.00% accuracy?

It also just doesn’t wash with the fact that I carry a backpack, often extremely full (I pack lots of layers to account for San Francisco’s schizophrenic weather), onto a subway five days a week, and it could just as easily have explosives as jackets. (Note to SFPD et al: It does NOT have explosives. It has jackets.) If BART felt they could effectively anticipate my explosive:jacket likelihood, they would not have just spent millions of dollars on new hidden camera systems, entirely to prevent terrorism, that not even Turkish hackers will know the location of. (I learned about this on the local news at the ER.)

But if I grant (B), then nothing else really matters. I think I’m more scared of a world in which law enforcement can anticipate and prevent with 100.00% accuracy than one in which we risk occasional private acts of discord.

So we’re left with (A). There are no terrorists. At least not that want to do anything in the United States.

I guess you could allegedly make the counter-argument that terrorists all have an extreme penchant for panache, and the bar has been raised so high by 9/11 that it’s just too darn intimidating to commit terrorism on US soil. Daily events in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to contradict this theory, not to mention the old days of Israel, Northern Ireland, and wherever terrorism is sold. Granted that only 2 of those 4 examples are in the fabled “post-9/11 world”, but I think they’re quite relevant given that it’s allegedly the same enemy as the one that is coming for us on US soil. So even if I grant this crazy argument that only the biggest plot ever would be satisfying to commit within American borders, all it means is that we can stand down and relax, because we’re going to see something coming a mile away. The fear and paranoia paradigm still doesn’t wash.

The only other counter-argument I could possibly imagine would be that the deterrent is so high that terrorism doesn’t get carried out. And while ending up on the rack in Gitmo isn’t appealing, I don’t think it’s deterring countless acts of terrorism in the Middle East. And certainly it’s no secret that US law enforcement rates are not fueled by precognition and do things like let in 21,000 “bad guys”.

So what would be deterring people who hate the US, can get in, will likely not get caught, and are willing to kill?

We’ve got another binary choice here. For the sake of clarity, we’ll move on to two new letters. Either (C) there aren’t any such people or (D) they see a distinction between attacking US civilians and US occupiers.

You might say we can rule out (D) off the bat, because of 9/11. But if that’s the case, we’re left only with (C), which means that 9/11 was not what it seemed. But if we rule out (C), it makes (D) very hard to explain in the context of 9/11 as well. In fact, why did 9/11 happen and then lead to six years of uninterrupted bliss inside a porous and osmosis-prone United States?

I can’t explain it. But I will go with (D), in part because (C) would have to mean accepting that literally everything we are being told about both Iraq and Afghanistan is untrue, and that’s a little more than I want to handle tonight. (D) is at least logically consistent and sound outside of 9/11, and even more logically consistent and sound with an inside 9/11. (You see what I did there.)

So then we have a people who blow up people only for the purpose of kicking out an oppressive occupier. Who will only attack military or invasive parties and steer clear, despite plenty of motive an opportunity, of attacking civilians who have stayed out of the conflict directly (despite empowering the conflict indirectly).

I’m no fan of violence. I’m an ardent pacifist who advocates peace and non-violence about all things. But I also like semantic and logical political arguments like this, a throwback to my debate years. And I’m left feeling that you can’t really call this phenomenon in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere “terrorism”. It seems pretty military to me, or at least paramilitary. And while that doesn’t justify it any more, at least we have defined terms. These people are just rebelling against an occupier in the old traditional method. Adhering very strictly to terms of engagement more civil than those used by the oppressor.

Which, in fact, brings us all the way back to (A). There are no terrorists.

Sleep easy, America. There was never any threat (from abroad) to begin with. Border guards, go ahead and let an extra thousand in, on me.

Part 3 in this series (mostly noting it now so I don’t forget) will likely involve breaking down the problems with fighting a force which routinely employs suicide bombing as though they were ardent individualists.


Bipolar Schizophrenia

Categories: A Day in the Life, Tags:

I change my mind about everything so often these days that I feel like I’m seven different people.

At least I’m not alone.

I was going to write a post all weekend. I know, I still haven’t managed one on Sunday. You can see last week’s post-Sunday post for the reasons. Was it really only a week ago? That’s weak. You could well convince me that it was months ago. Well, it was… last month. And what a difference a month makes.

It’s time to get rid of the pumpkins. October is gone, and what’s replacing it may be just as scary, but without the illusion or the mask. I’ve never been a fan of smashing pumpkins, either the activity or the band, but the pumpkins mold so fast these days they stand as a metaphor for political integrity. The face that smiles at you with a consistent look when you have the most hope about its designs is already rotten by November.

I go back and forth about things so quickly. Sometimes I think that all of human fear can be traced to our adaptability. We adapt so quickly to changes or new ideas that by two hours after we’ve thought of something, we already fear changing and letting it go. Our rapid-fire adaptation becomes our undoing, because it still takes that initial surge that beats down inertia to get us going in the first place. And each of those pulses or surges, overcoming our fear and our status quo, takes its toll of exhaustion and demoralization.

There is also joy and euphoria, though. The elation of knowing that the future is unknown, unfixed, able to be altered. In living life being close to many people, I have found that few others know that true exhilaration. Most only see the panic, the terror, the insecurity and instability innate to not knowing what tomorrow holds. But embracing that sensation, wrapping both arms around and holding on for dear life, squeezing the unknown till it begs for constraint – that is, in some ways, what life is all about. I crave that feeling, much the way I crave heights or breakfast burritos or good conversation. Smashing one’s ruts and routines like so much rotted squash.

But then I don’t. As soon as I decide something, get excited, put all the ducks in a row, there’s a change of heart, or of mind, or of … will? I don’t know. Turn and turn and turn again. It makes it hard to think or write or conclude when all I want to do is change. Change is good, but when change is the only constant, things become more of a struggle. Usually when I’ve used that phrase before, I’ve at least meant day to day or week to week. These days, it’s up-to-the-minute.

Through my life, people have accused me of being a manic depressive. I’ve playfully embraced the label, now called the oxymoronic “bipolar disorder”. From bi, meaning two, and polar, meaning poles. But anything which has poles has two of them. And this is “disorder”. From dis, meaning I’m putting you down, and order, meaning the way things should be.

In that succinct two-line phrase, we have all the metaphor we need for the modern state of “mental health treatment”. Taking a basic premise of everyone’s reality (or even aspiration) and calling it a problem.

Throughout much of my writing, I have defended the sine-curve lifestyle associated with so-called “bipolar disorder” or “manic depression” (note the contradictions in the old name, too) as being preferable to any other perspective in which one lives. It’s all over Introspection, usually fueled by rage. That people aspire to flatline their emotions is emblematic of what I find to truly be wrong with our society. People have been rendered afraid to feel, afraid to be governed by instincts and gut-level reactions that have been honed for centuries as guardians of our understanding and even our safety. For a society so critical of the reserve and restriction of the Victorian era, it is amusing that we still admire the emotional numbness of that era’s ideals.

Plus, the “treatment” just doesn’t work. I could give you a list of names of people who are on drugs for seeing the world properly at my place of work, or my last place of work, or countless other environments. You can spot the flattened effect a mile away. In contexts outside of “bipolar disorder treatment”, flattened effect is itself labeled a disorder. And yet the even-keel, robotic drone of mild pleasantness is seen as positive change, even salvation. Side effects may include fainting without warning, loss of bladder function, nausea, sore throat, and suicide. But you’ll feel okay about these things!

Okay. My intent here was not to take a tire-iron to this dead horse that angers me so. My intent was more to draw a (surprise!) metaphor for what’s going on. I told a friend a few weeks ago that he should not give into the temptation to think that what he was going through, what he was feeling, was not real. Because it is real. It’s real and true.

The world spins on an axis and it travels on an orbit. Level and rate. We have no reason to believe that the solar system itself does not have a similar experience, perhaps also spinning and certainly orbiting or drifting through the absolute space (such as it is) of the universe. Every second, the Earth is in motion in two or three or four different directions, simultaneously, effortlessly, but at a speed that would make fighter jet pilots flinch.

The serf farmer born tied to a Russian plot of land in the 1700’s, living and dying there every moment of his century of life, traveled as much as any jet-setter of the modern era in terms of absolute space.

This is the amount of change we experience every day. Massive, rapid, unfathomable alteration.

Last week, upon the death of a clam who predated and outlived our Russian serf, I called to mind the image of a nervous planet whistling into a darkened woods. In truth, of course, that planet is a whirling dervish, flying like a top (bey-blade?) in a circular dance almost unaware of what is in the path. There may be spooks and spiders and goblins aplenty. But the planet just spins and twirls and dances away, regardless of surroundings.

Earth’s course is predestined. Those of its inhabitants are not. As long as we pay attention. As long as we let ourselves feel.

To feel the rhythms of reality, to be aware of the endless change and travel innate to existence. To attune to the unknown, the unanticipated, the overwhelmingly vast but ever-ever-ever-turning.

Watch for falling goblins.


At the Zoo

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

Early this morning, we posted a new video for The Mep Report, my former podcast with which I still interact from time to time:

Most of the material is old, but it’s repackaged in a nifty new way intended to promote the show. This one isn’t going to take over the world, but it’s hopefully the kind of thing that makes people want to listen.

Not many people wanted to listen today. In general. It was, again, one of those days that makes one question nearly every assumption, every action. I came so close to not making it into work today. I can’t even tell enough to know whether going in was a mistake or not. At this point, I’m past the point of caring.

On the way home, a prophet got on the BART train. He was a firebrand preacher, raised in the ‘hood, with a goon on either side of him mugging, leering, and laughing as he spoke his truth. The man was eloquent and profound. He found his target audience, a man twice his age from the Vietnam era, engaging him in a repartee of the man’s life and his own perspective. He quickly found more than his target audience. After one stop, I had to put my book away to listen.

Only a tape recorder would have done him justice, but one key moment was his declaration that television is a harder drug than anything else out there, “except maybe alcohol and cigarettes”. He broke down television to its component parts: “tell-lie, and that’s their vision.” His target audience was clearly impressed, verbally affirming. Many of the others surrounding were annoyed or afraid. And just as many, like me, were listening.

After two straight days feeling debilitated despite working for one of the most important social services agencies in California, hearing this man was the most inspirational moment of my week.

He wasn’t perfect (at one point he said he liked Hillary more than Obama, though at least he prefaced it by saying that there’s no point in voting because no one’s vote counts), but it was a damn sight better than anyone else who’s standing up and calling out these days. It made me wonder why I’m not doing more of the same. It also made me wonder how he’d react if I asked for his contact info and said that he should be speaking to more than just BART trains.

Probably, he’d feel patronized. Who the hell am I, anyway? But the man had a voice and a vision. He was able to capture the despair of this day and mix it as a message of unification for a muddled mass of misfits rolling northward toward nowhere.

And why did it hit me like a testimony to our time that this man was speaking to BART trains instead of crowds? Why wasn’t he leading the charge, the voters, the revolution? The inspirational populism of All the King’s Men came to mind, and I had to acquiesce, as I was walking away from the northbound train, that he had no reason to be less corruptible than anyone else. Sure, “the best minds of my generation can’t make bail.” But also, “show me the money.” In the end, he would probably be just as buyable, just as susceptible, just as able to adjust his story and perspective to meet the needs of the imp of self-interest.

In a way, are we all doing the same thing every day? In a small, small, but damning way? Why do I not speak truth to BART trains? Why do I not rave at those who might listen, at those who don’t listen, at those who seem inexorably locked into demanding that I listen?

It’s not fear. It must be a sneaking suspicion of self-interest.

Out, damn imp.

Above ground, now. Walking westward, toward the sun and its descending shadows, still not gone yet by an act of Regress. A woman, seconds before entering a gym in her designer work-out gear, screams at a young woman on a bike in angry sarcasm: “I’m so glad your mommy bought you a bicycle!”

I wasn’t there to see chapter one of this interlude. I only saw the aftershock. Maybe the woman almost got run down. But the dripping bitterness just seemed out of proportion. The younger one stood perched over her bike, stock still, in that kind of silent shame that cuts deepest when one is sure one has nothing to be ashamed of. And did this woman really just yell and then bolt into the carded confines of her high-priced gymnasium? After unleashing invective at the allegedly spoiled?

She eventually moved on. And so did I, hurrying now. And the wandering mind recalled the ongoing rage of a born bicyclist who uncharacteristically turned his rage on everything this afternoon, just before this journey began. Usually his rage is confined to bicycles, but today it was for everything, valid or in.

“He seems in a weird space today. Let’s just leave him alone.”

The zookeeper is very fond of rum. I feel that the last 48 hours have brought me closer to an understanding of why people drink alcohol than I’ve ever had before. There have been many moments of thoughts akin to temptation in the past. A mid-sophomore year (college) night above a pulsing party in the space below comes to mind, as the scent of cannabis wafted to my window. “It would be so easy,” I moaned. Over and over.

I remain, as then, steadfast. But these are trying times. Times without measure.

Stand up, ye prophets. And I may even, soon, have the courage to stand with you.


This is Where the Summer Ends

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

…in a flash of pure destruction
no one wins.
Go nuclear.
The calm
the beach
and the remains…
-Ryan Adams, “Nuclear”

Trick or treat.

It’s Halloween, in many ways my favorite day of the year. I am blessed to work for a children’s center for my fourth Halloween in five years, allowing me to delve into the holiday as much as I would want to, usually from afar, as an adult.

I could barely sleep last night. I had various projects to work on, not the least of which was putting the finishing touches on my costume. I’m going to be an elephant, in a technical reprise of 1992, my last Halloween in Oregon and really my last childhood Halloween. That was also the night of the “real” Halloween haunts, when a strange old man in the backwoods of Oregon seemed to pretend to not know what Halloween was. Either he was very confused or I was making a really good move to back slowly off of that porch when he invited me in for a real meal.

Someday when I have more time, I’ll reprint that whole dialogue. Good times. In any case, I have upgraded my hastily thrown together gray outfit with paper-plate mask and sock trunk for a new elephant-head hat and recycled gray body from a costume of Emily’s past. Em says I’m easily impressed by a decent costume. I reminded her that I used to go to grade school wearing construction paper when the mood struck me. In the rain. On St. Patrick’s Day.

As joyous as Halloween makes me, there’s more to why I’m here this morning. I have had a post percolating for awhile about the symbolic passage of summer and the road the planet is traveling on. Picture a globe whistling nervously to itself as it takes what must have been a wrong turn into a haunted wood, watching as the scene darkens, owls and ghosts come out to play, and the globe’s watch breaks.

What? Globes don’t wear watches in your imagination? Well neither do I.

Maybe it’s just me, but this article hit me like a sign of the times. For those of you who can’t believe that the second news story I’ve posted on this blog is also from Fox News, the headline reads Scientists Find Oldest Living Animal, Then Kill It. A clam off the coast of Iceland was determined to be about 407 years old. Humans killed it within minutes of finding it.

1600-2007. RIP, clam.

And maybe the ghost of a clam coming back to haunt us doesn’t make you weepy this All Hallow’s Eve. But perhaps it should scare you.

The President, continually demonstrating either immense stupidity or chilling brilliance, is babbling about World War III if Iran gets the bomb. Here’s the problem. Iran will get the bomb. Everyone will get the bomb someday. This is the nature of technology.

I know nuclear bombs are very complex. But the idea of keeping technology in limited hands, especially limited along the lines of nation-states, is antithetical to the nature of the human experience of technology. When was the last time someone said that as long as Mongolia doesn’t get toasters, everyone will be safe? Would it even make sense to keep toasters from people? Or if you don’t like that example and want weaponry, how many nation-states failed to acquire cannons (the nuclear technology of their day) within a few decades of Napoleon’s time? Or firearms in their day?

The clam was alive for the whole Napoleonic era, by the way.

Sure, there was strategic advantage enough for genocides to be carried off with aplomb. But that was before the super-wired Internet Age. Information took months where it now takes nanoseconds to travel. Technology took centuries to advance where it now takes weeks.

I want to be clear. I think proliferation of nuclear weaponry is terrible. The creation of the weaponry in the first place was unforgivable. But now that it exists, terrible or not, the proliferation of information on how to spread this technology is inevitable. It’s not a question of if, but when.

And if this terrifies you, it should scare you more that the only people vile and ruthless enough to actually use the worst weapon ever on other human beings were the first to develop it.

The clam turned 345 during Hiroshima.

So the real question, as it is always going to be with issues of war and peace, is not staying one step ahead of the curve or killing enough people who might find out how to make nuclear bombs. After all, oft-labeled “terrorist states” Pakistan and North Korea acquired the bomb and the world still exists. Note how US rhetoric on these doomsday scenarios has neatly shifted to accommodate conflicting reality.

The real issue is how to get people to not want to bomb the world into smithereens.

But that’s not what Bush, raving idiot or cold calculator, wants to talk about. He wants you to envision our whistling globe getting pounded to pulp by the ability of humans to learn and develop technology that other humans came up with 60 years ago. Dead at the hands of the mere passage of time and obviousness, like so many quadracentenarian clams.

Iran will get toasters, my friends. And everyone else too.

Happy Halloween.


At the ER

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Tags: ,

Someone told me it’s all happening at the ER.

A day ago at this time, I was still holed up in the charming waiting room of Kaiser’s Oakland Emergency Room. I was waiting for Emily, as I had been for more than 2 hours prior. I had read through her copy of The Economist (magazine), haphazardly, almost cover-to-cover. I hate magazines.

Note to self: next time leaving for the ER at less than breakneck speed, bring the book you’re reading.

About a month ago, I was in Albuquerque at my Dad’s (first) cataract surgery. This was not an ER and had thus been planned, but the waiting room was similar. They’re all similar. The oppressive decks of fluorescent lights, washing everything in sight to pale apathy. The drone of the TV, always tuned to the most insipid show imaginable. (Seriously. “The View” during the cataract surgery. “Dr. Phil” at the ER. At night. I didn’t even know they aired Dr. Phil at night.) At some point, someone must’ve decided that the silence mixed with buzzing of fluorescents was too brain-rattling for a waiting room, so they posted up a TV in every corner. For distraction, I suppose. But there’s something so wrong about the normalcy of a terrible TV show that just makes my focus on whatever’s going on that much worse.

But in Albuquerque, I had brought my book. And I was at least able to wander inward, become engrossed as though on a train ride, and not constantly think about what was going on and what could be going wrong. Waiting rooms could not be more aptly named. But the whole game of surviving them is to make it less about waiting and more about being. A good book is extremely good at this purpose.

Instead, I had a magazine. Magazines are the compromise where everyone loses. They are too long to be sound bites of news (especially The Economist), but too short to be narrative. They are too old to be news and too young to be history. Advertising is overwhelming and garish. The pages rip easily. I can’t stand magazines and, perhaps more than any other container of written words, I don’t understand how they are successful.

So the waiting room was a lot about waiting.

I had a pretty good sense that Emily was going to be all right, though by hour three this feeling was starting to hit some snags. I had not carried her into the ER unconscious and bleeding from the head. She had not been shot. She was not missing anything. She had walked, more or less of her own recognizance, in through the front door. We would have gone to urgent care, but urgent care closes at 7:00 and she wasn’t convinced she had to go till about 7:35. Isn’t that always the way.

What she did have was a spinning head. She kept saying that her brain felt like it was moving. She was dizzy and disoriented, sometimes dropping scarily out of touch in the middle of conversation. She kept saying her brain instead of her head. And it had happened much of the day, but gotten much worse rapidly that night. It was time to go.

When one is sitting in an ER waiting room, with little to no idea what is wrong with one’s spouse, having surrendered said spouse to the care of those who deal with everything and anything, there is a sense of heightened awareness. In taking in the idle surroundings, normally a source of mild musing and perhaps casual scrutiny, one suddenly realizes the magnitude these memories may carry on later. For someone who naturally and unconsciously examines their life as much as I do, everything is constantly being analyzed, considered, and reflected. I recalled the things I would recall if something went terribly wrong… little omens, small annoyances, distractions that led me back to worst-case scenario thoughts, and the dissonant light-board that constantly scrolled, stacked, or built up the anachronistically cheery message: WELCOME TO THE KAISER EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT.

And on page 57, more about Darfur.

And then, after 11:00, the shootings in Oakland on the late local news. It was enough to make one consider whether anyone showing up on the screen was on their way to the physical location. At least this waiting room was wisely constructed to the side of the main entrance, ensuring that we would never know.

We. There were growing fewer and fewer of us. It seemed that many people had just missed the 7:00 cut-off when we entered a nearly packed room. By 11:10, it was just about myself, a homeless man who kept starting awake, and a very calmly reserved young man who either had everything or nothing wrong with him.

The triage nurses were chatting, crossing their invisible barrier where they independently intently stared at those seeking help and instead discussing weekends and relationships and weather. Just a job. Everyone has one, and every job has regular people in it. I will remember this, I knew (if something goes wrong). I will forever be bitter at the nurses who were just living life when.

And then my jacket pocket started shaking. It wasn’t an earthquake, or even the end of the world. It was Emily’s phone, which she’d insisted on leaving me, so that she could give them a number to call. Everyone has a cell phone nowadays. Emily has two. I have zero.

It was Emily. She was okay, even sounding relieved. She was on her way out.

She has vertigo. It is almost certainly not a prelude to a stroke. But, the doctors said, it was one or the other. And given those choices, it was good we came in. After all, she has never had vertigo or any symptoms thereof in her life. It is rare for this to start out of nowhere. Rare, but most fortunate when compared to.

Emily wants Drew Tirrell and Dan Stafford and even Pete Lee to know that she has a newly profound sympathy for them and their plight. Vertigo sounds like a bit of a trumped-up malady to most. It is an easy joke. Far too easy to ape and to question. Em described it as “just about the worst feeling in the world” early this morning.

No way of knowing if it’s permanent or temporary. Most likely the latter, but everything starts sometime. For now, she’s not driving and is taking work slowly. Getting up and lying down remain impossibly discombobulating. The medicine does little to nothing noticeable.

But it’s all good, relatively speaking. I can forgive the nurses their banter. I can let go of the grains of red sand building to the word WELCOME. I can watch “Dr. Phil” again (though, why?) or even the late local news.

For now.

Because nights like this, like last night, they’re run-throughs. I have often distilled the fairness we are given in this lifetime down to this: We all (almost all) will either die prematurely or watch our loved ones die before us. Or some combination of a bit of both. This is the curious curse of existence on Earth, our blessed gift of tragic learning.

There are a few, several standard deviations out, who may watch everyone they love be slaughtered and then be killed at age 7. And some who pass at 89, just before everyone they ever cared for.

But almost all of us have the same lot.

So it’s a run-through. It may not be Emily, ever. But if not, it will probably be me for her. It may not be for years. It may be tomorrow.

So there’s something to be said for the experience. And for thanking God it’s not tonight.


School of Hotel Management

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: , ,

On my walk home from Glide each day, I pass by the back end of the Hilton. The Hilton on the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin is a gargantuan 46-story hotel that Wikipedia tells me is the largest lodging facility (1,911 rooms) on the West Coast. There’s a joke around Glide’s disaster preparation circles about “depending on which way the Hilton falls” in the event of the Big One. If the Hilton, across the street from our main building, falls west, everything becomes a lot less relevant in our preparation.

The block covered by the back end of this monstrous hotel is also the block of “no-man’s land” that separates the Tenderloin from the high-end tourist district denoted by the Powell Street cable car turn-around and Union Square. That only one long block can separate these worlds (and that I cross between both every day) is an endless source of wonder for me. And the Hilton’s back end, replete with a massive loading bay and three full dumpsters, makes an eerily quiet neutral zone to secure this distance.

Not only do large stocks of brand-name food and drink come in and endless supplies of eternally foul-smelling refuse go out, but the back-side of the Hilton is also the designated smoking area for staff. No small number of them enjoy smoke breaks while seated on the immense marblesque blocks at the base of the structure. Sometimes they even push back on these blocks to nestle themselves almost invisibly between or behind the oversized pots for plants and trees that adorn this area. There is an insipid illustration on the wall of the “Team Member Entrance” of the Hilton at the center of the back-end, showing servility heightened to a virtue in a row of uniformed staff members. The live people, fortunately, tend to have a bit more spunk. Though sometimes one can detect exactly how their soul is being squeezed up out of their windpipe, and how much longer they can keep it down.

Amidst the descending fog and spirit of premature nightfall on this particular night (that would’ve been the first weeknight of real darkness, were it not for Congress’ determination to ruin Halloween and our Outlook calendars with an extra week of so-called Daylight Saving), I was somewhat heartened and even comforted by the thought of some two- to four-thousand souls bedding up for a long autumn night in that hotel as I walked by. Of course they weren’t yet bedding up at all, but the fleeting thought in my mind took me to one of my strange professional fascinations. Namely, to be a Night Manager in a hotel.

I have had many such fascinations (let’s not quite call them fantasies – that word implies a whole lot more than is involved in these particular fancies) over the course of a quarter-century of conscious life. Being a farmer is a big one, one that still tugs on the heartstrings sometimes despite my overall distaste for physical labor. Baseball player comes to mind. Rock star. But Hotel Night Manager might trump all the rest. Well, except baseball player.

With a few profound exceptions, being a Hotel Night Manager is a serene experience. There is quiet in everything. One has time to breathe, to read, to observe. Contact is incidental and completely devoid of context – the people who are staying in hotels are living a life outside of life, and one gets to live along with them. For the HNM, these contacts are predominantly insomniacs, lovers, the inconsolable, and the weariest or most spontaneous of travelers. Stellar company, altogether, perhaps a list of my ideal chosen cohorts.

It should be noted that this particular desire is not centered in a hotel like the Hilton – I can’t imagine there is just one HNM there, nor that any of them get much ease or quiet. It’s much more pictured in an idyllic hotel setting: a swanky but small downtown establishment, a National Park lodge, the La Fonda in Santa Fe, or perhaps the stereotypical New England inns (see “Newhart”, “Gilmore Girls”, Hotel New Hampshire). The La Fonda would be ideal. But there’s only one place like that in the world.

No small part of this daydream is encompassed in my own love of hotel lobbies, like the ones listed above, at night. The first inspirations for taking interest in such a job were probably little beyond spending many late hours in a wonderful hotel lobby and observing the Night Manager. It had to occur to me many times, as I turned the next page or chatted idly with a friend, that the only difference between us was that they were dressed up and got paid, while I could go to bed whenever I wanted.

Often, I didn’t want. One of these key hotel lobby moments that springs to mind is in Baltimore in May of 1997. It was not exactly a good time in my life. I was at Catholic Nationals, the next-to-last debate tournament of my year, and I had all 5 preliminary rounds the next day. I couldn’t sleep and I had no desire to. The lobby of the hotel (my kingdom to recall its name) was gorgeous, and I spent hours with a walkman borrowed from Barrett watching the activity therein slowly dwindle and pondering what had become of my existence. I got not a minute of sleep. The tournament the next day swirled in slow surreality. Between rounds 3 and 4, someone started up a pickup baseball game on the pristine grass quad of the prep school hosting the tourney, and I got to live out two of my professional aspirations at once, never to be fulfilled. I debated well, but fell just short of the break rounds. They counted ballots and not rounds (3 judges in each round), and I would’ve made it had they just counted rounds. Or maybe it was the other way around. Barrett broke. The next day I would spend one of the most solitary days of my time on this planet at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, wondering how low the needle could go.

For all my dislike of corporations, there are some that I must admit provide a necessary service. Hotels must be one of these, though nice ones cause concern for my conscience. This does not mean, however, that I could ever really bring myself to spend significant time or energy advancing the will of a corporation (even a hotel) when there is so much else to be done in this lifetime.

Maybe. After all, the job would be a lot like bartending. Endless fodder of experience and conversation for the books.

But sooner than that, I have to get writing those books already. So the lobby will have to wait.

Sleep well, Hilton.


Getting Through Sunday Somehow

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Tags: ,

It’s a bit of a cliche in my family (both families, I suppose – that which I share with my parents and that which I share with Emily) that Sunday night is a dreadful time to be conscious. I expect this is hardly unique to any of the families which I could claim, even (perhaps) the human family. Even if you like your job, you probably don’t like Sunday night. Maybe because it reminds you of Sunday nights before you liked your job. Or maybe because no matter how much you enjoy your job, it’s still inferior to unfettered freedom.

I mostly enjoyed my job last week, for the first time in a while. I still didn’t enjoy last night.

Then there was the compounding factor – the Red Sox’ sweep of the Rockies that wrapped up at the same time. I’m sure this dulled the pain for a good deal of my friends, but I was actually rooting for Colorado. Somehow the combination of leaving Boston and 2004’s World Series has taken the teeth out of my Red Sox fandom, and who doesn’t like the Rockies? Especially this year. Though for the first time in, say, three years, I actually liked both teams involved. Before 2004, we have to go back to 1993 (Blue Jays/Phillies) to find a Series where I didn’t dislike at least one of the teams in the Fall Classic. And in ’04, I at least had a clear rooting interest. So this Series was certainly a luxury, and I still didn’t mind watching the Beantowners frolicking on the field.

But it was a disappointment. And a sweep? Was that really necessary? At least it was a close game.

So now we’re without baseball. It’s only four months till Spring Training and five till the regular season again, but watching Bill Bavasi’s off-season moves is going to make it seem so much longer. Or make me wish it were. I can’t wait till we sign some washed-up starting pitcher for $42 million a year. Maybe Steve Trachsel will be available. Or Dave Dravecky.

And we’re almost fresh out of October. I’m not really ready to let go of the month yet. Clinging to the familiar themes, Em and I went to Six Flags on Saturday for their annual “Fright Fest”. After meaning to go for years, there was really no excuse during the year which we owned season passes. It wasn’t quite a disappointment, but it could’ve stood to be spookier. I got funnel cake and three rides on the swings, though, and I was in a mood to wander around crowds at night.

But oh, Sunday, you just seem to take the life out of things.

There seems to be some sort of conflict in approaching weekends between the idea of relaxing and the idea of “doing something”. And the more one tries to do something, the less one can relax, and the less it feels like “having a weekend”. When it feels like work to have a weekend, one isn’t really having a weekend at all. But it’s almost worse to sit around and try to enjoy a Sunday where one does next to nothing. The paradox seems uniquely Sunday’s. Because even if one does nothing on Saturday, there’s a day’s worth of padding to follow.

And you’ll note that I have yet, in the history of this blog, to post on a Sunday.

I used to escape this dilemma by working 16 hours a day on Sunday. And Saturday never quite felt like Sunday during the Seneca era, though the dread of Saturday night was very real. This is the first full-time work setup where I’ve actually had traditional Sunday nights, between working 6 days/week, Seneca, or working from home. And I’m not about to become the spokesman.

The irony remains that one can often make better use of free time during workdays than one can during the weekend. Something about valuing it more and having to make good use of limited time. Which is one of the only things making me question the possible Next Big Step (TM) in this life. Though I have a more positive model (Summer 2001) than my fears.

Of course, we all know what happened when that ended.

Maybe I should start using Sundays as mini-Summer 2001’s. They can’t get any harder to get a handle on than they already are.

That sentence is just awkward enough to convey what I feel.



Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , ,

It’s in the game.

MVP 2005 is widely recognized by those who are obsessed with baseball video games (most of my friends) as the best baseball video game ever made. The only reason that we have not gone on to anoint EA-constructed games MVP 2006 and MVP 2007 as eclipsing this game is because they weren’t made. After the 2005 season of games, MLB sold their baseball license exclusively to 2K (for the next decade, I think), and we’ve been left to play 2005 forever. It’s fine, though, because MVP 2005 lets you play through 120 seasons and that’s enough to keep one plenty occupied. Plus, savvy people are releasing roster updates for the computer version every year.

I, however, play on the PS2. And until recently, I’d been following a very predictable and stable pattern of sports video games. In the first season (in this case, obviously, 2005), I win the World Series on a relatively easy (but not the easiest) level. For 2006, I upgrade to the next level and, again, win the WS, but winning far fewer games. For 2007, I upgrade to the highest difficulty (in this case, the eponymous MVP level). Normally, I would expect to make the playoffs barely or just miss them, and probably have to wait till 2008 to return to a world title.

However, my ’07 Mariners, built into grandeur by the reputation of back-to-back championships and intelligent front office management (I’m coming for your job, Bavasi!) are 5-36.

It’s not even like I’m getting better. After a dismal 4-22 (.154) April, I am 1-14 (.067) in May.

I have tried everything. I have tried taking almost every pitch, not swinging till I have 2 strikes. I have tried starter-by-committee, where no one is allowed to pitch more than 3 innings. I have lost plenty of 1-run games, including a back-to-back 2-1, 1-0 set of losses that were so profoundly frustrating because the pitching was actually good. Loss #36, incurred this morning, extending a losing streak to 10 games, was 13-5. 5 runs would have been good enough to win any of the 4 previous games.

I even get thrown out of about 25-30% of games lately (usually in very late innings), which is consistent with a real situation in which defending champions who brought their same starting 5 pitchers back for the next season (in this case, Mark Mulder, Randy Johnson, Joel Piniero [but good], Curt Schilling, and Gil Meche) would be like. I just got an e-mail from my front office warning me of a possible firing if I don’t turn things around. After all, my team is rated to be the 5th-best in the majors, with the 3rd-best pitching and the best speed.

This is mind-numbingly frustrating in a way that video games almost never are. I adore this video game, putting it in an echelon with Civilization and SimCity, maybe DAoC, and trumping all prior baseball video games. This is the baseball game I always wanted to be playing, from the days of the Miller Associates all-text adventure and my hand-held 2-player game I used to play with friends on car rides to Seattle. It has everything, from detailed general management to management to stunning graphics. It has taken out most every other video game for the better part of a year, even securing the cessation of my addiction to Dark Age.

And yet, I hate it. I hate playing it. It is really not fun to lose 88% of the time. Even the Mariners never did that in real life.

So I now go through this weird Pavlovian shocking situation every time I want to play video games. I immediately want to play MVP (even after exactly 365 regular season games, plus 6 rounds of playoffs), but then recall how aggravating the experience has been. I usually end up turning it on, only to wonder why when I contemplate breaking my controller over my knee after swinging at a terrible pitch, or screaming swear words after giving up another homerun that was barely a strike deep in the opposing hitter’s cold zone.

I hit up Russ, grand guru of this game, for some advice, since he has been winning championships on MVP mode while having 5 players break the home-run record in the same season. He gave advice that was good at getting most games down to being close, but still not being enough to, say, win more than one game out of 15.

At this point, I am cleanly torn between trying to reap the benefits of hating my favorite video game (more time for other more productive pursuits) and switching back to the last level at some point in the season to see if I can claw my way out of this colossally deep cellar.

But video games usually take up free time when I wouldn’t otherwise be productive (probably like drinking-alcohol-time for most people). And if I hate this enough, I will find another one to play. So when is the right time to switch back? I was originally going to wait till the All-Star break, but I somehow think hitting the halfway point with 11 or 12 wins is going to be questionable. Even by switching to the easy mode, it would be hard to salvage respectability from that point.

Maybe at 50 losses. If they don’t fire me first.


Drawing Blanks

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

But the bacteria are coming
to take us down
that’s my prediction
it’s the answer to this culture
of the quick-fix prescription.
-Ani DiFranco, “Garden of Simple”

I think I have a staff infection.

No, not a staph infection. I’m fond of plays on words. People are freaking out about something that resists drugs, because it’s what people themselves can’t do. Drugs are almost universal, they infect almost everyone. Something that can resist drugs is the scariest thing we can fathom. No wonder I’ve always been interpreted as intimidating.

Yeah, it’s that kind of mood today. I’m torn asunder somewhere between righteous fury and complete apathy. Between leading a rally of one into the center of the earth and demanding to speak to the “leader” and crawling into a hole with water, a book, and a prayer of survival. Everything seems stark and vivid, like a world of sharp high-contrast shadows. Not a form in sight. Not a shade of gray. Someone flipped the scanner setting from grayscale to monochrome.

I initially couldn’t think of anything to write about this morning, but it seemed there was nothing more important I could do with my time. I took a shower, hoping for inspiration. All I found was the same self-inflicted diatribe on leadership, the lack of it, and how the natural traps of age and capitalism combine to imprison us all. We should try twenty years where all the Presidential candidates have to be under 35 years old and see where we get. Or have to act like it. This isn’t about straight-line age, any more than it’s about anything else simple. I know 20-somethings who act like they’re 60. I’ve met at least a few people over 70 who think they’re 25.

I like scary movies. It’s October, after all. A couple weeks ago, before all the good movies came out, I dragged Emily to “The Last Winter”. It was terrible (though not, as she dubbed it, “the worst movie ever”). The central issue causing the horror was the issue of the Earth fighting back and expunging the human virus. It would’ve been a lot scarier if they hadn’t manifested this desire through the form of ethereal ghost-caribou whose most fearsome weapons were snarling and pointing their antlers.

But apparently the planet is fighting back with resistance that would make the Democrats look strong. 18 inches of ocean in 93 years! It’s going to be really hard to adjust to that. A veritable tsunami. Somehow, I don’t think that was quite the nature of Noah’s flood of legend. Fearsome retribution comes for all those who stand in the same place for a long lifetime.

And maybe that’s the lesson, and the only metaphor we can hope to grab here. Don’t stand in the same damn place. Don’t stand in the doorways, don’t block up the halls. Maybe we won’t be drenched to the bone, but I guess our knees could get wet. What does it take to make people take themselves, each other, some sort of composite reality seriously? Allegedly a bunch of millionaires are coming together in a stadium in San Diego, uniting in the common bond of their losses. I suppose it’s a start.

The BART train is whistling down from Richmond, calling me to another day of head-butting walls as hard as I can. My only regret is that I have but one skull to give for this lifetime. If anyone has a helmet, drop me a line.

1 2 70 71 72 73 74 75 76