Categotry Archives: If You’re Going to San Francisco


It’s 2015 and You are Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , , , , ,

There’s a lot going on. There always is. Despite the efforts of various media outlets, phone applications, and the narrative brain to confine your existence to a narrow set of coherent and perfectly tailored activities/perceptions, reality is a cacophony of wills battling for your attention and interest. I can’t consolidate today. But I feel compelled to document. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy… and like clouds, the thoughts can blow away. The Internet, as long as electricity works, is some sort of vault with which we can offer solidity to the clouds. That’s even how it’s described.

Barack Obama is suddenly the President he said he was going to be, at least a bit, in a lot of different fields. This is both exciting and sad. I have been one of the more anti-Obama leftists out there, frustrated as anyone about his drone strikes and his corporatist policies and his total ignoring of the plight of anyone who looks like him or the environment or poverty. And yet, every other day, there’s a news story about Obama suddenly talking about the prison-industrial complex, or opening an embassy in Cuba, or openly celebrating gay marriage. The 2008 Candidate, who disappeared for six or seven years, is suddenly back on the scene. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that it’s not having to win any more elections that is the direct cause of this change of (return to?) heart. I’m not sure anything could more concretely underline what’s wrong with the American electoral system than that someone feels they have to sell out for six years in order to sneak in a few good policies at the end. I still hold out hope that he’s going to commute every death sentence in the nation on January 19, 2017.

I have moved three times in the last twelve months. This one is mostly just sad, or exhausting and frustrating. All three were summer moves, in New Orleans, though the first one started in Jersey, where it wasn’t much less humid than here. Okay, it was a bit less humid. Every time I move, I say I’m going to get rid of all my stuff. I never do. I hate how American I am, deep down, in many ways. I can only say that moving frequently is good for me, so I don’t build up too much complacency about my acquisitions.

Returning to Berkeley was not as hard as I feared. I expressed a lot of trepidation about flying back to Berkeley, by myself, to spend a few days. The context of the trip was of course magical, but I still expected to feel a lot of angst and sadness. There was really very little. The place is still incredibly haunted, but I was more heartwarmed by seeing all the old great restaurants and little quirks that make Berkeley what it is. This was all only augmented by happening to start reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius right before the trip, which I feel like is nearly impossible to follow without a deep understanding of the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget that there are places where people unironically embed poetry into the sidewalk, where a meditation center is available as an AirBNB, where a guy like Ben Brandzel could be raised in context. Remembering that is nice.

Being without the Internet is both immensely frustrating and kind of good. This new apartment is great in a lot of ways, including that we get to have our rabbit, Brownie (quickly becoming a Facebook mini-celebrity) and that it’s walking distance to all the great stuff on Magazine Street. But it’s expensive, something we justified in part by the claim that Internet is included. This claim was greatly exaggerated, at least so far. Internet works about 30% of the time and will go out for days on end. I am not great at standing up to landlords, though we’ve been grousing a bit. But in the meantime, I’ve both gone without writing posts I was really excited about and read more than I would have otherwise. I guess it makes it about a push. The Internet, like so many things, is a tool that takes on a life of its own if you let it. It’s just a tool. It’s just a tool. How you use a tool is what determines its value.

I mostly eat when other people are around. It’s not that I completely starve when I’m alone, but I can regulate my food intake much better when there aren’t social pressures to eat with someone. Alex has been back in Jersey for a couple weeks and I find that my eating patterns have settled back to a more comfortable minimalism for me. Given that I gained 50 pounds between 2010 and 2015, I prefer the self-regulation level, which has brought 10-15 pounds off that high-water mark. I’m not looking for 2010 weights, which were depressively skeletal, but I also have no business being 170 pounds.

I’m not sure any news story has made me happier in years than Ashley Madison getting hacked. It’s hard to think of a business more pernicious or predatory of human emotions, nor people who more thoroughly deserve the searing light of publicity. I hope it all gets published in a wiki-style searchable index.

Walking in the rain in New Orleans in the summer is no big deal. I remember the one year I lived in DC, suddenly rain was not a hard deterrent to being outside. New Orleans is the first place where the rain has been sufficiently warm to replicate that experience. It was highly unintuitive to start out on a walk two nights ago into a burgeoning thunderstorm, but I felt reassured and ready. And I wasn’t disappointed. Remarkably, tons of people were out in the rain, equally unhurried. Yet another way this is a seriously liberating place to live.

Patience is an incredibly easy lesson to forget, but it’s at the center of everything. This is a lesson I had to learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget when playing poker semi-professionally. And it’s still at he heart of poker, and every competitive game out there. The fun and even more forgettable thing about patience is that it actually can slow time down, which makes you feel like you’re living longer. This is mostly just a note-to-self that I’m sharing with everybody. Yoga and meditation are kind of the embodiment of patience, that unhurried slowing of intention and desire and replacing it with the ticking of each second, slowly. Time is extremely perceptual. Everything in Western society pushes us to rush through things, push for a future that may never come, go go go go go at a busy and overwhelmed pace. This is a life-destructive, time-destructive force. As much as we can layer our lives with the opposite, with patience, with milking a second’s worth of time out of every second, the more whole we will tend to feel.

I have a lot more thoughts, all of which at one point could possibly have merited a whole post on their own. But this format, a little more like the days of Introspection, is fitting for now. And now I have to go get ready to have a day at work.

Life hack:  thinking about death makes you feel more alive.  Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet.  It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

Life hack: thinking about death makes you feel more alive. Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet. It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.


Independence Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Pre-Trip Posts, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

“There was an exodus of birds in the trees
because they didn’t know we were only pretending.
And the people all looked up and looked pleased
and the birds flew around like the whole world was ending.
And I, I don’t think war is noble
and I don’t like to think love is like war.”
-Ani DiFranco, “Independence Day”

I’m going back to Berkeley on the 4th of July. I’d already be on the plane right now, but it was delayed, which is a bit of a surprise given how few people choose to fly on this day. Berkeley, of course, is the origin of my “4th of July Hat”, so named for the day I bought it. The hat is featured in this picture:


When I tell people how cold the Bay Area is, especially in the summer, they don’t believe me. I talk about this hat. It’s not just that I’m a chronically cold person who chose to wear this hat on 4th of July (the day perhaps most associated with heat on the entire calendar) in Berkeley. It’s that street vendors were selling this hat on 4th of July in Berkeley. Meaning they had to believe that other people, other more normal and warmer people, would also be interested in making such an acquisition. And they were.

Of course, that picture was taken in on December 23rd in Albuquerque, a few years later, a place where it sometimes snows. Like the snowflakes on the hat. It never snows in Berkeley. That would make the cold worthwhile.

Despite my bellyaching (I blame the delayed flight), I love everything else about the Bay Area except the weather. I love the people, I love the places, I love the restaurants, I love the… oh. There are also the memories. I love a lot of the memories. And I hate a lot of them too. There’s really just nothing to be done about that.

I just watched “500 Days of Summer” twice in the last 72 hours. I think it might be the perfect movie. I saw it at least thrice in theaters when it came out and I’ve seen it a couple times since. The movie is many things, including a brilliant depiction of miscommunication and misunderstanding and how that can emerge and evolve, but it is mostly a distilled and exquisite rendering of how love impacts the human brain and how completely devastating that experience can be. And perhaps even more perfect is its depiction of memory, how it can lie and cheat and illustrate and illuminate. I almost watched it again this morning. I can’t get enough.

It is, I guess, a weird time to focus on such a heartbreaking film when I’m on my way to the wedding of a dear friend. But such dwelling also coincides, of course, with only my second return to the Bay Area since the demise of my marriage that spent 6 of its 7 (pre-separation) years there (curse you, New Jersey!). As much as anything, visiting the Bay Area is like going to the grave of my married life and waiting for the ghosts to come rising from the earth. Good times.

The other movie it makes me think of is “Inside Out”, which may be battling “500 Days of Summer” for the top spot in my heart this month. [Be you warned, for here be spoilers!] How a core full of happy yellow memories, powering a whole field of identity can be stripped of its meaning, soured blue and sucked away to lead to collapse and ruin. Yes, the ultimate lesson is that efforts to make yourself happy when you’re not amount to bullying and that sadness is the conduit to compassion and listening and ultimately, hope (or at least a richly complex emotional life). But the metaphor of how quickly those yellow memories go blue, never to be reclaimed, spoke to me perhaps louder than anything else in the film.

There was going to be a tie-in to the USA here, its annual Orgy of Jingoism, why I choose to fly rather than get pressured to watch fireworks meant to simulate the murderous destruction of other nation’s people. I remember some Bay Area 4th when I was too upset by the whole thing to see straight, it was a Big Blue House year, me moping around Oakland and not wanting to go anywhere while Fish and Emily tried to boost my spirits. Or maybe I’m getting it tangled with the summer of 2002 in my mind, a year before the wedding, back in Waltham, when I decided to skip out on Emily and … I want to say Nikki and maybe Ariel? … and just came back and played video games with Russ because I couldn’t handle the disconnect between everyone’s buoyant patriotism and my angry sadness. They probably both happened, though the little blue-red orb of the latter incident is becoming clearer in my mind as I write this. Blue and red, of course. The days flip around, the memories shoot through the chutes, and I am no closer to knowing how to sit with this than I ever have been.

It is a happy time, a happy trip. So many of the orbs that remain yellow from this time involve the people I’m going to see. Brandzy, of course, and friends from Glide, and a town that almost claimed my college years, that I fell in love with during my first real flirtation of my lifetime, then gave a good seven years almost a decade later. The gobstopper of emotions, as I’ve always said. The swirly swirl of rainbow colors, all together. Rainbows. I still remember that meal at the awful Turkish place in 2004 with Brandzy and I, and of course and Emily, the day they started marrying everyone, the brief time before injunctions and stoppages and then Prop 8 came to delay it all for a while. That brief, heady time before this ultimate fulfillment.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
-Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obergefell v. Hodges

Maybe we’d all be better off if, at the outset of it all, some loud and authoritative voice said to us: “But you should know upfront, this is not a love story.”

Or maybe I’m just on the downslope of the roller coaster. I’m sure I’ll be up again soon, possibly in accordance and angle with the plane I’m about to board.


New Orleans March

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,


The nights got suddenly sultry this week, as the bobbing of 40s and 70s and back again gave way to 80s and March did its job of actually transitioning the seasons over into something warmer and more life-giving than the prior months. We are spoiled here in New Orleans, a phrase that could probably be applied full stop to any number of realities, but I am speaking now mostly in the context of Boston’s record snowfall, more accumulation, probably, than my entire four winters at Brandeis combined. And it doesn’t matter if I’d enjoy record snowfall more than an 80-degree twilight walk home in mid-March. There is much to be said for being able to be outdoors all the time, or more often than not.

I keep trying to compare New Orleans to other places and the facsimiles are often uncanny and yet insufficient. The one that comes up most often and sticks for me lately is San Francisco. Not because of climate, as a summer there is perhaps comparable to a Boston winter, nor because of elevation. San Francisco is famously a series of hills that they’d call mountains in the northeast, whereas New Orleans is functionally (or not so) in the shape of a bowl, with the upper lip starting at sea level, or at least it would be if not for the levees. No, the comparisons are found in the architecture, the streetcars (I’ve noted this similarity recently), the sense of color and life. Even, perhaps, the pirates. They did, after all, call part of San Francisco the Barbary Coast. The palpable sense of looming disaster, be it from earthquakes or hurricanes, mixed with a survivalist triumph of recovery. The importance of music. The legends of a past that was more glorious than now, when all these rambling grand houses shone with new paint, their first coat, and entertained the finest of the city before things fell on slightly harder times.

I haven’t been to San Francisco in several years and it’s possible that the recent spike in prices and even more wealth flowing out of Silicon Valley has ushered in a new age where people perceive this as the peak. Certainly few cities have the ubiquitous sense of surviving a traumatic calamity, at least domestically, to the degree that New Orleans does, carrying the weight of the nearly decade-old disaster like equal parts badge and burden in every conscious act. And yet so many people weren’t here, the city feels over half transplant, at least to the young or those in their thirties like me, and the question of when you came is almost the first for any new acquaintance. The lack of local accent is usually sufficient giveaway, though New Orleans has its own dialect distinct from the rest of the South, often compared to some of the lilts of Boston and New York. It has always, like San Francisco, been a city of migrants or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrims.

For both NOLA and SF carry this sense of place that transcends even the reality of these vaunted cities. They feel different and it feels intense and powerful to be in a city like this. For all the comparisons, both towns are unique. When you are standing in most of SF, you could not be anywhere else. Ditto NOLA. While both carry vibrant rows of eclectic houses in colors louder than the last, one is all Victorian and the other Southern Gothic, and never the twain shall be confused. One row will sit on a high-wire tilt and the other slumping into a sub-sea-level swamp. Both, I suppose, are surrounded by water, but the Bay could not be much different than the combination of bayous, lakes, and the mighty Mississippi. But we have more songs about these cities than perhaps anywhere except New York. The people teeming out of the northeast at various times when folks have dispersed have probably traveled to these two cities more than anywhere else. Nowhere else except for maybe New York and Los Angeles do people arrive at the gates with more anticipation, more certainty of destination, more abandon, reckless and otherwise.

And here we arrive at something unique to New Orleans, something that puts it more in keeping with modern Las Vegas than the peninsular City by the Bay. It is not just the drinking, though that’s part of it. It’s the sense of release. It’s the notion of freedom, the ability to do most anything and not only get away with it, but be embraced and revered for it. Crazy is the norm here. “You have a license to be nuts,” noted one elder stateswoman of the city to me when trying to explain what makes the city magical. She had a defiant grin on her face when she said it, as though to query why anyone would live anywhere else. The alcohol is, mostly, just a cover story. Like getting drunk so often is, it’s an excuse for the abandoning of inhibitions when it’s really just that one wants to be able to let go. And as always has been my retort throughout life, I don’t need alcohol or other substances for that kind of release. I already have the inhibitions of the inebriated, at least as far as the little hang-ups on dancing and reveling and excitement go. I do, admittedly, have pretty tight inhibitions on what I find to be moral lines, which is why I keep my prohibitions as they are. Not many in this city share those sentiments.

But there are codes of conduct here to be admired. Not just in terms of there being no real sense of embarrassment within the city limits. The phrase “Be Nice or Leave” is something near a city motto, hanging on brightly colored signs throughout the city’s private establishments. A fine fitting contrast with “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” functioning as both its reaffirmation and its glorious inverse. There is a real sense that this is not just the policy of the restaurant, the ice cream parlor, the bar, the bowling alley, but it is in fact the standing ordinance of the entire metropolis. If you’re not capable of sitting down to a conversation with a stranger at any time, with being genuinely friendly and interested, with expressing compassion, then you’ve probably wandered onto the wrong pilgrimage. We hear that New York is still accepting new pilgrims of your temperament.

But that’s probably meaner than something any actual New Orleanian would say. Even snide regionally competitive comments are a little out of bounds.

I have never encountered a place where so many people are so consistently genuine, where the common currency is someone’s story and background and feelings, where conversations with the dry cleaner and the Taco Bell cashier cut through small talk into a sense of real connection across the void between our souls. In my beloved West, people say hi to you on the street, but here they will stop and engage and ask where you are going and mean it in a sense more cosmic than an intersection of streets. The streetcar driver will start relating his life story, the waitress will give you a rundown on everything she’s actually going through. It’s not that these interactions never happen elsewhere, but they are more common than not in New Orleans and it gives the sense that here, alone among all places in the United States, there is no pretension at all. Which of course cannot be true at all levels, for there are still gated communities and gated houses and fancy cars and houses and golf courses. But at most rungs of society, most places in public, pretense about this life is absent. We are all just living and communing and trying to get by and life is easier if we’re in this together and I want to learn from you.

Life is hard enough without the barriers we tend to put up. In New Orleans, those barriers so often dissolve like ice in the sunset swelter of the cracked pavement, ten feet below sea level and thousands of miles from anywhere else.


For the Love of the Train

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

The St. Charles line at night.

The St. Charles line at night.

I took the streetcar home yesterday. I don’t always take the streetcar to and from work, like I did with BART when I worked at Glide in San Francisco. I often take the car, dropping Alex off on the way, so I can use the car at work as I attend trainings and workshops and will eventually have more donor meetings and school visits. The car that badly needs a wheel alignment from its brutal encounters with the streets of New Orleans, streets that I’ve compared to San Francisco after consecutive 7.0+ earthquakes. The wheels of the streetcar are permanently, perfectly aligned.

The streetcar rolls down the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue, the big broad host to many of the Mardi Gras parades, a street adorned with gaslamp-lit hotel entrances and stately homes that could be hotels and libraries that used to be stately homes. Neutral ground is what we call “medians” here in New Orleans, a special designation indicating both the substantial size of most of our medians and their particular Commonsy role in the social order here. People hang out on the neutral ground, especially during parade season, where lawn chairs and boxtop ladders and every height of seat in between litter the St. Charles midsection, making streetcar progress, like most progress in the city during that time, impossible. Why take the streetcar when you have a float?

But it’s post-Mardi Gras in New Orleans this week, time for reflecting and taking stock, cleaning up and bundling up. It was about 40 degrees last night, and awfully windy, when I stepped off the red Canal Street line that cruises down from my work and into the heart of the city, crossing the intersection to Canal and Carondelet to wait for the outbound green St. Charles line to take me home.

It is my home, for what it’s worth, at this point in my life. People at poker tables or work or wherever always ask me where I’m from and Alex makes fun of me for giving a complicated answer. I don’t always run people through the rigmarole of each sequential city off the bat, but I often end up there when people can’t reconcile being “from the West” but having “just moved from New Jersey”. I inevitably end up at stats like having visited 48 states or the substantial time (4+ years) in five of them and the incredulity isn’t aided by the fact that many people assume I’m a bit younger than I am when they look at me (it has to be the hair… and maybe the genetics from my parents, wherein no one could believe my mother was retirement age when she retired, or my father getting carded for a drink at dinner about a decade ago). Alex thinks it’s too much information. But I’m also the guy who gives a real and sometimes quite extensive answer to “How are you?” so somehow just picking one of the last 3.5 decades worth of places doesn’t seem to cut it.

In part because of moments like last night at the train. Because I stood there, shivering, acknowledging the likewise chilled people who approached the little yellow CAR STOP sign on the corner, and just looking around. Trying to center myself, trying to bank this moment for the memories and internalize what it feels like to be newly 35 in a new city again, anticipating a ride on my current favorite mode of transportation. And I glanced across the road, over the four lanes and two neutral-grounded sets of streetcar tracks of Canal, and realized again I was standing at the magical transformation point where Carondelet discards its inhibitions and becomes Bourbon Street, officially entering the French Quarter. And I felt the rumbling echo of early mornings emerging from Powell Street Station in San Francisco, quick-stepping past the iconic cable car turnaround as two directions of Rice-a-Roni vehicles floated on the hill-climbing tracks in the half-sun light. The echo was resonant, powerful. I have had the good fortune to log serious time in some of the Great Places of this country, perhaps of the world. Meaningful, significant places, pilgrimage destinations, and the epicenters of perhaps the only two remaining streetcar systems of significance within these fifty states. And while the Powell Street trek up to the Wharf was never part of my commute and I only rode it maybe five times in seven years in the Bay Area, the crowds of revelers snapping iPhone photos as the turntable spun their car around never got old.

I may get old at this point. More and more, I face that somewhat surprising possibility. All I can ask for are trains to ride to take me to the next stop, the next landmark destination, the next beautiful and historical Place. For now, it’s on the neutral ground, and that’s way better than neutral.

The Powell Street turntable.

The Powell Street turntable.


Institutional Idealism

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

When I worked at Glide in San Francisco, I worked with an intern from Germany on a project about the nature of Glide as an institution. It was a special project for the then CEO, newly hired, who wanted to study why Glide as an entity was so resistant to change and data despite being so effective at providing help for the poor and homeless of the city. The metaphor my co-worker came up with was a unicorn, which stood in for the mystical Glide culture that pervaded everyone’s image of Glide as a place and an institution in the community. Which is not to say that Glide isn’t a truly magical place, but that the image everyone had in their mind was that this more deeply magical than perhaps was real. And it came down to this unicorn that needed to be protected and sheltered, when it should actually be running free through the streets of the Tenderloin.

The issue is this: Glide became what it is (revolutionary, radically inclusive, a church without walls, a life-changing place) by taking risks, sometimes risking everything. This was easy to do at first because Glide was young and had nothing to lose. Glide was just an aging Methodist church in a decaying neighborhood when Cecil Williams arrived in the sixties and he had a vision that he was able to put into practice because he was totally unafraid of the consequences or the risks. This kind of fearless abandon is the heart of the unicorn, it was what was so downright inspiring about the early years of Glide, and it is what spawned such radical and amazing change and possibility.

But here’s the problem. The more success that this methodology encountered, the more success there was to build on within Glide as an institution. Over time, Glide was no longer just the fringe radical group that accepted gays and fed everyone. It acquired powerful friends like Maya Angelou and the Clintons and Warren Buffett. It acquired donors by the thousands, volunteers by greater thousands. It got government contracts, grants, and a certain institutional entrenchment that meant Glide suddenly had things to lose and thus to protect. No longer could Glide risk everything so freely because there was nothing to lose. Now there was influence and ability to lose, with thousands of San Franciscans relying on the services Glide could provide that was made possible in large part by these key connections and assets.

This success, this accumulation of power and influence and assets, this process makes institutions more conservative. And what the intern and I identified and proposed is that there is a tipping point where the component parts of the institution (staff) believe there is more to be potentially lost from the future than gained, and at or around that tipping point is when an institution goes from being idealistic and radical to protectionist and conservative. And the grand irony at Glide is that what everyone most wanted to protect was the mythical unicorn of Glide culture, whose every aspect was non-conformity, radicalism, inclusivity, and risk-taking. In other words, what everyone wanted to hunker down and preserve was the exact opposite of the attitude of hunkering down and preserving. And thus we presented our findings to an all-staff (or maybe all-manager?) meeting and started to put about a plan where Glide could both preserve its radicalism but become fluid and idealistic as it had always been and everyone always wanted.

I post this little vignette not to publicize somewhat internal information about Glide, an institution that I believe in fully and you should support, but because since doing this study in 2008, I have found the lessons of this understanding to be true about almost every institution everywhere. And not just institutions, perhaps, but people. It is complete cliche that the young are idealistic radicals and the old are cynical conservatives, but no one really analyzes why this is the case other than the shorthand that age creates conservatism. The older conservatives would argue this is because experience teaches you that conservatism is correct, but I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious from the above. It’s not age itself, but the process of accumulating things that one fears losing. This is why the rich are more conservative than the poor, because they have more to lose. The entire spectrum of idealism can be measured by whether one fears the future more or finds it offering more hope. And that, in turn, is based entirely on what one feels one has to lose.

This is also why children are, in general, so wide-eyed and optimistic and idealistic. The future is where everything sits for children and, as a rule, even if they have things they don’t appreciate them fully because they can’t contrast it with the concept of not having them (unless, of course, they’ve experienced many different qualities of life over the course of their few years). Teenagers especially find the future and the immediate present to be vibrant with radiating possibility and freedom and thus take the most radicalism on. And by the time people are settled with jobs and relationships, suddenly the future looks like it’s coming for their stability more than offering more possibility. Doubly so if there are debts like student loans and mortgages to be paid.

Thus the challenge of the would-be idealist, the person who aspires to be King or Gandhi and reach much older age with idealism fully intact, is to be willing to take risks and not feel like there is much to be lost even if there are material things or stability to be lost in actuality. This, I suppose, is the heart of bravery and fearlessness, to act as though there’s nothing to lose even if there is, and is certainly what King and Gandhi called on from themselves and their supporters. Of course the lesson of those individuals precisely is that there is, indeed, everything to be lost, one’s own future time on this planet is completely at risk from behaving this way, yet both lived for years with the assassin’s bullet as a fully formed threat in the future and proceeded heedlessly and to great and wonderful effect.

Our society is a raging torrent of influences to get us to be more conservative, to fear the future, to hunker, bunker, and protect. The entire world of advertising, arguably the most powerful, constant, and influential voice in our world, tells us to fear this, that, or the other, and that only a product or service they are selling will mitigate the impending doom. Our news-media is a disaster-hound, teaching us to fear hurricanes and gunmen and people who don’t look like us who are coming for our stuff and our lives and our livelihoods. Our government, especially in the United States, is in endless paranoia about things being taken from a country the envisions itself as having absolute power, influence, and dominance, and thus absolutely everything possible to lose. This is why 9/11 can spawn the Patriot Act and war without end, because we are so darn afraid of losing anything that we flail hopelessly at the rest of the world for even thinking it could take anything from us, no matter how small that something is or overreactive our lashing out.

But there’s a reason that we idealize childhood, that being young is associated with joy and hope and the way we aspire to see the world. It’s because the world of the young is full of possibility and hope and a future that looks bright, whether or not it actually proves to be. Deep down, this is the way we all seek to live, the way we all know we should be living. We all have dreams that we’ve wanted to sacrifice for at some point. And it’s harder when the things we’re hunkering and bunkering to protect are marriages and children and the house with the white picket fence we’ve just agreed to pay off for three decades. And 100% risk is not for everyone. But I think examining your own calculus of more-to-gain or more-to-lose from the future is a great guidepost to looking at your own idealism and getting back to a place where the future is pregnant with possibility, not portentous with loss.

Certainly the institutions in which we interact, work, and play could learn a lot from this. But that starts with each of us being idealistic enough to take those chances and inspire others to do the same. Only then are we really living, are we really free, and are our unicorns real.

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.


I Miss You Already: Glide, Maya Angelou (1928-2014), and the Ever-Renewing Past

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

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
-Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

There is a place at Glide called the Maya Angelou Room. It’s warm and cozy and the perfect place for stormy summer San Francisco days, a place with plush green couches and a well-worn table and pictures of Maya herself and long-suffering people who have come through Glide’s doors seeking salvation, or at least a meal. It has wide windows looking out on the desolation row below, looking out onto the meal line and the pigeons and the occasional shouting or shoving that define the Tenderloin.

Here, why don’t you look at a picture to see what I mean:

Shamelessly lifted from Barbara Lin's Facebook

Shamelessly lifted from Barbara Lin's Facebook

We would have meetings in that room, serious ones or birthday celebrations, or planning for the next big project or visit. It’s a locked room much of the time, unlike most at Glide, with Vicky running around hectically with keys to open up one of the hidden little sacred spaces in the ramshackle earthquake-prone building at 330 Ellis. The room is the center of the internship program at Glide, where new fresh-faced students from surrounding universities come to learn about how non-profiteering is done, with hard work, sweat, love, and sometimes frustration.

I never met Maya Angelou, an apparently fairly frequent visitor to Glide and one of its most ardent supporters. Her room, though, felt like I’d imagine talking to her would have been. Somehow warm and simultaneously austere, comforting and reassuring but not immune to conflict and confrontation of the truth. I have no idea if she had a role in designing it or if it was simply named in her honor, but I’m sure she sat a spell there at least once and probably appreciated it. Maybe it inspired a poem or evoked a memory. I always felt like writing when I was in that space.

There’s a lot I have to write. At some point, I’m going to have to come forward with some untold stories that are burning a hole in my keyboard, stories of pain and betrayal and institutional failure and all the old tropes that seem to be a big part of what life is about on this planet. I don’t believe in battles between good and evil, but I do believe staunchly that there are people out there who want you to believe that life is just garbage. That it’s always been garbage and always will be, so why don’t you go out and get yours, whatever the cost. As I told some of my debaters recently, what keeps me going is the importance of not letting the message that life is garbage win. Life is hard, grueling, and filled with misdeeds. But it is more, far more than garbage. Maya knew it, and her life was way harder than mine will ever be. Glide knows it, every day, and inspires those whose lives are harder than Maya’s.

But life, as we are reminded in the ensuing online debates from recent events, is also not a battle over martyrdom, over whose pain is biggest or whose obstacles are greatest. It is, perhaps, an effort to see who can come the farthest through such setbacks that we all must face and try to bear. The most-quoted Angelou line of the time since her death and perhaps of all-time is this one:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
-Maya Angelou

I think the ability to make people feel better, more positive, more hopeful, more understanding of each other and the life that we are trying to lead, that’s perhaps the greatest aspiration any of us can have. We all want to change the world, even if it’s only for the lowliest of reasons, but changing how people feel about going through this arduous journey is probably far nobler and more important. And the only way to find out how that’s going is to constantly communicate with those people, to engage, to offer stories of one’s own as illustrations for what could maybe be reached in the future.

Angelou was masterful at this. Through the spinning of words, in poetry and prose, she could keep people hanging on a thread and make her hard hard life relatable to anyone, inspiring to everyone. She was one of the first people I read in high school who made me realize that childhood was something stripped from many people, who alerted me to the fact that lives like those lived by the children of Seneca Center, where I would later work, existed. She reminded me of the power of a simple honest story and how it could resonate, reverberate, ripple into the memory and actions of others.

As I stand on the precipice of another transition, another move, another series of goodbyes already in progress, I think back to the foggy environs of Glide’s second floor, to the cavernous echoes of the neighboring sanctuary, to the peeling tile and hearty smiles of the last place I toiled. I miss you already, though I haven’t even left. In missing the last thing, I am missing now and missing things yet unmet. A full heart is a heavy one, and there is much to be grateful for about that, even if it feels like sorrow. Benevolent sorrow, but sorrow nonetheless.

Maybe I’m just trying to live up to one final quote from Maya:

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
-Maya Angelou

Doug Gaines, myself, Barbara Lin, Jesse Mendeola, and Burgious Frazier after briefly simulating a baseball game in Glide T-shirts on an intersection in the Tenderloin, c. 2008.

Doug Gaines, myself, Barbara Lin, Jesse Mendeola, and Burgious Frazier after briefly simulating a baseball game in Glide T-shirts on an intersection in the Tenderloin, c. 2008.


First of the Month

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

When I worked at Glide, there was continual discussion about the intramonthly rhythms of our clientele. Specifically, things were usually pretty thin at the outset of the month when people on some sort of federal or local aid received their benefit checks, then got ridiculously busy by the end of the month when people were furthest from said receipt. This was most clearly manifest in the meals line, the walking talking pulse of our organization and the homeless of San Francisco, but had ramifications in almost every other program. People were more likely to be feeling desperate and needy in the late twenties of a month than the single-digits.

I was thinking about this today as I set out to treat myself to a lunch out at a diner in downtown Highland Park – the Dish Cafe, which I’ve been meaning to try for a while. It’s the first day of February and no small part of my self-justification was the idea that my balance sheet for the month was clean and so I was etching on a blank budget page going forward. I’ve decided to stop posting actual percentage graphs of my expenditures here, largely because I think I’ve gotten a handle on the budget overall. I spend about $2,000 a month. That’s what I spent in January and what I spent in December, if one doesn’t count the extra for the laptop and luminaria supplies. I can live on $25,000 a year if I’m conscientious about sticking to a budget and am living in a pretty expensive place (as I’ve said often, Jersey puts the East Bay to shame in this category). Emily and I used to live very comfortably on $50,000 a year, but the difference between the scrimping now and the comfort then was largely about mutually shared costs, such as rent and insurance. But yeah, this works and I’m not wanting for anything. $25,000 a year. The most money I could possibly need to live out my days is $1.5 million, assuming I don’t reproduce or something. Of course assuming I make it to 91 is absurd.

This month, I will turn 31. Age has just been a number lately, increasingly one that seems spat out of a random generator. I can feel little cracks and crevices creeping into my bodily life, noticing pain or prolongation of ailment that would have bounced back more quickly in days prior. But time strikes me as ultimately being a lot like money. One can make it one’s entire focus and obsess over it and say that it is the indicator of all manner of other things. But the truth is just the opposite – it’s a trivial number that people get caught up on and has only the most tangential bearing on life. It’s true that a 91-year-old is more likely to die tomorrow than a 31-year-old, just as someone with no money is more likely to die than someone with millions. But the actual relative likelihood margins here are extremely small and the actual determining factors are entirely outside this number. Unfortunately, most of these, as with the state of one’s mood or one’s life generally, if not entirely, are outside of one’s own control, or at least largely so. But at least they are more meaningful things, like one’s role in others’ lives and others’ role in one’s, than money or time.

Thus I keep a budget, but am focusing less on every penny and dime, except to ensure that I’m not getting out of my established ranges that I’ve had for the last four months. Still, I’m tracking it enough to feel a little more motivated to give myself a break and dine amongst the public early in the month and push through on waffles and ramen late in same. Which makes me wonder, more than anything, whether restaurants (especially in this economy) have their own tangible rhythm that reverses that at Glide and other soup kitchens. Are eateries busiest at the advent of a month, or its first weekend? Do things dip to a lull at the end? Given the budgeting skills of most Americans, I’d be surprised if this actually manifests, especially since most restaurant-goers are a step higher than Glide’s clients, if only in that they are given more access to credit (debt). At the same time, this trend isn’t really manifestation of a “skill” so much as procrastination – if one were really good at budgeting, then one would be perfectly balanced in distribution of eating out, based entirely on when one most felt like it.

So we’re all a little bit the psychological adherents of time after all. But the veggie burger sure tasted good. Besides, there’s no telling how much time we’ve got left.


Storey is… Asleep and will return… Soon (Hopefully)

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

When I worked at Glide (they update their website now!), I designed this makeshift sign that I manually laminated with contact paper which served the purpose of either the old open/closed signs my Dad used to package with FAX machines when he sold them in the 80’s or whiteboards on college dorm room doors. I made the latter correlation when one of the Administrative Assistants I hired used a whiteboard instead, but she was fresh out of college and the whiteboard thing was far too closely associated with college for me. Not that my makeshift sign looked all that more serious.

I wish I had a picture, but I can’t seem to find one in my archives. I didn’t take all that many pictures at Glide… even though my parents warned me about sufficiently chronicling a workplace, workplaces always seem like the mundanely ordinary in contrast to the extraordinary that’s worth documenting. Anyway, the basic idea was that it was a basic 8.5×11 with the phrase Storey is…, then a little transparent holder, then and will return…, then another transparent holder. And then I had all these fiddly little inserts that I would drop in the transparent slots, such as at Lunch, in a Meeting, Done Today for the top slot, and at noon, at 1:15, at 3:30 for the bottom. Yeah, I actually had them in 15-minute intervals from about 9:00 to 5:00. People really needed to know where I was.

I even made one of these for my super-incompetent boss in the early job, whose incompetence was based in never being reachable. The day he asked me to make one of these for him, my heart leapt with the joy of realizing that he really did care that people knew where he was and I would no longer need my Sherlock Holmes hat whenever someone called regarding his whereabouts. Of course, he used it maybe twice and it kept falling off his door in these sweeping metaphorical gestures about his general findability. Also, it misled a good number of people because he didn’t remove the inserts when he was neglecting it, so it would say he was in a meeting till 3:00 for twelve straight days. Which… was about right.

Anyway, I had a dream just now (I’m apparently sleeping and waking in roughly alternating 4-hour shifts, which I take optimistically as a sign that I do have an infection [ear? sinus?], but my body’s gotten serious about fighting it off) wherein I’d laid out all the little inserts for the sign on the front of the Glide Celebration (which is what they call their “church” services, which are somewhere between a Gospel rock-concert and a race to reference every known human religion) stage for some clearly work-related purpose. Em and I were in the front row, keeping an eye on all these little inserts, some of which weren’t laminated (historically accurate – you try wrapping contact paper around every quarter-hour between 9:00 and 5:00… it gets aggravatingly dull), trying to make sure the ratty little things didn’t blow all over the stage. And then it was time for the sermon and Cecil was preaching and I whispered to Em about how he preaches more often than I’d thought when we went to Celebration that one time and I told her it was very rare to see him preach and he glowers at me from the pulpit and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m whispering as he starts to speak or because I’ve left all these annoying little papers at the front of the stage for some purpose he’s either forgotten or can’t see. And I’m having trouble seeing the purpose myself and am considering cleaning them up, just sweeping them into the disorganized pile they often became themselves when I was switching them out frequently (like, six times a day) and didn’t have time to sort them and they got all disheveled, but I’m pretty sure my rising and doing this will be even more glower-worthy than the status quo and I decide to sit tight and try to enjoy his words and I wake up.

I think a little smidge of this dream may be about missing Glide, although the incumbent stress of the situation seems to belie that interpretation. Maybe I miss the stress that came with those ever-changing inserts, the correlated expectations on my time and energy. As I commented to Em a couple nights ago, going somewhat insane over the dearth of detailed feedback yet received on American Dream On (I get it, everyone’s much busier now with their lives than they were in 2001), I don’t get a lot of confirmation these days that I’m doing a good job. Much has been made of the solitude of the writing process and while I enjoy the aloneness of the creation, I really crave the confirmation (or denial) of others once the process is done. At Glide, three people a day told me I was impacting them in some direct and almost always positive way. When writing, one goes months at a time with no outside feedback whatsoever.

Which I guess is why people like Greg tend to release things serially in chapters. But that makes the process itself far too dependent on others, far more organic and focus groupy than I’m interested in. Besides, I’d just have heard the same overreactions to the difficulty of the subject matter – the “darkness” and “depression” and so forth – in 2002 instead of the last week. Which might have prompted me not to go on at all, or to change the project into something it wasn’t. No thanks.

A small price to pay for doing what one wants, for having freedom over one’s life. Really. But I’m beginning to think the most satisfying part of being picked up by a major publishing house (if/when it happens) would/will be getting a big unadulterated dose of others’ opinions about the work. Just like… y’know, work.


Top Nine Highlights and Lowlights for 2009

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, From the Road, If You're Going to San Francisco, Let's Go M's, Summer Sojourn 2009, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’m thinking about compiling one of these for the decade too, but let’s look at what made 2009 great and not so great.

In summation, looking back at this year, it’s been one of those seminal and all-encompassing annums. It’s been a slow and generally joyous year, punctuated with some really lousy events. I think it’s good to look at the good and bad of a year, lest one think that any year, no matter how great or terrible, is all one or the other. Ultimately, however, I have to say that I’d be pretty happy if all the years were like this one.

Let’s start with the lowlights (who knew I could have a happy ending in something I write?!)…
9. In June, we were informed that we would be getting a small (464 square foot) apartment from the housing lottery at Princeton. Emily and I fought about to what extent the preferences I’d asked her not to list on the housing form had determined this decision and the ensuing tension lasted for much of the summer and the early part of our time moving into Princeton. Upside: We ended up being happy with the place and sincerely calling it “cozy” instead of just tiny. Though it will always be Tiny House to us.
8. In August, at the conclusion of a great six-week trip, we moved to New Jersey. We’d come to accomplish many great things in school, debate, and writing, all of which wound up going pretty well. But… New Jersey. Upside: Yeah, we were moving to Jersey for some pretty good reasons.
7. In December, a co-worker of mine from Glide passed away. While he was not my closest friend or someone I’d even contacted since departing Glide, his passing hit me very hard with its suddenness and the loss of such a vibrant, joyous personality. He’d moved me to tears the day I sent out my e-mail announcing my impending departure from Glide, coming down to my office, giving me a hug, tearing up, and saying “I don’t want you to go.” I can’t stop thinking about this scene, how much it meant to me, or how little time he proved to have left. Upside: While one never wants to see an upside in death, it does always get those still living to examine their mortality and priorities, which never hurts.
6. In November, I got tremendously sick, derailing my writing at the time and prompting my parents to cancel a long-anticipated trip to see us on the East Coast. I had extreme trouble breathing and went through a number of inconclusive tests, ultimately requiring simple time and rest to recover. Upside: The illness didn’t derail my novel as I feared it would at the time.
5. In July, we left the Bay Area, possibly never to return long-term. While I felt we’d stagnated a good bit in the Bay and needed a change, the actual departure was tough to swallow and required leaving jobs we’d felt were the best we’d ever had, people we really enjoyed, and an area that seemed more naturally like home than where we’d be going for some time. Plus, there was a lot of packing. Upside: (Most) everything that followed.
4. Over the course of the year, I lost an impressive amount of money in the stock market. I had been up big and got complacent and started losing like crazy. While all of this could theoretically be recouped, I’d started betting against banks right about the time people got irrationally excited about banks again. Granted, I hadn’t risked anything we couldn’t afford to lose and it was all in long-term futures anyway (i.e. money we can’t touch till we’re 65). But it still hurt. Upside: Banks could still collapse.
3. In July, Emily and I were informed that all of our stuff making the cross-country trip to support our life in Jersey had been in a rollover accident outside LA. This proved to be more devastating in the resignation and loss it inspired in us between then and finding that the damage was generally much better than anticipated. Almost all the most sentimental items came through minimally scathed, though we still took some costly losses. Upside: It was a good reminder of the relative insignificance of material goods.
2. In January, Emily and I were informed that her mother had colon cancer. We endured a horrific month of ambiguities and tests and worries. Upside: Not only was the surgery successful, it wiped out the cancer so completely she didn’t even need chemo.
1. In October, Emily and I were in a car accident that could have killed me were it not for a pickup sandwiching itself between a passed-out octogenarian and myself. The Prius sustained 5 digits worth of damage and Emily and I had 4 digits worth of damage assessed by the ER. Upside: We survived the accident.

And now for the highlights
9. In September, Fish and I (accompanied by Madeleine and Emily) saw John K. Samson play “Sounds Familiar.” live.
8 (tie). In November, the same four of us (no John K.) enjoyed a restful and rejuvenating Thanksgiving weekend in Washington DC. It was just what we needed at the time and recharged our batteries to make a last push in the book and the semester.
8 (tie). In March/April, I spent a similar week of restful rejuvenation in LA with Russ, the last of my many trips to his apartment while I was living in the same state. We watched movies, talked about everything, played chess endlessly, beat FIFA on World Class mode with Denmark for the first time ever, and I even won the most money at online poker I’d ever won. It was just what I needed to get through the last 45 days of day job I had left.
7. In March, Emily ran the table on her grad school applications, going a perfect 5-for-5 in schools applied and allowing herself to have the maximum possible options. This culminated in her full-ride to Princeton, freeing up our options as a couple to pursue what we’ve spent most of the decade putting off in terms of personal aspirations and fulfillment.
6. In June, many New Mexican friends and I reunited for Jake’s wedding. We had a fabulous “bachelor party” hiking in the woods above JPL that would later be endangered by fire. Many of us wrapped up the weekend of celebration with a visit to Disneyland and California Adventure that was probably the most efficiently jam-packed such visit of my many to such parks.
5. In May, I watched Randy Johnson pitch what was almost certainly his last game in Seattle, going out to a triumphant standing ovation from an infinitely appreciative fanbase. Though watching him shut down the Angels in the ’95 one-game playoff, let alone his relief appearance in that year’s ALDS, will always be more charged memories, those were witnessed on TV. This was my single greatest live moment of Mariner fandom to date. No less, it was enjoyed from the best seats I’ve ever secured at a Major League Baseball game. This was the highlight of a generally great trip to Seattle.
4. In November, the Rutgers team I’d been coaching for two and a half months enjoyed their first break in almost two years, to quarterfinals at American University, a tournament fielding 90+ teams. After being uncertain of the impact I was making on the team, I finally had confirmation of progress and great reason for optimism about the coming semesters. The team celebrated at a DC diner that night with spirits raised high to the future of the team.
3. In May, I left Glide exactly as I’d hoped to, going out after ten weeks’ notice with a perfect day of meetings including the long-anticipated foray into what would ultimately be the new database solution for Glide’s programs. I could not have scripted a more fitting exit and I finally got to leave something on my own terms, with a great replacement, and with people wanting me to stay.
2. In July, Emily and I departed for a six-week tour of the US, with stops in National Parks and baseball parks, plus plenty of time with friends and family. Highlights from this trip alone could fill this list, so it’s only fair to group the whole trip. Our anniversary dinner at the Wawona in Yosemite, hiking the Grand Canyon, and camping in the Badlands are probably the most lasting memories from this epic journey.
1. In December, I finished writing a novel for the first time in eight and a half years, after working on it for seven and a half. The culmination of everything I’ve hoped to do in the last decade of struggling to write against a backdrop of day-jobs was finally reached, five days ahead of my deadline. I had once again proven to myself that there’s reason to take this writing thing seriously. Just before year’s end, I finished editing the work.

Yeah, like I said, I’d be pleased if every year could be this full of life, decisions in the right direction, survival, and joy. I’ll take ten more like 2009 any time. 2010, care to start with one?


The Limits of Humanity

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Bonus points for those of you who read today’s title and said to themselves, quietly, “What? About five feet in front of our face?”

Emily and I spent the day at the newly rebuilt Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It purports to be the “greenest museum on Earth”. When we first walked in, we were propped in front of a green screen, the backdrop for a photo of our choice upon exit. This has become relatively standard procedure at museums and especially aquariums of late, so we thought little of it. Though I wondered why there was no image of a happy whale shark or cartoon character behind me – just all-green. Maybe this is the new “green” message – just an all-green background is all that counts anymore. No wonder we get along with Libya these days.

So, in we went. Predictably, I was immediately captivated by the fish and pretty much anything that swam, taking my time to marvel at the rays and small sharks and something that we thought was a skate but turned out to be a guitarfish of all things – they’re really cool if you want to check them out.

The penguin show was aimed at especially young ones, with an invitation to same to come up and read short passages about my favorite (sorry emus) flightless birds. There was no shortage of reference to March of the Penguins and Happy Feet and it occurred to me how steeped in the lore of global warming these films are; that penguins themselves have become sort of posterbirds for the growing apocalyptic fever gripping those not concerned with a religious apocalypse. It’s hard to keep up with your apocalypses these days. I might consider the fourth book I write, after the three upcoming in the next 12 months, to be “An Illustrated Guide to Recognizing Your Apocalypses”. And people think I’m depressed.

Next up was an apocalyptic line for the rain forest exhibit, clearly the feature entertainment of the day’s program. Housed in a clear sphere, the forest promised to simulate conditions of actual rain forests, minus the need to wade through piranhas. After a half hour of snaking around the dome in anticipation – wherein Emily and I were confronted by people in line whose motivation for being at a museum of any kind we could not, for the life of us, figure out – we were brought into the closed space between the outside world and the rain forest. Having been to butterfly gardens before, I was prepared for the brief pause between doorways. I was not wholly prepared for what followed.

A man, just barely of age and bearing a strong resemblance to Russell of the recent hit film Up, intoned to us: “Welcome, folks, to the rain forest. Now I’m sure you’ve heard all the rules out there before you can enter the forest, but we have just one more thing to go over. Since we have live butterflies flying around inside, you will be sprayed just a couple seconds with a protective spray. It’s not FDA approved just yet, but it will be and it’s to protect the butterflies and it’ll just take a couple seconds.”

The air died in the room.

He was joking, of course, and cracked a quick smile and let us in directly as most of us were scanning the ceiling for shower jets. Even the lugnuts of flesh who we’d trailed in line – beefy, disinterested couples dredged in from suburbia – seemed disconcerted and one of them muttered “I was gonna say – wait a minute” as we were ushered by Russell’s older brother, probably wondering why his joke wasn’t funny. What we were all wondering, even the suburban chaff, was what we would have done had he not been joking. What could we have done?

Homeland Security has made co-conspirators of us all.

Anyway, the rain forest was gorgeous and just starting to grow – an ominous foretelling of a time when exhibits like these might be the only living examples of their ilk. At each level, from ground floor to understory to canopy on up, we were introduced to the diverse rain forest species of a different world region, brought to an understanding that the Amazon and Madagascar and Borneo might as well be three entirely different ecosystems, though they are all varieties of rain forest. While looking past the fallen butterflies and wondering what their expected lifespan was (it always seems a pressing question in butterfly gardens – how does parading hundreds of humans with attention spans shorter than insects’ through their habitat impact their lifespan?), the exhibit was most impressive. I kept looking down to the fish while most looked up to the birds and I even managed to peel some layers, promising Emily that I would wear shorts all the time if we lived in that dome. That’s some climate change I could go for.

But as we headed for the fish – riding an elevator that can only be taken down – I was still thinking about one of my favorite evolutionary theories. There’s a huge blue whale skeleton hanging outside the dome, perhaps only slightly less daunting than the full blue whale replica that so daunted my entrance to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium 23 years ago. And it reveals my favorite fact about marine mammals – that they have fingers. Now why would an animal that lives only underwater and only has flippers develop fingers? Penguins certainly don’t have fingers hiding within their flippers. Nor do sharks within their fins. So what gives?

And then there are these tiny underdeveloped two little bones hanging toward the back of the enormous spine, dangling just below. What are those about, evolutioneers?

Well I’ll tell you – they’re feet. Because marine mammals – or at least cetaceans (lest you think I’m including otters and seals) – came from the land. They used to walk around up here. And dollars to donuts, anything that figured out how to enter the sea and use sonar to communicate was sentient a long time before that. And I don’t mean Ben Brandzel’s weird use of the word that anything seeking to survive is sentient – I mean Sentient. Like we think of ourselves.

Last time they faced an apocalypse, they figured out the only place to go was going to be underwater. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from those guys. I mean, I’m not going to say they built the Pyramids, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out either. It makes a lot more sense than aliens.

And you thought all those beachings were confusion. Not some sort of protest or suicide because conditions in the ocean had gotten so unlivable. Wait till the blues start beaching.

Anyway, these thoughts were rattling the back of my mind, somehow throwing humanity’s own position into some kind of stark relief. The fascinating fish, the familiar collection, the reef – almost identical to Georgia’s – and the frequently proffered seafood guides, advising which kinds of fish the flesh-hungry audience were permitted to eat and still get to count themselves as “green”.

Which just got me going all over again. I mean, when is a global warming advocate or an animal curator just going to come out and say that the visitors have a moral obligation to become vegetarian or they might as well not show up? I know, I know – it’s offputting, it’s bad press, it’s not what the visitors want with their bread and circus. Any five-year-old sitting in the audience can make the connection between the fluffy penguins in the exhibit and the chicken fingers in the cafeteria; between the beautiful fish in front of them and the dead fish on the plate. So why can’t the twenty-five-year-olds, much less the fifty-five-year-olds? At what point does habit transcend thought? Ten? Eighteen? Twenty-one?

The literature is all about what incredibly damaging effects fishing has on the oceans, how catastrophic it has been. And unlike global warming, the apocalyptic predictions about this one have already come to pass. We’ll all be joint owners of the world’s largest swimming pool pretty soon – no need for chlorine and just dodge the trash and the occasional corpse. I wonder how the marine mammals are going to sort this one out, especially with sonar that the submarines destroyed.

But the aquarium was filled with signs about “if you love seafood…”, making the pitch that you can only continue to love seafood if the oceans survive. Nonsense. You can only have the oceans survive if everyone sacrifices their love of seafood. You’ll never catch anyone saying it, but I would bet a vast portion of the aquarium’s staff don’t eat fish. And probably not much other flesh either.

I wonder how many kids leave places like the Academy of Sciences pledging to become vegetarians. And how many of their families wear them down before the month is out.

But the show was cool, with the live diver taking questions from inside the coral reef tank that had a strange flavor of CNN interviews to them – I think it was more about how contrived CNN has gotten than any particular insincerity in the tank. After all, the Q&A was pretty clearly scripted right up till kids got to ask questions, and that’s probably about the speed CNN’s running on, minus the kids.

By the time we’d waded through all the fish, and up to spy on the albino alligator (crocodile?) resting on the rocks before an enthralled audience, we realized it was time to book it to the planetarium show, “Fragile Planet”. Having already gotten my blood up about the global warming stuff and the contradictions (Why isn’t vegetarianism the very first “action step” you can take to fend off global warming, anyway? Because that would make too much of a difference?), I was certainly leery of the show’s title. But I’m a sucker for a planetarium show, and this one was housed in the ominously opaque dome that served as counterpoint to the rain forest exhibit. Once again, we joined a circumnavigatory line, but this one was really moving. No need to joke about sprays, I guess.

We took our seats, noticed the pleasantly eerie ambiance of the blank dome-screen and the echoey music as everyone leaned back and Emily almost immediately started drifting off. (She didn’t fall asleep till the show actually began.) As we all were seated and the doors closed, one of the ushers began to explain what we were witnessing – the largest digital planetarium screen on the planet, with no giant star projecting unit in the center to obstruct views. Only the invisible digital display units on the rim of the dome, creating a wholly immersive experience. As my mind often wonders at such types of things (or maybe it was the spray joke again), I started to contemplate how much power one could wield with such a realistic and overwhelming display. By the time they were warning about motion sickness, I realized just how much one could terrify or thrill someone with something so captivating as a dome larger than the extent of one’s peripheral vision.

The show’s visual power lived up to my fantasizing – it was wholly overwhelming. Nothing scary about it (though for some reason I kept thinking they were going to plunge us from the Earth’s surface into the depths of an ocean, which would certainly have given me a start) as they whisked us from the interior of the very museum we were in, zooming out to the planetary level, observing the planet, and then out to the stars.

The film’s content was intriguing – it was a basic study of the components for life and what makes Earth so special. The discovery of water(-like-stuff) on Mars has done wonders for the scientific community having to backtrack from Earth being unique in the universe. Already this show was ready to say that not only could there be remnants of life under Mars’ surface, but also on a moon of Jupiter and another moon of Saturn. This despite Earth seeming to be at the ideal epicenter of the so-called “habitable zone”, neatly illustrated in green. Leaving this paradox unresolved is a big step forward from the days of science books declaring that Earth held the only life in the universe and that we were so desperately alone. I was truly heartened.

The problem was that the movie had a larger paradox to wrestle with – it wanted to both deeply explore the real possibilities (I’d call them realities) of life on other planets and simultaneously tow the party line about Earth being the only known locale of life and thus being so desperately important to preserve. I understand the need to beat the drum of global warming and desperation (though not actual desperation that would compel someone to stop eating meat or anything drastic to stave off apocalypse), but I still think you have a compelling message to Earthbound humans that their planet is important without making it the last hope of life in the universe. Is microbial life on Mars really solace to this species if it gets wiped out? I mean, it is to me, but I was never all that big on my species. I think the suburban lugnuts disagree.

Regardless of which, we started zooming beyond Saturn’s moons and into nearby solar systems, exploring a case study of another planet the size of Jupiter that seems to ellipse through an equally magical “habitable zone” around its sun. Exciting stuff, truly. The number of qualifiers and equivocation used seemed wholly unnecessary, but the message was still clear, if filtered: we ain’t alone, kids. Not that anyone brought up the sentience question, but … baby steps.

And then, as though there were any question about the odds, we zoomed out of the Milky Way and started counting galaxies and the numbers started to swim and dance like Ben Bernanke conducting an auction. As though to leave behind any doubt whatsoever that the universe is positively teeming with life, life to fill a billion science fiction novels of all shapes and sizes.

Though there was the cautionary note about light-years and distance and how even the idea of traveling at lightspeed (fully accepted in the Ender’s books I’m reading right now, by the way) is still mega-theoretical and would still take pretty much forever. And then it was back to Earth and how we might (really?) be alone and so we’d best not destroy ourselves, The End.

As we rubbed our eyes and I woke Emily up and we stumbled out into the gallery filled with beautiful posters of these infinitely distant galaxies, it occurred to me (again again again) to wonder why no one stops to think whether light-year distances were put there as deliberate boundaries on travel. And then of course the recollection that the idea of purpose (beyond the evolutionary deity of SURVIVAL AT ALL COSTS) is forbidden from scientific study. That presuming things are the way they are for a reason that isn’t chaotic, while implicitly assumed every day, can never go to a place where it is spoken or understood. Because that would bring God into science and then 1 would equal 2 and all hell would break loose. Or something.

Also, why can no one reconcile that evolution’s progeny worshipping only survival seems somehow at odds with an intelligent species hellbent on self-destruction? Doesn’t something have to give there?

But seriously, kids… there’s a reason everything is so flipping far away and it seems totally incomprehensible to travel there, no matter how cool science someday gets. Because we’re not supposed to go there! BUT (and this is big) we are supposed to know that it’s there. And be amazed by just how much life is out there.

And then (THEN!) we can think about what all that life would be doing, what it would mean, and why it would be very important that we don’t interact with it. And then we might be getting somewhere.

Out onto the roof, to contemplate the “living roof” – a rooftop garden concept run totally amok and made wild instead of edible. Emily informs me about all these sustainable things they’re doing with the roof and it hits me how quickly and overwhelmingly an idea can catch on if enough people think it’s important. This is somehow very reassuring, though I can’t help but be nagged by how few seem to be asking the right questions. But it’ll pass, it’ll pass.

Then down to the final unseen exhibit, the one I’ve been putting off, the Global Warming Propaganda Special. To my pleasant surprise, they do have an exhibit about food and your diet’s large impact on your carbon footprint, though the meat doesn’t seem to carry as high a penalty as it should and this seems like another tool of watering everyone down into thinking it’s all about trade-offs and as long as you recycle two out of three times, you’ll probably stave off TOTAL APOCALYPSE.

This is funny (to me, at least) because it’s totally how these things are marketed. I mean, I don’t believe in global warming (clearly), but if I did, I’d have enough sense to realize that me doing the green things or not (most of which, by the way, consist of buying some new consumer item to replace an old consumer item, which seems remarkably unsustainable in practice) would not make the difference on the unimaginable upward spike that the graph of carbon has allegedly taken. I mean, really. Do you know what’s really creating that, kids? It’s called Capitalism. You can chart the spread of the concept against the carbon graph and find a perfect fit. With the consumer reality and disposable culture have come an unending rise in demand. We demand stuff. We demand the ability to create trash. We demand an unending stream of stuff that we can have only to trash it.

And now, hurrah! Capitalism is available in almost every country in the world! No wonder all those countries are ripping down their rainforests to build stripmalls or materials for someone else’s stripmall. They have to be just like us (US!).

But does the Global Warming Propaganda Machine tell me that we need immediate eco-socialist revolution? Or just to do everything possible to make sure this recession becomes the depression that permanently defeats capitalism and everything that even rhymes with a “consumer”? No. It says to buy a tote bag.

Do you know how many tote bags we have? It’s getting to the point where there are almost as many tote bags as paper bags. Because we have a new marketable brand – green. And we just need to produce the everliving stuffing out of this new brand. When is someone going to realize that if you produce as many reusable items as one-use items, there’s no point? When is someone going to understand that being truly green means not buying anything ever again, especially anything new?

But our exit brought the piece de la resistance, a moment so colossally insane as to undo much of the joy (yes, I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience despite some misgivings) of the visit to the Academy in the first place. Remember that photo taken so many hours before, upon our heady entrance to the greenest museum in the world? Well it was ready for us! I supplied my little card to the guy standing under three big digital screens advertising the photos and waited for our image to pop up on one of them. I could even see that there were different backgrounds being advertised and this was the clear reason for the green screen – choice! We could pick whatever our favorite part of the visit was and this would increase our likelihood of plunking down an insane amount of money for a picture we could have gotten a nice family to take of us on our own digital camera for free.

But the screen didn’t change. Where was the guy with our ticket? Oh, it couldn’t be! But it was… he was bringing us set of fully developed photos – glossy printing, glossy paper, all irreparably used – that had been waiting for us since we entered.

My mind boggled.

Every entrant, every ticket – thousands of people crossing through the doors every day, and every single one of them was having full-color digital glossy printouts of their photos being prepared for them in the hopes that they would buy it at the end.

It was more than I could bear. The guilt tugged on the heartstrings, my mind full of all the wasteful propaganda of my carbon footprint. And then a second welling of rage came up – this was deliberate. Insidious. They didn’t create the waste out of thoughtless irony, but out of a planned assault on the wallet. They were hitting people below the belt with a newly informed important decision – do you want to force us to create waste? As though the decision were somehow yours instead of the people who had already destroyed the paper and ink, below three perfectly good digital screens.

The $20 was laughable, but I think I would have refused to take the picture off their hands had it been flawless and available for 50 cents. I was so incensed. I burn thinking about it. Thinking about how many people they’ve coerced into buying an exorbitant picture they don’t want and can’t afford out of a new leaden guilt they carry about every scrap of paper they waste. And what blatant waste the Academy creates in a Machiavellian sacrifice for their bottom line.

Just thinking about it, hours later, makes me seethe. I can’t stand it. And I know, as I just articulated a few paragraphs ago, that each individual piece of paper is nothing in the scheme of it. But the whole philosophy of the propaganda is that every bit counts. And the reason it’s hard for me to get into it (even if I believed) is that I know how much institutional waste and greed and power dwarfs that of the individual. And here’s the institution, the very institution trying to make me a believer, demonstrating the very scale of waste that I couldn’t hope to compete with if I wanted to. In the name of green.

It’s green, all right. But not the green you may be thinking. There’s a war on, kids, and it’s not the one you think or the sides you believe you’re choosing. It’s between the greenback dollar and the real green left on the earth, that grows from the ground. When they say green, they mean the former, no matter what it sounds like. When there’s none of the former left, none of it at all, that’s the only true hope for the latter.


Ups and Downs

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Let's Go M's, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

It’s been a crazy week on my home planet, one that presses the line of credibility to an extent. It seems all the books have major crises one after another, piling into one great crescendo that’s either cataclysm or triumph. But that’s not supposed to be real. That’s supposed to be Ender’s Game or its sequels (which I’m devouring at present), not 2009.

But every once in a while, there are years like this. 1968. 1987. Years that just sort of transcend everything and usher in a series of changes that seemed like it would take decades or even centuries, in a grand swoop.

It’s weird to be in a gentle transition and a soft landing against the backdrop of such a year. Although, I can anticipate the incredible bulwark of changes about to be breached. 1987 made so much sense, because my own life was in crazy upheaval and it reflected well. Indeed, maybe 1989 was really the year, far more than 1987, but things for me were calmer in 1989. Maybe it’s all just the personal filter one puts on things and maybe there’s nothing really going on at all.

Somehow, I doubt it.

But I’ve been in limbo nonetheless. A fantastic trip to Seattle, with lots of baseball and hanging out by the water and soaring to great heights (planes, Space Needle). A subsequent return to an apartment full of boxes that need weeding, resorting, unpacking toward repacking toward a ship date that looms ever closer, now looking like 7/7/9.

Yesterday, after chasing sold-out showings around the East Bay for much of the week prior, Emily and I went to see “Up”. My conclusion was that the only reason they give you 3-D glasses is that most people are self-conscious about crying around other people, even in a dark room. The substantial plastic glasses are a great cover for a movie where one spends most of the time weeping. To keep the kids happy, ever shorter of attention span (presumably, and if the youngin’s at the 10:25 PM showing were any indication), there’s a discordant chase-filled plot that even ends in a rare Pixar death (spoiler alert), but it’s bookended by tragedy worthy of Hans Christian Andersen. Seriously.

Today I went to lunch with a friend in the City (which means SF for only a few more weeks, and then I guess will mean… what, gulp, New York? Wow). She works at the San Francisco Food Bank, this huge airplane hangar of a building in the hills overlooking the freeway. As we approached the building, a pigeon flew into the glass side of the building, made a horrendous thudding sound, and fell to the sidewalk, dead.

At least it looked dead. It wasn’t even twitching – the wind gave its feathers a deceptively eerie sense of movement. But it was very much dead. Cue the Monty Python parrot sketch.

It was a horrific sight. I hadn’t seen the actual impact with the glass, but I’d heard it and seen the bird hit the ground. Its legs were curled up under itself as a last dying act, falling from the side of the building. Coming in as fast as it had, it was little wonder that it had killed itself with the impact.

The receptionist called Facilities to take the bird away, and just before I left, they informed us that the bird had been shot. It had a pellet in it and this had caused the death. Had we actually seen the bird hit the glass? Well no, I had to admit, but I had heard it. Maybe the bird was flying out of control because it already knew it was dying. Or it was hit where its ability to control its movement was, and had no choice but to fulfill a building-bound trajectory after being shot. Or it was shot just before hitting the building? But that would have to mean the shooter was far closer than we realized. And who shoots pigeons anyway? In the City of San Francisco?

If I hadn’t already been thinking about Air France flight 447, I sure was now. I couldn’t believe that something like this had happened right in front of me in the same week. Crossing one of the only radio deadzones on my home planet, the plane suddenly falls out of the sky. It was breaking up, but it was whole when hitting the water. It exploded in the sky, but didn’t break apart. We can rule out terrorism, but everyone saw a flash and fire. There was a massive lightning storm, but other planes made it through and every plane on Earth gets struck by lightning every few years. It left a debris trail, but the trail of debris was not from the plane.

It’s all about as crazy as an already shot bird hitting a window with enough force to die.

Suddenly limbo is seeming okay for now. Maybe the problem is just momentum.


They’re Just as Suspicious as the Rest of Us

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

It’s simply miserable in San Francisco today.

It’s cold and rainy and the type of weather that most anywhere except this good-weather-forsaken vortex known as the Bay Area would bring thoughts and hopes of overnight snow to salvage the otherwise dismal atmosphere. The utter impossibility of snow, the hopelessness to even thinking about snow, is perhaps the greatest curse among many weather hexes in this region.

I made the mistake of going out to lunch, instead of just holing up with my cereal in the office and hoping to not get too hungry. I had to amend my course from Chipotle (crazily optimistic, being about a half-mile away) to Herbert’s Mexican Grill, a far cry in quality at a third the distance. I wound up with under-cheesed nachos on a noticeably sticky tray.

Shortly after starting to eat and read, a series of women sat down at the table adjacent mine. They were all casually dressed but had this remarkably similar look to them, a quality almost that was hard to exactly typify. Upon a little listening to their conversation, it became clear that they were flight attendants, apparently on a brief tourist stopover in San Francisco – long enough to change out of the uniforms and get up to the cable cars.

And then they started talking about January 16, 2009.

“I was on a LaGuardia to Denver the day after, scheduled on an A320. The day after, you know. And everyone on it just kept going on sick list. And they’d refill the flight and then all the new people would go on sick list. I had a friend who offered to vouch for me and put me up if I wanted to too. She said she had a hotel room for a week and everything.”

Prepare doors.


Of Emus and Bats

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

I have approximately negative time to post this morning, but there are two things that I just have to post:

1. New Look for Old Bird:
The Mep Report got a facelift, courtesy of the efforts/urgings of Mepper Russ Gooberman and the stylings of potential future partner in crime Kevin Grinberg. Look for new and exciting content from all Meppers there, including some possible cross-posting (or even exclusive posting) from the prodigal emu (me).

2. Bats in the Belfry:
I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to couch this topic since it happened on Monday, 12/29, but I’ve decided (at least this morning) that the cool kids are using “submitted without comment” these days. So I’ll just leave you with the blessing as follows – may you never have to write an e-mail like this at work:

Hi Facilities,

There is a live bat (the animal) in the recycle bin behind Erin’s desk (the front one) in Room 300. It is rattling around and making noise.

We don’t see a need to harm it, but it would be great if someone could get it out of our office.



Sign Post Revisited

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

People are looking for places to put their anger these days. I don’t know who is responsible for the above depicted action on our front lawn any more than I know who is responsible for skyrocketing the stock market toward the 9,000 stratosphere when unemployment is a runaway train. But people don’t really understand trains in America anymore – only cars, trucks, and vans. And how to bail things out.

I did the American Community Survey last night – with our residence “randomly” selected by the Census Bureau as one to represent the many. At times it didn’t feel so random; it felt random as a security screening at an airport with my long hair and my lack of a flag pin. At other times it felt less random because maybe everyone in America is filling on of these out. But I can be reassured that it was random because America rarely likes direct democracy or the true enfranchisement of everyone. We’re a republic – we like Electoral Colleges and Congressional Districts and ways of putting a thick layer of money-motivated corruption between ourselves and our political outcomes.

Maybe it wasn’t random because of our income, because we’re doing okay, because they have our tax return and maybe if they can only survey houses like ours, there won’t be any proof of a depression (see below comic).

I saw the movie “Milk” on Friday. It’s not quite in the rare air of the two Important Movies I mentioned last week, but I think it’s worth seeing. It’s about a lot of things, but perhaps mostly anger. Anger at being personally left out of the picture and the steps, through anger, that people take to reestablish themselves. And, ultimately, how all anger is personal and nothing hurts quite so much as the sting of losing one’s job.

Actually, an incredible amount of the movie, as I re-ponder again, is about the pain of losing employment. Heck, maybe it is an Important Movie after all.

I don’t know where all the people losing their jobs are going, but I don’t think they’re buying stocks. I don’t think they’re looking at the 401k or the IRA balance and thinking how they won’t need that money till they’re 65. I don’t think they’re looking for ways to make Christmas a bigger splash than the year before. A major city (like, top-fifty in the US) is losing their job every month. An entire major city. At an escalating rate.

The anger is coming.

And, obligatorily, because not all of my posts can be downers, here’s something to brighten your day. Also, because it’s the only thing keeping my job-related anger at simmer instead of boil.

Officially reported as “two people in the diamond”:

There’s no truth in Pravda, even online.

Shoot – that makes this a downer again, huh?


In Case You Missed It…

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Just Add Photo, Tags: , ,

We did it:

Watch live video from Adam’s Block (San Francisco) on

And also:

Watch live video from Adam’s Block (San Francisco) on

We learned a lot from this run. Our firstbasewoman was completely out of the shot for most of the game. The shadows were bad (fullscreen mode is better). We may run it back sometime. But man, did that make the workday better.


Western Civilization

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

On the train ride into work this morning, I wasn’t able to get a seat. The train was running just late enough to pick up enough stragglers to sell all the seats just before Downtown Berkeley. I had to stand and observe instead of read and recede.

Almost immediately, I noticed the middle-aged man two rows up and to the left with a laptop. I noticed him not because of his balding head or tall stature, but because he was playing Civilization III on his laptop. It took me a few minutes to determine, from my vantage, which version of Civilization he was playing, but the menu screens gave it away.

Before I could definitively determine that it was Civ III, it occurred to me the man may work for Sid Meier in some capacity and that he may just be heading into the office early by loading up the laptop. But realizing the version confirmed my actual suspicion, that this man was simply trying to prolong the delay before his workday really began and he had no time for games.

There was something profoundly resonant about this man’s experience and the fact that it occurred to me fairly soon after this that I should try to get a closer view so as to vicariously play and thus get some leftover utility from his game to make up for what I was losing in not being able to read. Then the question: would trying to closely follow a Civ game over the shoulder of a stranger give me the same headache I would otherwise get from reading while standing in a moving BART car? Sigh. It simply wasn’t worth it.

But watch I did, from long range, just enough to determine the man’s general approach to gameplay – he seemed to espouse the quick expansion and massive city-building that has always been a hallmark of my own approach through ownership of all four Civilization editions, plus the esoteric unsanctioned alternative Civ 3 that came out about a year or so before Sid Meier’s actual release of same. My vision isn’t what it used to be, so I could only make out terrain and general unit types, but nothing too specific (or headache-inducing).

Back when my vision was more like 20/12, my friends and I infiltrated the brand-new computer lab at the Albuquerque Academy library with freshly minted pirated diskettes of the original Civilization. The librarians were about to get an extended lesson in the first rule of computer lab setup: always face the computer monitors (screens) toward where the lab monitors (people) are going to be. One’s initial inclination is the opposite, because one thinks of a computer lab like a classroom. Students should face the front and the teacher and the monitor all at the same time. And for a full-time classroom, it might work, but not for a free-range computer lab.

It was of course forbidden to play games (let alone install them on the hard drive) in the library lab, perhaps even more evocatively so than it was illegal to copy the game in the first place. But the librarians there were all too stereotypical: lonely overweight women pushing sixty with all the technical savvy of John McCain. They were slow and lumbering and suspicious and you could see them coming in plenty of time to save your game and quit and open a Word document while trying to feign that ponderous, vaguely constipated look that signifies being stumped in the first paragraph of a paper.

It should be noted that this was just before the Internet age, about 1994-1995, so there was none of the alt-tabbing and massive multitasking and assumption of illicit Internet activity that pervades modern education with computers. Hence the naivete to set up the monitors facing the back wall and the incredible innocence of allowing students write-access to the hard drive. The computers were immensely expensive pretty new toys with capabilities entirely unknown to their adult overseers. Keep in mind that this is the school where, about this same time, I would join with a co-conspirator and a classroom full of willing amused accomplices to successfully convince a teacher that she was using a voice-activated VCR.

Eventually, out of sheer boredom or a truly teenage desire to constantly push the envelope, we got less diligent about saving and closing games every time a librarian would pop their head in (can you believe they only came by once every 20 minutes or so?). We would line up in the back row, sometimes four of us in the back and two more in the next-to-last, all playing our various games (my kingdom for network multiplayer in those days!). We would often laugh too loud or curse too much and draw more frequent visits from the stern gray-hairs. And look up innocently, making eye-contact only with that perfect blend of “I-have-nothing-to-hide” and “what-are-you-so-suspicious-of?”

I forget how it all ended exactly – a couple people got busted from time to time, but they really never punished them much (it was outside of school time, after all), sometimes suspending them from coming to the library for a couple days. They didn’t really comprehend the depths of Civ’s infiltration on the computers until much later, maybe after a year and a half or so of our reign over the lab. They locked up the hard drives from student access and we moved on to the Mac labs and text-based Internet (!) RPG’s that were harder to detect as anything other than scrolling word processing.

On the return trip on BART today, I got a seat and chose, since I was getting off early, one in a four-plex of facing seats. Next stop, at Montgomery, two noticeably overweight young women, just on the border of high school and college, piled in diagonally across from each other, each flanking me laterally (one across, one next to). The third empty seat they reserved for… their shopping bags. And they more than occupied the seat. The instigator of the dump-bags-on-seat plan kept having to tamp down the pile of colorful plastic.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been on BART in rush hour out of the City, but it is no place for bags on a seat. Not that people don’t try this occasionally, with luggage or their feet or a bike. But the withering peer pressure and angst of so many crammed unseated passengers coveting one rest-worthy surface that isn’t even being occupied by a sentient being – let’s just say it’s not something one generally wants to subject oneself to. Inevitably when confronted, people’s reactions for overtaking this space are huffy, defensive, and entitled, as though they know such a front is the only reasonable-seeming response to being called on being so downright unreasonable.

In any event, these did not exactly strike as BART neophytes, but bag-tamping was underway. And despite the Walmart-on-Black-Friday throng of boarders at Embarcadero, the last SF stop, not one person asked that the six (yes, 6!) bags be removed from the seat in their favor. Perhaps because it looked like it would take the length of the Transbay Tube to even undertake such extrication.

It was only midway through my incredulity at their audacity and selfishness that another amazement struck: what person age 16-20 is buying six bags worth of stuff? Who are these debutantes with their obliviousness and their functioning credit cards?

Being wedged very much into the center of their conversation, I was able to learn a few answers. They were very involved in a health or science class of some kind, where they’d each just completed a final project on a different disease. Indeed, the non-tamper was waving around a 10-pager with a cover sheet that simply read “Herpes” in eighty-point font. (I mean, really, did I imagine these people could have a lick of self-consciousness when one of them is animatedly waving the word “Herpes” in the air?) Amazement at the ease of transmission methods of a particular disease whose name eluded me (perhaps the aforementioned manifest on text). Mutual reassurance at the virtual lock on securing an A in this class. Detailed analysis on how to adjust double-spacing and margins to reach 10 pages.

Just before my stop, the non-tamper hauled out a cell phone and started calling home (a good indication that they were pre-collegiate). She rolled her eyes and half-gasped and mused on why she ever calls home in the first place, since everyone has cell phones. She informed her comrade that she had, in fact, just cancelled caller ID and call waiting on the home line, since no one ever used the phone anyway. She was waiting for someone to notice.

With savings like that, you could bring home a whole extra quarter of a bag. But who would notice that either?

They were overly gracious in moving their legs aside so I could pass out of the train, up the escalator, and into the night.


The Big Screen

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: ,

It’s been nearly two weeks since my last substantial (non-Duck & Cover) post. Much time has intervened.

I would like to sum it all up, but I can’t.

I have finished reading all of David Foster Wallace’s published work. I have had Thanksgiving with my parents for the first time in 11 years and with my parents and parents-in-law simultaneously for the first time ever. I have gone to work seven times.

I have seen what I consider to be two Important Movies. You should see them too. One is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which I saw on Saturday in Fresno. The other is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I saw last Tuesday in San Francisco. The latter was a special advance screening for a movie that opens on Christmas, so you won’t be able to see it all that soon. I think these movies speak quite eloquently for themselves, but I found both of them to be powerfully moving in the context of modern America.

We may not have censors that you have to get your work by, but no one is just out there making movies about modern America. You have to make a movie about the Holocaust or soft science fiction about reversed lives to make a real movie about America these days. And maybe that’s okay, as long as people are paying attention.

But the screen that is moving people the most today is this. Go ahead, click the link, it won’t bite. It’s a view of my workplace, 24/7, in high-def live streaming webcam. So if you’re ever wondering how I’m doing on a workday, wonder no more.

The most insipid feature of this relatively simple website is the web-chat banter just below the camera view itself. Here, tens to hundreds of people who know little or nothing about San Francisco or the Tenderloin talk about our street corner like it’s their own obsessed-over reality show. It’s unbelievable. And maybe it’s easier to take for people who didn’t grow up making jokes about their life being The Truman Show or who don’t work in view of a popular webcam, but it’s all made my day (the day I found out about it, i.e. today) a little surreal.

What’s really amazing is that this person who unwittingly moved in kitty-corner from Glide knows nothing about the agency to which I’ve devoted nearly three years of my energy. In fact, on his at least somewhat amusing FAQ, he describes our region of his baseball-diamond-world as “Meth Church: The place with awnings by second base. It is apparently a Methodist church.”

But that’s really back on us. Because not only is he (Adam, of the block) probably already exceeding us in web-traffic (his site has been carried on local TV and radio news in the past week), but he would probably have no good way of knowing that Glide is more than a Methodist church without some substantial research. Because our website is amorphous and contradictory, as is our general presence in the community. Now, granted, the meals line that is nearly circling the entire block should give the guy pause, but that is just out of his narrow picture.

(Interesting editorial self-referential factoid: the mini-celebrity “Leroy” referenced frequently on this guy’s site seems to be the same person as “the random-number generator” I discussed in this post almost 50 days ago. It seems this guy has a destiny. Also, that’s not his real name [somewhat obviously].)

It’s hard to predict the future of this little window on my world… whether I will be here longer than the screen or vice versa, and which will make a bigger impact. I’m pretty confident that Glide will outlast the webcam, but these are unpredictable times. Confidence is perhaps always overrated.

Meantime, I’ll do a little dance for you on the way to or from work. Probably from.


There’s No Truth in Pravda; There’s No News in Izvestiya

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Today, my workplace sent me this article about the impact of the economy on the services that we offer.

At first I was excited because my work actually contributed to the article. It was a real manifestation of “letting the data tell the story,” my self-proclaimed mission in my fourth job title at the organization. I had gotten a frantic call from one of the interviewees shortly before the interview asking for clarification on some of the numbers. Direct contribution of my work! And numbers!

And then… the one distinctive sound number that appears in the piece is wrong. By 25%.

It’s a relatively innocent mistake, since the number quoted (56,851) is the in-house meals number, a far cry from total meals served (69,904). And the first number does appear on the report I created, though clearly labeled as distinct from total meals. But still. The article goes on to mix apples and oranges all over the place, and it’s hard to say how much of that is on the interviewee and how much on the interviewer.

It doesn’t really matter. I was bugged for a bit, but I’ve gotten over it. The essence of the article and its message got through. And insane Internet commentary (redundant) notwithstanding, it’s all good.

The problem is that it almost immediately occurred to me that this always happens with newspaper articles. I can’t remember the last time a newspaper article got everything right. A key standout in memory from earlier this decade is this article (p. 2 under “People in the News”) in which, in May 2002, the Brandeis Reporter labeled both Drew Tirrell and I as recent successes from the class of 2001 in the recent 2002 college national championships.

It’s like news media exists, at its very centrifugal function, to get facts wrong. Sometimes the facts are essential (sufficiently to warrant a correction), but this is almost never the case. They are usually the second or fourth or sixth most important facet of a longish article about many things. Never critical enough to bother correcting or bringing up; just off enough to spoil the whole experience for the subject of the article without being changed for any of the readers.

In isolation, any given instance of this wouldn’t be such a big deal. The problem enters the picture when seemingly every single report can be assured to have at least one key fact incorrect. The whole fabric of the presentation on the world thus takes on an aspect of fabrication… and readers (or viewers or other consumers of media) are then absorbing the misleading presentation whole cloth. It’s like a pseudo-reality is being spun, through neglect and oversight, out of thin air.

I would say “no wonder the newspapers are dying”, but that would of course overlook the fact that the link is online and may recorded in the ether longer than any shred of the original paper it was printed on may last. For all I know, mistaken numbers about our meals program are being beamed into space as part of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence as we speak. Aliens will soon land, wearily stretching, disembarking, and expecting a set of facts wholly inconsistent with the reality they witness.

Of course I’m exaggerating, letting little details get carried away with the whole picture. But a day after Election Day, with my observation of all the problems that come with an unchecked, unvetted system of recording key information, I’m keenly attuned to the problems that can result from constant misrepresentation. And maybe it’s not the misrepresentation I care about so much as the casual carelessness of it, leading to an inevitable acceptance of such. It’s surely better than some sort of malignant intentional deception (and there’s plenty of that to be upset about), but the carelessness strikes me tonight as nearly as damning.

I grew up on my father’s retellings of one of his father’s pivotal stories, that of the horseshoe-nail that lost the kingdom. I didn’t grow up with horses and their shoes and their shoes’ nails like my Dad did in Carson City; the story was initially foreign and strange to me. The story is one of these classic snowball-type stories, where one small issue becomes cataclysmic… a careless stable boy forgets one horseshoe-nail, because of which the horse loses its shoes, resulting in the person riding it being unable to reach the castle, resulting in the message not get through to the king about an invading force, resulting in the king not readying the force that would defend the kingdom. The kingdom is lost because of the horseshoe-nail – attention to detail is key. There were small variations, I’m sure, but this is the version I remember. Ironically, of course, the details of the precise twists in the story matter very little.

And maybe that’s the point. People don’t have time for detail and nuance when they’re busy watching the big stuff (and perhaps creating their own realities anyway). People wanted desperately to be unabashedly happy today – even though Prop 8 wasn’t defeated, most of my co-workers refused to show anything but jubilation in the wake of Obama’s election. There was no time for muted response, little demonstration of the sobering reality that Obama will be facing massive challenges and is likely to start making decisions that will alienate many of his starry-eyed supporters. There was only that victory-lap kind of swagger. And I admit – it will be nice to not have to automatically cringe when the President of the United States speaks. So far, this is by far my favorite President of my conscious lifetime (Carter’s still probably winning for my technical lifetime, until Obama proves otherwise). But favorites amongst a terrible crowd are a far cry from euphoria.

Not surprisingly, I’m having a hard time distilling my message down to a succinct point. This post feels disjointed and rambly, maybe in part because the television has been competing with my brain in the background (someone else is watching, so I’m not just being an idiot for failing to shut it off). The TV is talking about sustaining the momentum of Obama’s euphoric supporters. The TV is also drawing comparison’s between Obama’s election in ’08 to Nixon’s election in ’68.

Who says the media can’t reconcile subtlety and nuance? They crash discordant things that make no sense together with blunt force! That’s almost the same thing.


The Ides of October

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

There is a man who lives in front of the building where I work. He has been living there for well over a year. I don’t mean he’s living in a neighboring building or he lives down the block or that he lives even in something so luxurious as a cardboard box. He lives, nestled under a particular window, in front of our building.

Before we found out his real name, we had nicknamed him the Random Number Generator. He spends most of his life standing under our window and calling out various numbers. There’s really little telling if they’re actually random or not. They are staccato and orderly seeming enough, usually interspersed with the names of cities, famous personages, and government officials. The numbers may well be ZIP codes, birthdays, social security numbers, phone numbers. When working with numbers all day, this is not the most helpful auditory experience.

The man was wearing a shirt today – it was warm enough that this might be in question, though he usually has many layers on. He was napping when I saw him on my way home from work, but the blue-green logo on his shirt was unmistakable. It was a Wachovia shirt.

He’s not the kind to ask for change (indeed, very few people do within earshot of Glide since we have so many free services), but he’d only need about six bucks to get a whole share of what he was advertising. Tomorrow, it might be four and a half.

It is a symptom of the homeless that, among many other indignities, they must suffer to wear absurdity. It’s a hand-me-down lifestyle to some sort of ridiculous extreme. A waft of shirts advertising some sort of discredited diet scheme filtered through the Tenderloin a while back… it was unsettling to see peppy shirts saying “Ask me about the ____ Diet!!” on thinning homeless men. Another version wanted you to ask the wearer how they lost so many pounds.

How indeed.

The Random Number Generator is clearly intelligent, perhaps a bit of a conspiracy theorist, perhaps a bit of a savant. It is hard to imagine that he’s totally unaware of the state of the globe at large, or at least what the pundits believe is same. Perhaps he takes a special sweet triumphant satisfaction in wearing Wachovia’s banner on his torso, a signal of a giant Goliaths felled by the coming Davids of the poor and previously forgotten. Were he to wander down to the Financial District (he never leaves), he might give several high-class brokers a fright. Here is the harbinger of their own future. There but for the grace of luck go I.

And luck is changing.

The focus of the media during the Columbus Day Rally was not on the previous times that the market had bolted up such steep percentage precipices. It was merely on the unprecedented height of the point climb, the towering reach for four digits of movement. In the margins, it was noted that the last time this happened (percentage-wise) was in 1933. 1933 notably not known for its economic recovery and triumphant financial hope. Followed, of course, by gains in 1931, 1928, and 1932. And then Monday. What good company for projecting a joyous financial future.

No wonder it’s only taken 48 hours to give all those miraculous gains back, while keeping just a little interest. By tomorrow, it’ll all be gone again.

Last night was the full moon; tonight the Ides of October. Tomorrow it seems the hurricane’s eye will finally leave us and the storm will resume. Already the inner bands of rain have started to creep in.

A deluge of sorts is also descending on the Blue Pyramid, with the most one-day traffic since May. While parallels could be drawn to the markets see-saw peaks and valleys (and indeed, it has been a mostly down year), I’m taking it while it lasts.

Wachovia’s merging with my bank, Wells Fargo. My bank wasn’t always Wells Fargo – it used to be called Norwest. Then Wells Fargo bought Norwest and said they’d still say I’d had a checking account with them since 1997, which sounded fine to me. I liked Norwest’s color scheme better, but Wells Fargo does have a strong, rich history in the West.

Norwest’s color scheme was just like Wachovia’s, come to think of it.

Sleep well, children of the Tenderloin. All this nonsense will be over soon. Or at least different.


Tuesday Roundup: Takin’ Care of Business

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, If You're Going to San Francisco, Let's Go M's, Quick Updates, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , , ,

Just because I don’t write Introspection anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t often think in terms of quick updates. This blog format affords the luxury of doing both short blippy quips about my life like the old days, as well as the longer, more thoughtful pieces…

One of the grand ironies of the American experience is that some of our greatest themes and anthems for revered concepts are actually songs lambasting said concept.

The least subtle example of this may be Peter, Paul & Mary’s “I Dig Rock-n-Roll Music”. This is a more obscure case, but it remains PPM’s only really fully legitimate radio song. With lines like “But if I really say it, the radio won’t play it, unless I lay it, between the liiines,” it’s not really hard to see exactly where this song’s loyalty lies. And yet it made the radio and remains there to date as a sincere tribute to rock-n-roll (as opposed to folk music, which PPM were actually advocating). I’m sure the even crueler irony of this being their one radio hit when it complains that the radio won’t play folk music… yeah.

The most damning example may be Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. This tune has become third only to “Proud to Be an American” (a song guaranteed to induce vomiting within 30 seconds) and the national anthem itself as the theme music to flag-waving jingoistic American patriotism. And yet the song was written as an indictment of American hypocrisy and the Vietnam War. The non-refrain lyrics are just hard enough to understand and the chorus is just loud and brash enough to ensure that this song will always bring a smile to the face and a cheer to the voice of those who are unaware they are celebrating an anti-American tune. “So they put a rifle in my hand, sent me off to a foreign land, to go and kill the yellow man.”

But the song that’s stuck in my head from this category today is “Takin’ Care of Business”. Office Depot or a related office store has become the latest in an unending string of businesses using this anthem to explain how productive you’ll be when using their products. “It’s the work that we avoid and we’re all self-employed, we love to work at nothing all day.” Yeah. This song is about quitting your job and starting a rock band, which is explicitly stated to be a lazy sort of scam on those who actually slog away at day jobs. Business indeed.

The song is stuck in my head because it’s one of the rotating theme songs for my baseball video game of choice these days, the 2007 mod of the greatest baseball game of all time, MVP Baseball 2005. My Mariners are getting massacred in this game on a regular basis, but any time I win makes it all worthwhile.

And speaking of the Mariners and winning, last night offered a glimpse at the best inning of the year for the (real-life) Seattle Mariners. Raul Ibanez had 6 RBI in a 10-run seventh inning that catapulted the M’s from a 6-1 deficit to an 11-6 win. When I tuned in around the fourth or fifth inning, it was 6-0, Twins. I wasn’t even sure why I tuned in when the score was already that lopsided. The M’s haven’t exactly been specializing in comebacks this year. But Ibanez hit a grand slam that made it 6-5 and the M’s proceeded to tack on and on and on, all the way to bringing up Ibanez again in the inning as the 14th man to come to the plate, and again with the bases loaded!! He only smacked a single up the middle to plate two and the inning only ended because Willie Bloomquist tried to score too on a throwing error and got barely tagged out.

It’s funny how just an inning like that can redeem a mood and a perspective for a day or so. Even in a hopelessly lost season.

It’s the sun that’s hopelessly lost here in San Francisco, and it’s looking like my trip to Las Vegas (Thursday evening departure) couldn’t be coming at a better time. The 10-day forecast in San Francisco does not get above 65 degrees (high temperature). The same 10-day forecast in Las Vegas does not get below 81 degrees (low temperature). I am a little nervous about “Florida Syndrome” in LV, wherein people will air-condition casino interiors to the point of being as cold as August highs in San Francisco, but then I may just cancel half the poker to go sit outside on the Strip and bake. I desperately need to feel the illusion of some sort of summer.

Meanwhile, my job continues to be my job. Slightly more livable than two weeks ago, ebbing and flowing, constantly leading me on only to crush my spirit. If nothing else, it’s giving me great fodder for future books and stories, future tales of how the American work model fails its people on all levels. And I know that where I’m working is better than 95% of what else is out there. We’re not even driven by a profit motive.

And speaking of profit (and even prophet), is it too early to declare the End of Capitalism? Today, Wall Street wants to think so. It’s just so exciting to have a negative net interest rate! To just feel that money devaluing in your pocket. I mean, how often does your pocket burn a hole in your money? That’s just nifty. Let’s buy financial stocks before they fail.

What surprises me is not that people are revealed to lie, cheat, steal, cut corners, and fabricate in pursuit of almighty profit. What surprises me is that people are surprised by the revelations.

Work out.

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