Wednesday, December 10, 2008

the perfect holiday storm

In working for a news website, not only do I try to churn out my headlines with a little literary panache when I can, but I also try to understand our product. The news. What makes it what it is, when and where it is and how and why it happens.

A couple of weeks ago, I was amazed by the number of truly bizarre news stories that came up during the course of my work day. I was convinced it must have been a full moon, and after consulting an astronomical table, I realized I was wrong. The region may have been ground-zero for some other kind of major astrological event that was affecting people's behavior -- involving the alignment of planets and stars and shit like that -- but I didn't look into it because I don't dig on that stuff. And I'm lazy. I just dismissed the day as a fluke and moved on.

Since that first day of noted weirdness, though, I've noticed there have been progressively more. Sure, there's been some ebb and flow day-to-day, but undeniably these last couple of weeks, local news has been trending bizarre. And after much thought and consideration, I've concluded the holidays are to blame.

The most sane of us go a little crazy during the holidays; in turn, we should expect the most insane of us go absolutely fucking monkey nuts.

However, it's not the insane who generate the news. While the crazies may be responsible for its juiciest headlines, stupidity -- not insanity -- is the great engine that churns out the commodity we call news.

And more than any other time of the year, over the holidays, people are stupid.

The vast majority of what is packaged as news is generated by the actions of careless and/or ignorant people. If the country were stocked with responsible and educated people, there would be very little news to report.

Without people like the woman who used a cigarette lighter to help her search for a ring she dropped between her couch cushions, and then subsequently burned her house to the ground along with three other homes...without people like her, I wouldn't have a job.

So what is it about the holidays that makes people so dumb? I've identified a number of factors that come into play, creating a sort of perfect, news-generating storm.

One that should come as no surprise is the weather. At any time of year, weather strongly influences the news. Today, for example, it is cold and rainy, and the news is certain to be dominated by house fires and weather-related accidents-- the accidents caused by stupid drivers who drive in rain-turning-to-sleet as if they're behind the wheel of a video game, and the house fires caused by stupid residents who do things like toss their dirty lingerie too close to the space heater in the bedroom.

Stupidity and bad weather are always a great newsday combination, but add these to the holiday season, and it becomes a veritable headline smorgasbord.

The holiday season adds two crucial ingredients to the cauldron-- traveling and family.

Traveling on its own, added to stupidity and bad weather, it's throwing gasoline on a fire... no more need be said. However, surprisingly, it is family that I contend is the most catalytic element in the equation. Because family involves tolerating family, and its whole web of stresses and strained relations. And that-- for more than less-- means drinking. Oftentimes heavily.

So, during the holidays, the ordinarily stupid people in the world are not the only ones making the news. Otherwise responsible and intelligent people are also making stupid decisions and acting carelessly because they're momentarily struck dumb by the crucible of the holiday season. They crumble under the pressure of dealing with bad weather, dealing with hectic travel in this weather, and then having to deal with family once they get there.

May you all have a happy and healthy holiday season, and remain out of the headlines in your local newspaper.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

a prayer for mumbai

On 9/11/2001 Tina called to ask why airplanes were flying into buildings here. She was overseas in Mumbai, and I didn't know what she was talking about. I hadn't yet heard about the terrorist attacks. I was at work with my head buried in my computer. Fifteen minutes later, I was being evacuated from my building. Like most people around the world, I spent the following days watching CNN.

On 11/26/2008 Tina called again. She told me she was fine and not to worry. Again, just like 9/11 more than seven years before, I didn't know what she was talking about. I hadn't yet heard about the attacks. I was just getting out of work this time around, and when I went home, I again spent the following days watching CNN.

Tina is my emergency alert system, and I trust her intuition and insight into unfolding events more than any news service. I also trust my girlfriend's take on what matters and what's relevant in any given situation, emergency or not. It comes as no surprise then that I trust what I'm hearing from her, in Mumbai, about what's happened there.

There are two things she talked about that I haven't heard here.

1) She says reports there claim up to 40 or so terrorists involved in the attack and not the 10-15 reported here, and the coordination behind and the money invested in the attacks was tremendous. Again seemingly more so than the reporting here suggests.

Watching CNN, and how they talk over the same footage, running on a continuous loop until they get their hands on something different, has a hypnotic effect. While they are ushering experts before the microphone to talk about al-Queda connections, etc. and answer the same inane questions, the viewer watches this same footage over and again. The building on fire. The hijacked police car driving down the road. The body picked up in the street. And what new details are mentioned are often lost by the mind-numbing format of what's been scrolling in front of your eyes.

Tina mentioned that satellite phones were found in the possession of the terrorists which they used to coordinate their attacks. In the case of those who stormed the Taj, two had booked a room in the hotel in advance to use as a command base throughout the attacks. Another two had been working as kitchen help in one of its restaurants so they had an intimate knowledge of the hotel's layout. I hadn't heard any of these details come out in reporting and, if they did, they were probably lost in the constant stream of looped video footage. Instead, I heard them talking about investigators sifting through the terrorist's "pocket litter," one of those terms that news reporters end up falling in love with and repeating ad nauseum.

2) The terrorists were thoroughly cold-blooded and diabolical in their disregard for human life while executing their plan.

This statement goes without saying, but it lacks any punch without specifics. In a chilling story, this is what Tina provided me. Unfortunately she did this last night before I went to bed, and I was unable to sleep soundly throughout the night with the images I had afterwards in my head.

In the Taj, they were apparently executing hostages with grenades instead of bullets. She told a story of how a couple of terrorists in the hotel room tied up a group of hostages, wolfed down plates of biryani taken from the hotel kitchen to keep up their strength, and then left the hotel room, dropping a grenade inside the door before exiting.

On one hotel floor alone, 20 dead hostages were found.

While watching TV, I kept seeing these explosions going off inside the hotel, wondering why they were indiscriminately tossing explosives around like crazed maniacs in a video game. The television coverage fueled this misconception, running text banners like "Terrorists Lobbing Grenades From Hotel Roof." The explosions were not indiscriminate, though. More likely than not, each one of those blasts marked the horrific death of a roomful of hostages, bound and gagged, whose last sight was a terrorist leaving the room and a grenade rolling across the floor.

Grenades were being lobbed outside the hotel, as well, but again not indiscriminately. They were apparently being dropped from the roofs and a transom overpass that ran above the street, connecting the main hotel to its tower wing. They threw grenades, from above, into the street crowds below to perpetuate the chaos outside on one hand as well as keep any vehicles -- emergency responders or otherwise -- from approaching the hotel on the other.

I didn't mean to come off seeming overly critical of the television coverage here. The TV stations are just doing the best job they can. My frustration is not with the reporting but with the real evil that exists in the world, and how it has reared its head yet again. It makes the global economic crisis look mild in comparison, not to mention the energy crisis, the environmental crisis of global warming, the dietary crisis of a fat America, etc ... or any of the many personal "crises" that we get consumed with on a daily basis that can't even be called crises in comparison.

My frustration is that someone I love is suffering in the wake of senseless violence that's all too close to home, and I'm not there for her. I'm in the midst of the holiday of thanksgiving with a tremendous amount to be thankful for, but I can't be thankful right now, not with the knowledge that this evil has once again announced its intention to make our world a living hell.

I pray for Tina, her family, friends, the people of Mumbai, India, and the rest of the world today. I pray that the horror of events in the past few days brings us closer together as human beings, as the horror of 9/11 did, and I pray this strengthens our resolve to confront and obliterate those who would act with such disregard for humanity. I pray with a faith that our common humanity will one day bind us indivisibly and make such terror and suffering an impossibility in our world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

to spit or not to spit on sarah jessica parker's head

My current apartment in Pittsburgh is nice. The neighborhood is safe, affluent and youthful. The cost of living is affordable. The proximity to my family is convenient. On paper, it's all good.

Off paper, it's maddening.

A lot of it is personal. I grew up here. I can't drive familiar roads here (and they're all familiar) without thinking about how I drove the same roads in my high school days. I can't shake the feeling, as I'm driving, that I should be chain-smoking out a cracked window and bullshitting with friends about which of the shy girls in our class is most likely to be a wild animal in bed.

So, in part, it's my fault. This city will always be backward to me because I can't help reliving my past here. In this sense, I can't live in Pittsburgh in the present tense. However, it's not all my fault. The city kinda sucks on its own, too.

I remember seeing how the city had been portrayed in the movie Wonder Boys while I was living in San Francisco and wondering why the hell I had ever decided to move across country. I convinced myself that Pittsburgh was a hip, artsy haven that I had simply not explored enough in order to find my niche. When the tech bubble burst in 2000, and I couldn't find a Bay Area job, I moved home with a knavish excitement.

Shortly after returning, the illusory cinematic vision of the city was dispelled. In less than 2 years, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I moved to New York City once again.

My first apartment of my own in NYC was little better than the apartment I had occupied several years earlier in Greenpoint. Instead of being in a rundown building abutting the BQE, this apartment was located in the Gray's Papaya building in Manhattan's West Village.

The corner apartment on the 2nd floor (pictured here) was still FOR RENT when I moved into my studio on the 4th floor in 2002. This apartment was still vacant when I moved out in 2004, and I would be surprised if it isn't still vacant today.

Gray's sells the city's cheapest hot dogs and is open 24 hours a day. The pervasive smell of hot dogs in the building was undercut by the smell of nail polish remover from the beauty salon on the 2nd floor. In this photo, notice the wall slots for A/C units in each apartment. The waft of hot dog/acetone found its way in, year-round, even up on the 4th floor, even with an A/C unit installed and packed with insulation like the one in my apartment was.

What also got in was a tremendous amount of noise. Both day and night, Gray's was mobbed by locals, NYU students, shoppers at the Barnes & Noble across the street, tourists on foot and by the busload and the beggars who subsisted off their spare change. Even late night (early a.m.) you'd find a line outside its door, mostly loud and drunken college students and club goers. The club goers particularly vexed me. They inspired this early poem:

Swear Eggs

Club closes 4 a.m.
Its horde disgorges
four floors below.

Vampires suck last drops
before a long return home
to slum coffin silence.

Moonroof open howling
hip-hop subwoofer
shakes the panes.

An empty forty
vacuum pops, skyhook
shot from the sidewalk.

Awake my bloodshot
eye pried from sleep
watches on

four floors above
through drawn curtains.

An egg cools in my palm;
a word written
in black upon its shell.

I’ve got a dozen
ready to hurl from a
styrofoam carton mouth.

Four floors below
car doors close, engine revs
trails off.

Eggs intact
until morning, until I make
a hateful omelet.

The traffic added to the noise, as well. Not only was there the honking thoroughfare of Sixth Ave. to deal with, but W. 8th itself was noisy, too. It was an uneven brick street over which any car with any undercarriage issue-- e.g. a problem with its shocks, a low-hanging muffler or oil pan-- banged and clattered, echoing all the way down the block. Now that I think about it, this could not have been much different than the cacophony I put my mother through, playing with the pots and pans as a tot.

I remember the day that the city, as if answering the solemn curses from inside my studio, decided to pave W. 8th Street. You'd think the smell of wet asphalt blending with hot dogs and nail polish remover would be an intolerable, trifecta stank. However I embraced the stench, even during a hot hot summer, knowing it was temporary, that it would provide a smooth surface over which cars would motor silently, and I would soon be able to sleep blissfully throughout the night, not waking up with each passing beater of a car, each time thinking there was a stranger banging around in my kitchen.

Once the paving job was finished, I had about two weeks of the most pleasurable sleep imaginable until a local motorcycle gang took a fancy to its smooth surface. It became their 4 a.m. drag-racing spot, three or four nights a week.

The solemn curses resumed inside my studio.

My time there sounds awful now, as I've written here, but that apartment was the launchpad for my poetry writing. I hadn't written a poem since Vassar until then.

Also, despite the noise and smells, I came to love New York City there.

I loved the Italian barbers I went to on Christopher Avenue who kept an up-to-date stack of Playboys and Hustlers as reading material for their customers. And how they cleared out one barber's station during the holidays every year to keep a complementary full-bar for its customers. (I learned the hard way that a certain barber there hit the Amaretto pretty hard while on duty.)

I loved playing pool at the Crow Bar with its signed sixties rock n' roll memorabilia in the bathrooms and wooden crows perching in the rafters over the pool tables. And how its ghoulish female owner apparently had a story behind each piece of memorabilia that invariably ended with her giving a rockstar blowjob.

I loved the microbrew bar/restaurant around the corner with the NFL package where I could watch the Steelers play with sound on the TV in the corner. And how bizarre it was watching a game there one weekend with a group of a dozen or so deaf Steelers fans, how ironically loud were the finger-cracking and palm-smacking of their gesticulations in conversation.

Most surprisingly I found myself in love with the city the day they filmed a segment of Sex In The City on my block.

I say "most surprisingly" because with the popularity of the show, there was a horde of people roped off along West 8th Street, and I had to show some guy ID with my address on it just to walk down my block. And I am allergic to hordes of people, especially the kind of people who would tolerate being herded together to get a glimpse of the making of a show like Sex In The City, which you would literally have to strap me in, Clockwork Orange-style, to watch.

Apparently, in this episode, the girls go slumming for a hot dog at Gray's Papaya. The director's chairs for the actresses were set up along the wall outside Gray's Papaya, and as it turns out, Sarah Jessica Parker's chair was placed directly below my studio window. (This is a picture of her attending the premiere of the cinematic rendering of the show. However, she could have just as easily been walking off the set as a witch in one of the Narnia movies in this dress.)

From inside my apartment, I heard the crowd cheer, and when I went to my window to look outside, I could see that Sarah Jessica Parker had arrived at the scene.

As I leaned out the window and saw her seated directly beneath me, I was overcome with the urge to spit on her head.

I paused to deliberate whether or not I was the kind of person who spits on celebrities' heads, and I concluded I was not, but I could easily be one, and would perhaps never better have an opportunity than now, so why not?

By the time I decided to spit, though, I was being addressed by a film crew member from the street.

"I'm sorry," the crew member said through a bullhorn. "Is this light bothering you?"

There was a floodlight aimed at my side of the building from across the street, but it didn't quite reach my window. It was close enough that it might have annoyed me, though.

"If it is, we'll move it for you," she said through the bullhorn.

The crowd hushed, and the shoot seemed to stop as the crew waited for my response.

"No, no, it's fine," I yelled out my window, loud enough to be heard, and the production crew resumed its work.

Because of the little bit of consideration shown by this crew member, I am not a celebrity spitter today.

Such politeness, reaching up to my studio apartment window, after so much noise and vulgarity had wafted through its pane, totally disarmed me. No longer did I despise the crowd outside, the crew and stars of the show; I sat back down on my couch to watch television, feeling like I'd just spoken with next-door neighbors I'd known for ages. For the first time in New York, I felt like I belonged in the city. I felt at home. At home without a past, only the present and future.

Monday, November 3, 2008

a constituency of one

My ballot is an 18-year-old virgin. Now 36, I've been of-age to vote the last 18 years, and I've chosen to abstain from doing so in every presidential election that's taken place in that time.

I've never cast a vote for President of the United States, and tomorrow, Nov. 4, I'm inclined to abstain once again.

It's not that I'm undemocratic (with a lower-case "d'). I've cast my ballot for candidates in other national, state, county and city government positions. However, I've never pulled the lever for the big one. Until recently, I've never paused to examine just why this has been the case. Then again, until recently, I haven't been so tempted to give up my vote to a presidential candidate.

Obama's been the first for whom I've considered unlocking my political chastity belt.

Like so many, I was moved by a politician in a way I'd never been moved before when I heard the speech Obama gave at the 2004 DNC. That speech marked the emergence of a charismatic figure in the Democratic party that it hasn't seen since JFK. (Some might argue 'ol Bill was pretty charismatic, but who wouldn't agree now that, even in his heydey, he's just plain sleazy in comparison to Obama? And for those of you who would argue for Hillary's charisma?... please.)

Obama's speech to the DNC didn't move me nearly as much as a speech he made earlier this year, though. While campaigning against Hillary for the party's nomination, he delivered his "A More Perfect Union" speech.

I was more moved by this speech not because of its subject matter--race--but rather the way he confronted the topic and the context in which he confronted it. Afterwards I realized that, whenever I'd heard any other politician speak on the topic, I had received a canned preparation of words. Hearing Obama was like eating fresh pasta for the first time instead of the spaghetti in the cardboard box. I had never heard a politician speak so genuinely, so openly, about anything. And here this man was, speaking this way about the most live-wire topic there is in our culture.

Obama decided to speak candidly on the topic of race not just to a convention of fellow Democrats at a time when he was out of the national spotlight like he did with his speech at the 2004 DNC. No, he took it upon himself to address the nation on the topic while he was maintaining a tenuous lead in his bid for his party's nomination. In three words -- how fucking ballsy!

Even if he hadn't delivered in his speech (and he did,) I would have admired him nonetheless for doing what he felt he had to do, regardless of the consequences. That speech fixed him in my opinion as a genuine character. That action supported his description of himself as someone who only got involved in the race at the time that he did because he sought to bring an end to politics as usual in Washington.

The genuine singularity of his character put the spotlight on his opponent, Hillary, and how she lacked the same authenticity. How some people support her with the fanaticism that they do is a mystery to me, especially after this year's race for the nomination, when her Machiavellian self was put on display. Everyone watched as she continually "redefined" herself during her campaign while Obama remained a rock in comparison. The closer she came to her inevitable defeat, the more quickly and radically she changed herself. Hillary shed tears, shot guns, danced (awfully) and threw back shots of Wild Turkey and everything else under the sun to try to appeal to whatever group of people she was speaking to at the time. She reminded me of how the T-1000 morphed into every form it had ever taken in its death throes at the end of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

After knocking off the most ruthless Democrat in the party for its nomination, I expected Barack would have it easy against McCain. And, really, he has. However, what I did not expect is how disillusioned I would become with him in the process.

His golden image in my eyes started to lose its lustre when Hollywood scorned the Clintons and threw its support behind him. As a general rule, I distrust celebrity endorsements because they are celebrity endorsements, i.e. endorsements given by people who, for the most part, live lives completely out-of-touch with reality. They call it la-la land for a reason, and once Obama began receiving all his celebrity endorsements, I began to question the viability of his proposals.

What he claims to do as president seems far-fetched, to put it mildly. Healthcare for everyone. College for everyone. Tax credits for all but the rich. And all of this in the midst of the worst economy the country has seen since the Great Depression. Ahem... pardon my skepticism.

One particular claim, for example, was that 98% of small businesses in the U.S. make less than $250,000 a year, and these businesses would receive no increase in taxes under Obama's economic plan.

I was even more surprised, upon checking the validity of this statement on independent Web sites like and, that this statement was, in fact, judged to be true.

However, upon closer investigation, it's only true if viewed in a very specific way. The "small businesses" to which Obama is referring in this claim are based on individual tax returns that claim business income and expenses. These small businesses would be people that are largely self-employed. It comes as no surprise 98% of these "small businesses" make less than $250,000 because, if they made more, they'd incorporate themselves for liability purposes.

His claim that 98% of small businesses in America will not receive an increase in taxes under his plan is factually true if you are talking about the self-employed IT consultant, the mom-and-pop owners of an antique store or one of the many eBay sellers supplementing their incomes.

In other words, it is applicable only to those small businesses that account for a miniscule fraction of the GNP; it is not applicable to incorporated small businesses which are the driving force of the economy.

A "small business" like my father's before he retired, which employed nine people (five doctors and four administrative personnel) and made more than $250,000 net a year, would be taxed at the same 35% corporate tax rate under Obama as it is taxed today under Bush.

McCain's economic plan cuts this corporate tax rate by 10% across the board to 25%, small and large corporations alike. Such publications as the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine endorse McCain's economic plan over Obama's primarily because this corporate tax cut will stimulate the economy by making it less costly to do business, thereby encouraging business investment and entrepreneurial risk, thereby creating jobs.

...totally off topic...doesn't Steve Forbes bear a striking resemblance to the head vampire from Lost Boys?

However, by holding out his 98% of small businesses claim, and decrying the greed of corporate America, Obama has succeeded in distorting public perception of his economic plan. It also helps that he has Warren Buffet's endorsement, which he does not hesitate to hold out as a badge of legitimacy when speaking about the economy.

Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a non-partisan foundation according to, wrote a paper that appeared in the Oct. 24 Wall Street Journal, entitled "How's Obama Going to Raise $4.3 Trillion" which takes Obama's economic plan to task. To summarize, it answers the question, "How is he going to pay for it?" The answer is, simply, that he can't without raising taxes substantially across all tax brackets.

Obama doesn't have to answer this question, though, because the public hasn't demanded him to do so. Incredibly enough, neither has his opponent, and for not hammering Obama over the head on such points, McCain doesn't deserve to be elected to the office.

He had ample opportunity to do so and didn't. He also showed that he couldn't debate himself out of a cardboard box. Instead of trying to articulate the fantastical nature of Obama's promises, McCain choose to cave and allow the Republican party to dust off its old playbook and paint Obama as a Manchurian candidate for a left-wing Marxist movement that seeks to undo all things American.

McCain also allowed Obama to associate him, to the very end, with Bush. He never effectively countered Obama's claim that McCain voted with Bush 95% of the time, and that a vote for him was four more years of Bush.

Anyone with Internet access and an interest in the validity of politicians' claims knows, by checking sites like the aforementioned and, that this claim is true, but again only from a very specific point of view.

Yes, he voted along with Bush 95% of the time, but only in this past year, and he did so largely in order to counter the Democratic majority in the senate along with the other Republican senators. Prior to the Democrats gaining control, McCain voted with Bush a little over 70% of the time. While this makes his voting history strongly Republican, it is hardly evidence of him walking lock-step with the Bush administration as Obama has portrayed him.

The funny thing is that, on the most substantive point (the economy) of this campaign, it is Obama and not McCain who is for "more of the same," i.e. Bush and Obama @ 35% corporate tax rate vs. McCain @ 25%.

Does McCain have a shell-shocked war buddy managing his campaign?

Obama also distorts the truth when he claims that McCain is for a $4 billion tax cut to oil corporations, and I know,...yes, it's politics, and you spin as you have to in order to win. But that's the whole point. I bought into Obama being above it all. I bought into him being the anti-politician, and in operating this way, in operating like the same politician he set himself apart from in his campaign against Hillary for the nomination ... he just doesn't charm me anymore. The hearts are no longer inflating and popping around my head when I see him.

He almost had me with his sweet-nothings, but now I can't look past the deceptions and question marks. With his spell now lifted, if I was voting for the candidate who I thought best gave the country a chance to emerge for its current woes, I'd vote McCain. However, honestly, I can't do that, either, knowing McCain's not run a good enough campaign to deserve the presidency.

So I'm re-adjusting my chastity belt.

I quoted MacNeice in an earlier post as saying, "I am damned if I am going to swallow Marx or Trotsky or anyone else lock stock & barrel unless it squares with my experience, or perhaps I should say, my feelings of internal reality."

The same applies here. Call me a prude, but I simply won't give it up for a candidate I don't full-heartedly believe in. Obama almost had me, like he's got so many now -- maybe enough for the presidency -- but I'm just not buying all the sweet talk.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

umbraphilia revisited

Driving in traffic is driving in traffic. It's the same wherever I've lived in the country, with only a few exceptions. Some of the best traffic I've ever been stuck in has been in California. Getting stuck in foggy morning rush hour traffic on the Golden Gate bridge is a traffic jam more tolerable than any other, even exhilarating in a top-down convertible. I'm admittedly biased toward the bridge. From the very first time I've driven under its art deco styling, I've never ceased to feel a twinge of surreal excitement moving across the bayscape. When you're stalled in traffic on its span, you have the chance to absorb its strangeness. When it's fogbanked, the bridge looks downright otherworldly, as if you've passed through time and space in Dune.

Pittsburgh doesn't offer a structure similar to GGB that lends itself to appreciating being stuck in a traffic jam. Rather it offers a traffic behavior that I will claim is Pittsburgh in nature because I've seen it happen here often and can't recall noticing it anywhere else.

While stuck in traffic, Pittsburgh drivers have a tendency to crack open their driver-side doors and spit on the road.

It's one of those occurrences that, once you become conscious of it, you see it happening all the time in Pittsburgh traffic. I can't recall having lived anywhere else where I've seen this happen, or if I did, it happened so infrequently that I can't. It's not like every other Pittsburgh driver is hocking loogies as soon as traffic stops, but it happens often enough that you do notice the next time and say, "Damn, there's another guy spitting out his door."

Why open the door? Why not spit out the window, especially since you're stopped in traffic and don't have to worry about the wind pulling your hocker along the side of your face?

These questions led me to believe it was tobacco chew. Guys chewing and spitting their chew spit out the door. And maybe a few of the roadspitters are chewers, but I've actually opened my door to examine the spittle in question on occasion, and each time I have, it's been plain ol' regular spit.

I'd like it if it were some quirky Pittsburgh commuter superstition. Open your door, spit on the road and then traffic will start moving. Or if it had some ceremonial quality to it-- spitting outside your car door before going into work-- like how Maximus rubbed a little dirt between his fingers before he'd fight in Gladiator.

I'm more inclined to believe it's nothing more than an unfortunate regional habit that's developed over generations, like Pittsburghese or voting for the guy who the union supports.

Being stuck on the Brooklyn Bridge at night is also one of those exceptional traffic stop places. I'd go so far to say that, when I think of the archetypal New York moment, I think of sitting buzzed in the back of a taxi being driving across the Brooklyn Bridge at night.

Perhaps that's cliche New York-- you watch any movie in which New York City figures prominently, and its makers will find a way to get a scene of the BB in there somewhere--but one of my most memorable experiences, after moving to New York for my first time, involved being stuck in traffic at night on that bridge. So, cliche or not, that's epitome NYC for me.

My mid-20s, I had been living in Greenpoint (on the couch chez Oakes, Wickersham & Rasmussen) and was out at a bar in Manhattan (with at least two of those three slobs) when I met the acquaintance of a woman. An older woman. Late 30s.

I recall lying to her. I said I was a visitor to the city--not a recent transplant from San Francisco--and that I was considering getting a hotel room because I couldn't bear the thought of returning to Greenpoint to stay in my friends' dump of an apartment another night.

That's all the lying I did, though. Everything else I told her was absolutely (and unfortunately) true. Abutting the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, our apartment building did shake every time a tractor-trailer drove by. It was a sixteen-block walk from the subway, featuring one block with a White Tower parking lot that was covered with the broken glass of so many empty crack vials that it glittered beneath a full moon. There was a Vietnam vet in one of the apartments who, when feeling patriotic, would climb out onto the building's roof and discharge his firearm into the air. On the ground floor, there was a bar called Mike's where I made the mistake of asking for a Corona. I was promptly asked where exactly I thought I was and, before I could reply, told to go fuck my faggot self.

When you bring up the Greenpoint days with Oakes, Wickersham & Rasmussen, each will wax nostalgic. Those days are up there with their Skidmore college remembrances. It was a time in each of their lives before things fell into place--the job, the girlfriend-then-the-wife, the kids. Those days were the bohemian pioneer time of their lives before they settled into the responsibility of family. They were silly and slapdash and depraved and unglamorous--how disgustingly pleasurable it was to sit on that couch, in that dilapidated building, unemployed, smoking cigarettes, drinking Bud in cans, eating cold KFC out of the bucket and watching reruns of 21 Jumpstreet with Bill on weekday afternoons.

Those days weren't meant to last, and what always marvelled me about OW&R was that you got the sense they knew this, that they had already caught a fast-forward glimpse of how settled their lives would become, and they were appreciating the here-and-now, hyperconscious of its temporality . A similar spirit must govern the umbraphiles who travel the globe to snatch those fleeting moments of totality. Just like the solar eclipse geeks, OW&R behaved as if they knew they were experiencing something wondrous and fleeting in their lives, and they were going to appreciate those moments to the fullest.

Unlike them, I never possessed such wisdom or foresight. I woke up one too many mornings with my face pressed against one of their stained sofa cushions. I couldn't look beyond that immediacy. I just blew in whatever direction the wind bent me.

The night I met the older woman in the bar, the wind was my friend. It wanted to see me get laid. After telling this woman all the foul details about the apartment I was staying in, and how I didn't want to spend the money but just had to sleep somewhere else so I was planning on getting a hotel room, she said no. Save your money. I have a place for you to stay the night.

She insisted that I come home with her to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn.

We took a cab to her place, and we made out in its backseat like we had been thrown into a particle accelerator. Our faces were mashed together, all teeth lip and tongue, our booze breath holding them together like a grilled cheese sandwich.

Nowhere else in the world is such behavior more appropriate than the backseat of a New York City taxi cab.

We pulled our sandwich halves apart for a breath of fresh air, just as the cab started its way through a nighttime traffic snarl on Brooklyn Bridge. Though I'd been living in Greenpoint for a few weeks by then, I realized it was the first time I'd ever been on the BB. I remember how expansive and unforgiving the skyline of Manhattan looked on its side of the river, the pale glow of the pearl lights slung across the bridge and the graffito-ravaged rooftops that came into view on the Brooklyn side.

I could see my reflection in the window, projected out upon this scene and the dark river, and my thoughts were being pulled existentially from the cab. I was experiencing one of those moments of naked solitude before the uncaring city when I felt her hand find mine on the cab seat. I turned back to her and sought more than simply a drunken hook-up, more than companionship, more than even love-- I sought desperately just to embrace warmth. My need was necessity, animal. I would have crawled under her skin if I could've.

When we got close to her block, she began adjusting her hair and clothes, and I followed suit. The cab driver was completely unfazed by our behavior. We could have been lighting firecrackers in each other's pants the whole time, and I doubt it would have even twitched-- let alone lifted-- one of his dark, hairy eyebrows in the rearview mirror.

Once behind the door of her brownstone, where I had been anticipating another impassioned collision, the woman was surprisingly subdued. She put a finger to her lips, pointing upstairs, and initially I thought she was concerned about making noise and the neighbors. Then she showed me to what was obviously a guest bedroom and said, "Here you are. I'll be right back."

Then I began to wonder if she might be a single mother, and she had shushed me coming in the door because there was a babysitter, because she didn't want the kid(s) woken up. I had myself convinced this was the case when she re-appeared in my doorway moments later.

She handed me a clean towel from behind her back, pointed down the hall to where the bathroom was, and wished me a goodnight. When I asked if she was joining me, she said she couldn't. She had to sleep upstairs. "Please, understand," she said.

And that was it until morning.

She woke me up early, panicked, not even bothering to knock on my door before she came in.

"You're my cousin, okay? My cousin,...was it Todd?"

"Yes, Todd. What the hell are you talking about?"

Only then did I find out it was not neighbors or kids she had upstairs, but a husband, who was going to be down any minute for breakfast, and it would look suspicious if I left now.

So I had to sit there, pretend I was the wife's 2nd cousin visiting from out-of-town and eat breakfast with the married couple.

I think we had waffles.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

the one great elegance

This last weekend I picked up a book I had put aside for a while-- MacNeice's biography by John Stallworthy-- yes, I'm still reading it since I started mid-summer. It's unconscionable how little reading I've done lately, especially having my master's days still within grasp of memory. I was reading in excess of 200 pages a day then, and now I've finished only 200 pages of this autobiography in the span of a summer. Pathetic.

It happens during football season. My brain likes to curl up around football statistics, injury reports, player gossip, etc. and it's difficult to nudge in a more constructive direction. It's no coincidence that my brief return to reading the written word coincides with the Pittsburgh Steelers' bye weekend.

Being distracted by football is more easily done when others give you intellectual reasons for doing so. MacNeice does this for football. In The Strings Are False, he talks about "the one great elegance" in American football that sets it apart from English rugby-- the forward pass.

He writes, "To see a man feint and then throw a long impertinent pass out of the palm of his hand into a space where no one is but suddenly someone appears and ball and man are wedded at the run, is exhilarating, almost a sacrament."

Unlike TSAF, Stallworthy's biography of MacNeice's life is too exacting, to the point of over-reporting. He acknowledges this, his intent being to keep to MacNeice's writings and letters as closely as possible. You have to want to stay with him, or else the book is prone to fall upon the nightstand and not be picked up again anytime soon. Fortunately, Mac's character draws me back into Stallworthy's book, even if only for a few pages before falling asleep.

One part of the biography that I particularly enjoy is the recounting of Mac's days at Oxford. I suppose I enjoy this as much as I do because I've been to Oxford so I can more easily place myself in the scene as I'm reading. I would have liked to attend Oxford, too, and there is a bit of envy that also plays into my interest of this part of his life. Here's a photo of Christ Church I took while there in '05.

At one point, while strolling around, I was convinced I must have side-stepped a rope barrier somewhere and mistakenly wandered into a museum on campus. There were signs warning you to keep off the grass, and no one else was around. The courtyard was lined with grotesques and the place had the feel of being steeped long in history. Dumbstruck by the antique beauty of the place, I thought I had managed to walk right into a restricted area. Then a student kicked open a staircase door, talking on a cell phone on his way to class. He walked past with a backpack over one shoulder and a mountain bike over the other. And I realized that it was not a museum I had walked into, but rather, the courtyard of this kid's dorm.

Another connection I have to the passages regarding Mac's days at college is the similar approach we seem to have had to our collegiate environments. We both found ourselves out of place at college in our own, different ways. I touch upon this in my Aug. 2 entry where I first mention reading the biography.

Mac had it tough at Oxford finding his clique on campus. Not only was he an Irishman at an Englishman's university, but he was also a man among nancies. In The Strings Are False, MacNeice wrote, "In Oxford homosexuality and 'intelligence,' heterosexuality and brawn, were almost inexorably paired." This discovery "left me out in the cold and I took to drink."

Reading this about MacNeice illuminates something about his poetry Stallworthy doesn't touch upon. He's all over the mother-father relationships in Mac's poetry and the garden-tunnel imagery, etc., etc. What he doesn't address is the masculine tone of Mac's poetry and how its origin can be traced to is his being his own man (literally) at Oxford.

Left in the cold at Oxford, Mac wrote poetry that's its own. There is an independence, an authenticity, an edge to his work that I appreciate more now knowing that these traits also characterized his life. I'm reminded of a passage of his in a letter he writes to Eleanor Clark, explaining why he refuses to espouse socialism at a time when it was vogue to do so among those he associated with:

"I am damned if I am going to swallow Marx or Trotsky or anyone else lock stock & barrel unless it squares with my experience, or perhaps I should say, my feelings of internal reality."

Stallworthy quotes the following poem of MacNeice's in its entirity in his biography, and I think it's as good a representation of Mac's work as any. (Tell me, does anything sound less gay than bagpipe music?)

"Bagpipe Music"

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.

John McDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie McDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Charmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife 'Take it away; I'm through with over-production'.

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide on an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish.
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

wx ax

In my short time as a writer for a news station, I've come to understand that the type of writing I'm doing is the literary equivalent of working in a morgue. The subject matter is primarily death. There is always a shooting to report. A stabbing. A fire. A car accident. Accidents are so frequently reported that they are tracked under the abbreviation, "Ax."

Oddly enough, weather is referred to as "Wx" so when you have an accident involving the weather, e.g. last week with the remains of Hurricane Whatsitsfuck - the oak tree that fell and trapped a convalescent woman upstairs in her bedroom without power, such an incident is referred to as a "Wx Ax."

The writing itself is as thankless as the work done by a mortician. With web writing, quantity is favored over quality. Strongly favored. Research tells us that most people don't read most online articles past the headline, so the primary goal of the news web page is to get as many new and fresh headlines up as possible. The story behind it need not be anything more than a few slapdash lines thrown together. If it is more, then great, just as long as you didn't take too much time writing it that the headlines on the page began to stagnate.

Like the mortician's work, the news writer's only stands out if you've noticeably fucked up. If you report the auto ax on the right street - Maple Ave. - but in Peters instead of South Fayette township, or get the number of pit bulls taken by the police from the foreclosed home wrong, or misspell the names of the two Sheraden boys who died to a house fire due to no batteries in the smoke alarms. That's when you're recognized.

But even so, mistakes such as these aren't a big deal. Just like it is with blog writing, all you have to do is edit and re-post. The big deal, as I said, is refresh, refresh, refresh the headlines.

There are only so many death and destruction headlines to write locally in a given day, though. This unavoidable fact of news life is circumnavigated by updating existing headlines on a regular basis, often when there is absolutely nothing new to report. For example, the headline "Man With Gun Arrested At Beaver Co. Obama Rally" written in the morning may well appear in the afternoon as "Beaver Man Packs Heat At Obama Rally, Faces Charges" in the afternoon. Same story, but freshened up for the news page.

This quest for freshness of headlines leads to headlines being written for events that are barely newsworthy. Fluff pieces. The fountain at a local park was dyed pink during breast cancer awareness month so the headline, "Point Park Fountain Goes Pink For Breast Cancer Awareness" is a result. That sort of thing.

Often only another web news writer can appreciate a well-written headline or story for what it is, and even then, it's not the same kind of appreciation say, a literary writer has for an other's work. News writing doesn't endure. It's gone and forgotten once the next headline has replaced it. And you don't have web news writers pausing in the middle of the day to reflect back upon an other's work and say, "Damn, I wish I had written that!" No more than I can imagine one mortician watching another work upon a cadaver and saying, "I wish I could open a chest cavity with that same effortless grace!"

I've found I deal with the death and destruction and fluff by bringing a poetic mentality to the writing of my headlines. So far it has gone unacknowledged, and I hope it continues to be overlooked by the powers that be. I take a few extra moments to exercise this mentality solely for my own amusement. It's how I get through the day. A few recent examples:

I enjoyed using rhyme in "Attempted Calf Snatch In Masontown After Three Slashed," a headline I wrote for a story about a serial animal skinner who's been sneaking onto a man's cattle ranch at night to skin his animals alive.

I could not resist the temptation (albeit in poor taste) to employ irony in writing the headline to a story in which a woman was accidentally run over by a teenager who offered to help her parallel park her car. It read simply, "Elderly Woman Run Over By Good Samaritan."

My favorite was this little bit of innuendo for a fluff piece. Two women affiliated with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demonstrated in Market Square recently; they showered naked in public, making an argument for vegetarianism by pointing out that some large amount of water is wasted in producing a single pound of consumable meat.

My headline read, "PETA Gets Naked In Shower To Beat Meat."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

dad's home

A day and a month later, looking no worse for wear, save a slight loss of hair.

The world can resume turning now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

in trust, my ass

I've learned in these last few weeks that, in order to get along with my father -- really get along with him, you have to submit to his political viewpoint, i.e. Grand Ol' Party conservatism, especially during a presidential election year.

In doing so, you've got to understand that "liberal" is a bad word and be accustomed to it being used in conversation as such. For example, when my father remarks that Obama is "just such a liberal" he is, in effect, saying that he is "a clueless, socialist motherfucker."

I have no problem with liberal bashing any more than I do with conservative bashing. For me, it's as easy as taking off one baseball cap and putting on another. I see much to be bashed on either side. I always have, and this is perhaps why I've always been a registered independent.

The motto for the Independent Party of the United States of America is "I Don't Trust A Single One Of You Cocksuckers" or more simply "In Trust, My Ass."

When I visited my dad in the hospital this past weekend, it was easier than usual to pick up the bat and take some swings at the left-wing as I remembered the time a cousin of mine called him while I was there, ostensibly to wish him well.

In less than a minute they were arguing politics, conservative v. liberal.

Here my father was, just being outfitted with the IV for his chemotherapy, and my cousin's on the phone arguing, provoking, causing him to get red and start yelling. He might defend himself (being the jerkass lawyer he is) by saying my father provoked him, and he might be right, but he could have easily excused himself from the conversation, too-- "Hope you feel better, Bob. Gotta run." --instead of egging-on a cancer patient that needs exactly the opposite of irritation and conflict. Inexcusable behavior, imo. What a fucking moron.

I wished I lived in Manhattan again-just then-so I could jump on the 1,2,3 to the Upper East Side and kick the bullshit out of him.

I had intended in this post to discuss how I wish I had spit on Sarah Jessica Parker's head when I had the chance, but that will have to wait until later I suppose. Time for work.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

two more guinness records

To launch the 2009 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, the shortest man in the world, He Pingping, posed in London's Trafalgar Square with Svetlana Pankratova, the woman with the world's longest legs.

In addition to shortest man, He Pingping gets the record for looking like the world's greatest playa in this photo... and wearing what has to be the world's biggest shit-eating grin.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

to all my friends' baby photo slideshows

After reading my last entry, I realize that I've been little better in my current writing than those visitors of my father's who I found cause to criticize. These last few entries have been of a more somber nature, perhaps fittingly so, given the circumstances. Nonetheless, just as I've been encouraging my father's visitors to be more upbeat and mirthful, so will I.

On that note, I wrote a poem a couple of days ago, after getting Jon and Kim's slideshow of their child Frances at 11 months. That was the title of the slideshow, 11 months, and the first thing I thought upon receiving it was "Why not wait until Frances one-year birthday to send a slideshow?" Then I caught myself, realizing that without a child-- without even a wife yet to have a child with-- I simply cannot comprehend a couple's tendency to e-mail photo slideshows of their children whenever the desire to do so overcomes them. I've noticed this not only of Jon and Kim with Frances, but of literally every married couple I know that have recently become parents. I suppose I will not until I, too, am in their shoes.

The following poem is a frivolous attempt at understanding the desire, as well as an overt poking-fun at it. As you'll read, my thoughts regarding my father-- and how my mother poked fun at him by framing the picture of his new truck-- obviously found their way into it.

To All My Friends’ Baby Photo Slideshows

Here is a picture of my truck
just off the lot, only a couple hours old.

Here’s one of the odometer—look
at all those zeros!
                                      She’s my first
brand-new, having never known
the joy before, having always
bought used.
                             Here she is
on the road in front of the house
the day I brought her home.

This is her in the driveway,
just after a waxing. Can you see
my reflection in her door?
                                                       I swear
her paint job sheds dirt naturally,
hardly even needs a washing.

Here’s my brother
behind her wheel,

and this is my sister,
doing a Vanna White.

Here’s all of us together,
taken by my neighbor,

and this is my neighbor and I,
arm-wrestling on her hood.

Here I am, filling her up
for the first time down
at the Get-Go — $3.79 a gallon
is just insane!

                              The way she guzzles it, too,
costs an arm and a leg, and I know
it ain’t getting any cheaper
as she gets older.
                                     Here she is
in front of the house again,
but later in the day

when her cherry-red is
more a deep-maroon.
                                               Here’s another of her
odometer: 1,000 miles
on the dot.
                         When she started getting close
I started keeping my camera in her glovebox.
(I had to pull over onto the shoulder
to take the picture the day she turned.)

Can you believe how quickly the mileage goes?
Before I know it, I’ll be taking her in
for her first tune-up.
                                            We leave Friday
on our first trip to the lakehouse—look
at the glint in her grillwork there—doesn’t it
look like she’s smiling?
                                                 Like she already knows?
It’s only for the weekend, but the camera’s
still in the glovebox.
                                             I’ll e-mail you another
slideshow, first thing Monday morning.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

vitamin h

My father's longtime business partner, Dr. Phillips, visited my dad shortly after he began taking up residency in the hospital. He brought him a portable DVD player and a collection of DVDs to watch. My father thanked him for the gift, but Phillips informed him that it wasn't a gift. "It's a prescription," he said.

The collection of DVDs were Phillips' favorite comedies, and he instructed my father to watch them as regularly as he would take medication. He wasn't being flippant, either. He was dead serious. He informed my father that he had been reading up on the treatment of cancer patients, and he had come to believe that humor is as important as any of the other myriad treatments he is receiving in order to crush the bug.

Over these last couple of weeks I've seen the wisdom of my father's partner's words. There is nothing that seizes up my chest more than people who visit and speak with my father as if they're never going to have another chance to do so. The soft, doleful tone of their voices. Their uber-expression of concern. People lock into this form of response to serious illness, and like Phillips, I've come to realize it does nothing to make him feel better.

However, humor does.

As sad and concerned as anyone, my mother realized this from the very beginning. She knew to take her worries and concerns with her to church-- not to the hospital to be with my father. This was exhibited in the first items she had me take to decorate his room. Both were framed photographs-- one was a picture of the dog; the other was a photo of the pick-up truck he had recently bought.

She said, "Tell him I thought he'd want reminders of the things that mean most to him."

He got a good laugh out of that.

Of all the the well-meaning cards and gifts he's received, none has done as much good as Phillips' gift, except maybe this one card, given to him by our family friends, the Drogowskis.

The cover is this photo:

The inside reads: "Please, for everyone's sake, get better soon."

Monday, September 8, 2008

tough as steel

It's much easier to write about passing thoughts, or past events, than it is to write about this sort of thing. My father's received his 4th chemotherapy treatment yesterday, and I suppose the reason I'm able to write today is that he looked absolutely fine when I visited him with my brother afterwards. It's not so difficult to write when there is optimism to be expressed, and there is. Really he looked no worse for wear than when he was initially admitted to the hospital, and to see him the same as I've always seen him was encouraging.

The saying goes that doctors make the worst patients. I'm assuming it was a doctor or nurse that was treating another doctor that first came up with this saying, and in my father's case, it's easy to see why. When he was first admitted, my dad had a complaint about the manner with which the medical staff had inserted his IV. He bemoaned the layout of his room and how it shouldn't be such a chore wheeling his drip into the bathroom with him. These smaller complaints, of course, spoke to the larger complaint he has about the corporatization of medicine and how he was happy to have gotten out of the profession while the getting was still good. Recently, he started asking his doctors for copies of his own blood work to review.

Though it may be difficult for a medical professional to treat another doctor, it's even tougher to be a family member of a hospitalized doctor. Just to step out of the elevator into the cancer ward, I have to pump myself up, drawing upon what little internal strength I have in order to float a smiley face down his hall. The matter-of-factness with which my dad talks about his condition, though, pops my positivistic balloon. Yesterday, when I commented upon how good he looked, he smiled and said, "Just wait. It's going to get a lot worse in the next week."

He then proceeded to tell my brother and I what a healthy person's white blood cell count, red blood cell count, and platelet count is-- then, he told us what his counts were. He gave us an overview (in layman's terms) of what was being done to his body-- how the chemotherapy treatments were "the hammer" that were meant to smash "the bug" in his bone marrow, leaving his immune system paper-thin in the process.

He did say his doctors had been encouraged by his response to his treatment, and that they were optimistic that his immune system would rebound, but my father undercut this optimism by pointing out there's a chance the hammer might not succeed in smashing the bug. And even if it does, either way, he said, "I'll be getting a lot worse before I get better."

My brother sat against the wall, looking into his lap. He was not accustomed to my father's frankness regarding his condition like I was.

Fortunately, my brother and I had decided to visit the afternoon of the Steelers' first game against the Texans. Soon, father, son & son were busy watching and commenting upon the game, and we fell into a conversational groove that moved us past my father and his condition. It was as if his hospital room scenery were a backdrop that was removed by unseen stage hands. We talked about the ceremony before the game, honoring Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and Myron Cope. I criticized my brother's love for Tom Brady, the quarterback for New England, and tangentially for A-Rod, the third-baseman for the Yankees, and I used both criticisms to call my brother's Pittsburgh fandom "deeply flawed." My father laughed as I ribbed my brother; he even got in on the act by saying Tibor had been living too long now in New Jersey. The only thing missing was the beer and pizza.

The Steelers crushed the Texans in their home opener, much like I hope the chemo "hammer" is crushing the "bug" in my father's bone marrow. Here's one of the five Steelers sacks in the win.

I did not discuss it with my bro, but I felt a deeper connection to the team and the city after our visit with dad. The Steelers' success on the football field lightened the mood in his hospital room, and I like to think the optimism we all felt about the team this season was infectious. My brother and I left the hospital at halftime happy and confident about my father's condition when we both were feeling tentative and a bit scared before.

No wonder this city embraced the success of the Steelers so tightly in the '70s when the steel industry collapsed here. They needed something to cheer for, to be positive about. I now understand that better than I ever thought I could.

Friday, September 5, 2008

change in direction

Just as my writing here shifted from concerning my waking thoughts to relating memoir-ish stories of my past, it is shifting once again. It is shifting back to my waking thoughts, which are no longer of the whimsical, musing variety. Rather, my thoughts have turned to my father, who was hospitalized a week ago after having been diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia.

I didn't know what this meant. I had heard of leukemia before, but for whatever reason I thought it was a children's disease. The diagnosis confused me, and the medical name scared me. The medical name for everything sounds scary. If you were told you had acute viral nasopharyngitis, you'd think you were fucked and didn't, in fact, have a common cold.

Dumb shit that I am, I didn't realize leukemia was a form of cancer-- a non-medical name I did understand that brought me the polar opposite of comfort.

The mention of the c-word and a loved one's name is simply devastating, especially to someone like myself who's lost several loved ones to cancer. No member of my family that had cancer survived it, and this only made the devastation worse. Only after a great deal of heartaching and tears and frustration and anger and several sleepless nights did I come to understand a few things that brought me to a level of comfort that I can now sit and write about this episode of my life.

First of all, the c-word is no longer unspeakable. There are plenty of cancer survivors, and once I was able to get over my initial hysteria I could find examples of cancer survivors everywhere I looked. Lance Armstrong. Mario Lemieux. My girlfriend's mother. My neighbor's husband across the street.

Secondly, though the medical name initially terrified, I researched it and came to understand that this particular form of leukemia is extremely treatable and, when caught early on, has a high (better than 90%) total remission rate.

Thirdly, they caught it very early. Fortuitously, my father was having his blood monitored every month for a high-blood pressure medication that he had been taking so, when his white blood cell count began to drop, his doctor noticed it immediately. After a few blood tests, the leukemia was identified, and he was in the hospital before any symptoms appeared other than a touch of fatigue.

Today was his third chemotherapy treatment, and he looks as fine as he did the day he was admitted, albeit a bit more subdued.

As he undergoes his therapy, I will continue to write here in sympathy. This blog will remain my cancer log until he pulls through.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


The shrike (specifically the loggerhead shrike) is the name of a bird that I read about this summer in the paper and, after doing so, immediately wanted to find a place for in a poem. Here it is in this photo taken by Jon Gavin at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The loggerhead shrike is often mistaken for a songbird, but the two couldn't be more different. Physically, the way to distinguish the two is by the hooked beak on the loggerhead shrike. Unlike the songbird, the shrike's beak is curved at the tip, like a bird of prey.

It's curved this way because it is...a bird of prey....a bird of prey so sadistically violent it has earned the nickname, "the butcher bird."

The shrike uses its hooked beak to break the necks of its prey--small lizards and other small birds--and then impale its paralyzed victims upon sharp branches, thorns and barbed wire.

Not only is the bird distinguished by the manner in which it kills its prey, but also by the sheer amount of killing it does. The article in the paper that I read (I wish I had saved the photo) showed one little shrike that had killed 40+ lizards, birds, and insects. It pictured the shrike and a stretch of a barbed wire fence in the background, along which the shrike had impaled all these creatures in a row.

The loggerhead shrike lacks the talons other predatory birds have with which to tear its prey apart, and this explains why it impales its prey-- in essence, it turns its victims into popsicles from which to peck at and sustain itself. However, as was mentioned in the article, the loggerhead variety of the shrike kills far more than it could possibly eat. It posits that the bird kills as many creatures as it does, and puts them on display, in order to show female shrikes what a vigorous and strong potential mate it is.

So, where the songbird sings to attract a mate, the shrike kills. How deliciously evil--this was my first thought, but then I wondered how evil is that, really? When all the killing is done, all the guy shrike is doing is trying to impress the girls. Aren't they the evil ones by being impressed with such carnage?

I read somewhere about a type of bird that seeks out shiny objects, e.g. scraps of aluminum foil and colorful bits of ribbon and cloth, to weave into its nest in order to attract the ladies. Are these birds any different from the shrike, essentially, in their behavior being a means to the same end?

And how different is the natural world in comparison to our own? I am reminded of a Dave Chappelle comedy sketch -- at about four minutes in, he delves into the question of materiality and male/female relationships -- in which he says (albeit in much coarser language) than a man would live in a cardboard box if only that would be sufficient to attract a potential mate. However, men live in nice homes, drive expensive cars, and pursue the lucrative careers with which they are able to obtain these things because this is what women find attractive.

Are then the material girls who are impressed with our society's dragons really that much different than female shrikes?

How I got from ornithology to Dave Chappelle I really don't's early...i need a cup of coffee...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

workforce rejoined

I received word last Wednesday that the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh has agreed to compensate me monetarily for writing, editing and managing content on its website. So my fellow comrades, beginning tomorrow, I will be rejoining the workforce after a prolonged hiatus. No doubt, the time and energy that I have to do blog writing will lessen; however, I will endeavor to keep at it to the greatest extent possible.

When I find that my desire to do so is waning, I thankfully have several places in the blogosphere to look for inspiration. One is C. Dale Young's blog, Avoiding the Muse, the link to which I have had listed in my blogroll for some time. It is a one-stop shop for links to all kinds of writing relevant to the world of poetry, and by maintaining this shop with the diligence that C. Dale does, he has made himself a friend of the poetman from afar.

At one point I was in close proximity to the man. We shared a van from Bread Loaf to the Burlington airport last year, but I didn't introduce myself. I would have liked to, being both familiar and appreciative of his poetry, but I was content just to nod off during the long drive after drinking like a writer the previous night at the conference's send-off party in The Barn.

I passed up the opportunity to introduce myself at the airport, as well. After so many consecutive days of being literary at Breadloaf, I had already dimmed the lights in my head. Instead of introducing myself to yet another poet, I hung all of my hungover attention over a fantasy football insert I found in my copy of USA Today. (Am I the only one who always feels compelled to purchase a copy of USA Today whenever I'm in an airport?)

I woke up this morning and swore to myself that I would continue writing a poem called "Shrike" that I've put aside since my very first blog posting two months ago, but I've wanted to mention C. Dale's blog for some time and how useful it is in keeping abreast of what it being written about poetry, among other things. Also, I recently read a poem of his that reminded me of the beach at Half Moon Bay near to where Rob & Kate live. It's also close to the first beach I visited upon my first trip to San Francisco-- a story I intend to relate in a future post. I mention it now to serve as a reminder to do so later. Here's the link to "Infidelity" by C. Dale Young.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

robert frost's bed

My friend Tanya sent me this picture of Annex House, my residence for 11 days last year up at Bread Loaf. She is up there now, doing her second tour of poetry duty, and now that this year's conference is in full-swing, I find myself mentally projecting myself there. I opted not to apply again this year, thinking I'd be preparing to pursue yet another college degree and busy situating myself around yet another college or university campus. If only I had known then that I'd travel to India, change my life's plans, and not presently be working, I'd like to think I'd be there now.

Having never attended a writers' conference before, I did not know what to expect from Bread Loaf. I only knew it was the oldest and most prestigious writers' conference in the country, but since I'd never been to any other conference, I could not put this into perspective. Only once I received my information packet in the mail was I able to do so, to some small degree. I was shocked to learn that writers had been gathering at this retreat in Vermont for 82 (now 83) years--longer than the Pittsburgh Steelers (celebrating their 75th anniversary last season) had been playing professional football. I also learned the current recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry was going to be in attendance; here she is, Natasha Tretheway (right), drinking on my porch with Tanya (left), who has just informed the preeminent poet that she has a nice butt.

The one thing I did know about Bread Loaf, going into the conference, was that it had been parodied as "Wordloaf" on the Simpsons. And to answer Homer's question at the end of this clip, no. Bread Loaf does not have an open bar (which would be truly crazy the way writers drink) except for the party in The Barn at the very end of the conference (which was truly crazy the way writers drink). There was a cash bar that served beer and wine on a daily basis in The Barn, but it only opened in the evenings, late enough after dinner that my friends and I were forced to go into town to do some occasional shopping. Here's Maria with a couple of baby Heineken keggies and a cart full o' bottles and boxes of wine.

While there, my internal odometer rolled back to my college days, and just as then, after my afternoon classes, I liked to have a couple drinks before dinner. I had very little problem finding people like Maria who were of the same inclination. Our core crew was Maria Nazos, Tanya Jarrett, Jamie Iredell, and myself. We would sit out on the porch before and after dinner, and shoot the literary shit. Other attendees and faculty would pass by the porch, join us for a cocktail, stick around for awhile and then move on. It became an institution-- the porch at Annex House-- where you could be sure to get a drink, bum a smoke, hear a favorite poem recited, recite a favorite poem yourself, e.g. the best 9/11 poem ever written-- Martin Espada's "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100" --engage in a discussion on poetic craft, hear Vincent "the baardvark" recite a spoken word poem in which he geniusly rhymes "Lake Wobegon" with "Pokemon", tell your best drunk story, listen to someone else's most disgusting sex story, watch a half a dozen people standing on top of the boulder in the field across the road which was the only place on the entire mountain where one could get a lick of cellular telephone service, have your picture taken by Adam Grabowski, skip a creative nonfiction reading at the Little Theater in order to listen to Jamie recite a poem recounting the evils of each and every one of his ex-girlfriends, hear Ames sing "I Had My Beer Goggles On", watch Laura challenge Maria to a beer-shotgunning contest and then shit-talk about her victory afterwards, participate in a late-night recite-a-poem-from-memory smackdown with Ilya Kaminsky, Major Jackson, and Matt Hart among others, admire the sunset shining in the mask of beer sweat on Jamie's face after drinking half a case of PBR, see Eavan Boland walk by on the sidewalk and feel your poetic soul pulled by the gravitational weight of her presence, or sit back in a rocking chair and just fucking rock.

Or you could hear one of several different accounts of what happened to me at the Frost summer house, a mile and a quarter off the Bread Loaf campus. The following is the definitive account.

Most of the rooms on Bread Loaf campus are doubles, including those in Annex House. The informational packet that an attendee receives upon acceptance to the conference forewarns you of this fact. I had my reservations about sharing a room with a total stranger. The last time I had been assigned a roommate was my freshman year in college, and he turned out to be a total cocksucker. However, I took some comfort in the knowledge that the staff at Bread Loaf makes every attempt to pair up compatible attendees at the conference. As it turns out, it couldn't have been a more perfect fit with Alex (far left in this picture).

A rugby player, a fiction writer, a helluva storyteller, a drinker, a nasty farter, and an all-around funny and personable guy, Alex was a more suitable roommate than I could have imagined. We bonded from the start, and with him, I attended one of the conference's first get-togethers-- a BBQ and Frost lecture on the grounds outside Robert Frost's summer house near Bread Loaf campus.

The highlight of this excursion was the opportunity to see Frost's summer residence first-hand. A national historic landmark, the house was tiny and must have been cramped even for Frost, who I learned (much more first-hand that I would have liked) was a surprisingly diminutive man. Emerging from the confines of this quaint dwelling must have made the natural landscape surrounding it seem all that much more grandiose and enthralling for Frost. The house consisted of four rooms: a small sitting room, a narrow kitchen, an almost airplane-sized bathroom, and a single bedroom. In the bedroom there was a small window, a framed poem hung on the wall, a nightstand, and a single bed. Robert Frost's small, single bed.

Alex and I had been the first to enter, and we breezed through the house while those behind us were proceeding at a thoughtful, museum-ish pace. They were still noting the titles on Frost's bookshelf in the sitting room, and weighing the quaintness of its few pieces of wicker furniture, by the time we had swept through the place and were standing in Frost's bedroom.

Only once I saw the size of the bed in that room did I realize how tiny this giant of American poetry actually was. The mattresses in the bunk bed that I used to share growing up with my brother, while on vacation at our family's obsessively fish-themed lakehouse, seemed queen-sized in comparison.

The bed was against the wall, to the left of the door as you entered the bedroom. I was overcome with the inexplicable urge to sit on the edge of the bed. For whatever reason, I wanted to place my feet on the exact same spot on the floor where Frost would have placed his, waking up each day, in an effort to connect spatially with the poet. At least this is how I rationalized the urge after the fact.

With utmost care and gentleness, I sat. Alex was watching as I did so, nervously. Nothing happened. The bed, though small, was sturdy, and I let the bed frame take the weight of my ass. I mused upon my feet and grinned up at Alex. Outside we could hear people walking from the sitting room into the kitchen, at which point the expression on Alex's face told me that I should probably get up.

I reached back with my left hand, to help push myself up, when the back corner of the mattress dropped through the bed frame with a bang. I fell backwards atop my arm, my legs flying up spread-eagled in the air over the edge of the bed frame where they had been planted. Looking up from between my knees, I saw Alex standing over me, horror-stricken, as if I had just spontaneously given birth or asked him to lick drops of Tabasco off my perineum.

In an exhibition of behavior most unfitting a good roommate, not to mention a UK rugby player, Alex ran out of the room like a scared little girl.

Fortunately, for me, two of the first people he elbowed past, in exiting the little house, were Maria and Adam, to whom I am both truly indebted. Adam immediately extended a hand to help me up, and Maria barred entry to the bedroom, managing the scene. When someone asked, "What happened in there?" she responded, "Nothing!" and abruptly shut the bedroom door.

Panic-stricken, I got on my knees before the bed and began to examine what I could do as a means of damage control. Once there, I realized what had happened; the mattress rested on three pegs in the bed frame where there should have been four. The peg in the bottom right hand corner was missing, so when I had pushed back on the mattress with my left hand, it dropped through the frame and hit the floor.

I simply pulled the mattress back up so it sat level on the three pegs there. Like that, the bed looked untouched, except for its mussed covering which I smoothed out (carefully) with the palm of my hand. Then Maria opened the bedroom door to several astonished faces, and we walked out, trying to look deadpan. I must have looked like I had just had a physical altercation with Robert Frost's ghost.

The house that had initially seemed so small was now palatial and labyrinthine as we struggled through the querulous crowd that packed its square footage. Once through and out the door, nature had never before been so expansive and inviting. I took a deep breath of fresh, fresh air.

Immediately I found Alex, who was busy telling a group of people on the lawn outside the house how his roommate just broke Robert Frost's bed. After first questioning his manhood, then the content of his character, and finally calling him "chipmunk nuts", I put my arm around my roommate and confided to him that, if I had been in his shoes, I would have in all likelihood exhibited no less panic and cowardice.
As it turns out, the experience served as a boon for our Annex Porch get-togethers. People that perhaps wouldn't have stopped by did, just to meet the idiot poet who "broke" Robert Frost's bed.

While writing this, I was saddened to come across this article in the Middlebury newspaper detailing how on December 28th, four months after my attendance at Bread Loaf, the house was severely damaged in the wake of "a large, underage drinking party."

This passage from the article describes the damage that was done:

Police say vandals shattered a window to gain entrance to the farmhouse and proceeded to destroy tables, chairs, pictures, light fixtures and dishes, torch wicker furniture in the fireplace to warm the unheated building, discharge two fire extinguishers and urinate and vomit inside the building and on the surrounding property.

Surprisingly, Frost's broken bed is not included in this list of damaged furniture. Perhaps the reporter missed this detail, or maybe the horde of drunken teenagers, despite all their pissing and puking, had declared Frost's bedroom off-limits during their party, thereby preserving its sanctity and exhibiting a modicum of respect and common decency for the poet that I, by sitting upon his bed, had managed to lack.

I hope the bed remains there, as is, its mattress resting on three pegs, awaiting the next destructively over-curious poet to sit upon its edge...