Saturday, December 19, 2009

be good for goodness' sake

Except for the rarest of instances, when I happen upon a good or a service that perfectly corresponds to a family member, friend or lover, and it's within the acceptable price range for giving to that person, and available for purchase then and there, and not on back-order, so when you present the present, you get to see its revealing in that person's company -- you get to experience the immediacy of his or her reaction to the gift, which confirms exactly how correct you were in thinking -- yes, that is the perfect gift for x ... except for those rare instances, I fucking hate shopping.

And I know how very original I am for expressing this sentiment during the holiday season. This is the time of the year when you hear even people who were born to shop say how much they hate it -- even people for whom a "Born To Shop" T-shirt would make the perfect gift outlined in the scenario above.

But most people don't really hate shopping. People rail against the crowds in the stores, the traffic, the hundred-million other things they have to be doing that have yet to be done... but these don't get to the heart of the problem. In fact, with online shopping, there's no excuse to bitch about these things anymore. Anything can be obtained and shipped for free from Internet retailers for the most part during the holiday season. Anyone who doesn't opt to do so, and bitches about how terrible their experience at the mall was, needs the opposite of a sympathetic ear. It's as indefensible to bitch about your shopping experience at the mall as it is to bitch about how cold you are after doing something like shoveling your driveway with nothing but your slippers on.

But people can legitimately bitch about the struggle of trying to buy perfect gifts for those nearest and dearest to them. Because it is hard. It requires effort, and there's an undeniable pressure in making the right selections. Even for those who are easiest to shop for. Because the perfect gift requires insight, creativity... it's when shopping transcends shopping and becomes art. And art's tough to make... or, at least, make well.

For those family members that are farther removed, you have justifiable reason to bitch about the compulsory nature of holiday gift-giving. Though you see these people only once a year at the family holiday get-together, you've got to buy something for them. Ask anyone visibly stressed in the final shopping days of shopping, and after sighing, they'll say something along the lines of "I still have to get something for Uncle Joe, my Aunt Audrey, Dave and Lorrin ... and Ryan, I almost forgot Ryan. What do you get for a six-year-old boy nowadays, anyway?"

In response to the holiday absurdity, a group exists -- the members of which all fly into a pre-designated city each Christmas season dressed in Santa's best and carouse, creating "santanarchy" by behaving in very, unSanta-like ways. You can learn more at

I would likely be one of SantaCon's regular attendees if not for the fact I'm compelled to return to my parents' house each year. It is something I look forward to doing -- in large part because we don't buy one another Christmas gifts. It's a relatively firm holiday pact. No one buys anyone else presents because, if you do, you make everyone else feel like an asshole. And making your family members feel like assholes is, well, just not in the spirit of the holiday, unless perhaps your family stars in its own reality TV show.

That doesn't mean we don't unwrap gifts, though. The unwrapping of gifts has been a tradition we've held onto, and though it has waned since the years I was looking forward to things like Star Wars figures and new video games, that joy is still there.

My mother goes through a closet full of drug company giveaways she and my father hoarded whenever they would attend some drug conference as a tax-free holiday. Things like Immodium mousepads, plastic Prilosec paper clip holders, Zantac solar-powered calculators, etc... Each year my mother spends hours wrapping this junk up to look like authentic presents and puts it all under the Christmas tree. Then, bombed on nog and wine at the tail end of our annual Christmas Eve celebration, we tear into the gifts under the tree, sardonically crying out how shit like the Viagra oven mitt is exactly what we'd been hoping Santa would bring.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I first saw the acronym for Half Moon Bay on a white, oval-shaped bumper sticker -- the same kind you've perhaps seen with the "OBX" for North Carolina's Outer Banks. (I hate seeing the OBX stickers, especially on cars nowhere near the East Coast let alone North Carolina.)

My favorite of these stickers indicates an affiliation with Pittsburgh -- it reads "N'@" which refers to the superfluous Pittsburghese colloquialism, "n'at." It is used with amusing frequency among native Pittsburghers. Here it is in context:

"What are yunz guyz doin' this weekend?"
"I dunno... maybe goin' dahntahn for the Three Rivers Arts Festival n'at."

(The "n'at" is an abbreviation of the phrase, "and all of that." So, in this context, "n'at" would translate as "and all of that which is associated with the Three Rivers Arts Festival (e.g. eating street food, listening to live local music bands and strolling through the artists' vendor tents pursuing the same local artwork you see every year at the Arts Festival).")

Strangely enough, shortly after seeing this bumper sticker and thinking of "N'@" in context, I attended the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival. It was among the first of the things I did upon my arrival to Calif., and the least memorable given its striking similarity to the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh. I suppose these festivals are the same everywhere -- lots of local residents mulling about, looking at local artwork and listening to local bands who lack the talent necessary to shed their "local" designation.

Unless they get moist for enormous gourds and/or have a sexual attraction to being stuck backed-up in traffic for hours as the population of a tiny beach town swells to 200k+, I don't see what compels those who flock to the festival year after year. (By the way, pumpkin-flavored beer = gag.)

I'm more optimistic for the next big event on the horizon here -- Mavericks. For a span of 24 hours, the Pacific Ocean churns out 30+ foot waves off the coast of Half Moon Bay. Surfing's creme de la creme wait on standby for the maverick waves, ready to travel to HMB at a moment's notice once they start crashing sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving each year.

I've been warned not to get my hopes up, though. It is not as much of a spectator event as one might think. The waves break on a reef about 1/4 mile offshore so, I presume, without some high-end optics there won't be much to watch except the surfers being towed out to the waves. (Since 1/4 mile is a long paddle to catch a wave, jetskiers tow the surfers out to catch them.)

I don't really need to see Mavericks; mere proximity to the ocean is enough for me. My hosts' Rob and Kate live in an oceanside housing development. You can see the Pacific from their living room window, beaming in the sunlight and brooding in the moonlight. Lately, it's been rumbling at night as its cauldron churns in Mavericks' birth pangs.

My hosts' community is adjacent to the Ritz-Carlton HMB, and my favorite activity is strolling down to the cliffside hotel to watch the sunset over the Pacific. Cloud banks on the horizon refract its light, making its orb appear analog in its last moments. No longer round, it looks like a tiny pyramid on the horizon, then a dot that finally blinks over the edge.

On the weekends bagpipe music accompanies the sunset, and a crowd of hotel guests gathers along a fence at the cliff's edge, drinks hanging in hand. What's most striking about these Pacific sunsets is the immediacy with which the sun finally disappears into the ocean. It speeds up suddenly at the very end, and is gone. There is a solemnness to the hotel guests as the horizon fades to black, and they walk back from the cliff edge. It's not just the somber tones left in the air by the bagpiper, but also an unconscious association made between the sunset and the human condition ... or simply sadness that a day of vacation has come to an end.

Though the sun is gone, the ocean remains, pulsing at the dark shore. It's this sense of a large mass in constant motion that I like about proximity to the ocean -- it curbs the disturbing stillness of night and pushes you with a bit more urgency into wakefulness the next day. Sometimes it presses into your sleep, leaving you contemplating the unfathomable in the morning.

Friday, October 9, 2009

my small breasts and i

I've been meaning to write about a couple of my friends' novels (Man Martin's Days of the Endless Corvette and Jamie Iredell's Prose. Poems. A Novel.). However, I'm on the verge of relocating west, and I'm busy with the many details involving the act of relocating, one of which prompted this blog post.

In California, I'll be staying with some good friends who had inspired previous blog posts (see umbrolli cutco and the wizardry of toto). In preparation for my visit, I decided to watch some BBC America so that I don't go through the television-viewing equivalent of "the bends" as I shift from my predominantly American sports-related TV watching to my hosts' particular viewing preferences. (As a guest in someone's home, it's really the very least you can do.)

While doing this, I came across a BBC documentary that shares the same name as this blog post. The documentary centers around a group of British women and the difficulties they have in living with their small breasts.

One is a petite Asian IT professional in her late 20s who approaches resolving her breast issues in a ridiculously proactive way. She opts not to consider breast augmentation surgery (which she is quick to say she would have no problem affording if she so chose to do so) in favor of using a vacuum pump apparatus in conjunction with herbal supplements in order to enlarge her bust. She takes her herbal (I love how the Brits pronounce the 'h' in 'herbal') supplements daily and affixes the pump apparatus (consisting of two plasticine cups attached by tubes to a vacuum-generating machine that looks like a cable box) to her tits while she sleeps at night. She lives with her boyfriend, who is "supportive" of his girlfriend's quest for bigger breasts, despite the fact they currently sleep in separate beds due to her nocturnal attachment to her breast pump.

She laments the inability to cuddle with her bf at night and the nuisance of the pump apparatus. As an IT professional who travels on business trips frequently, she talks about the inconvenience of carrying the added luggage of the apparatus (which weighs 7 kilos) on her trips and having to explain its function to airport personnel when passing through security. However, she is committed to not having the body of a pre-pubescent teen so she deals with these problems because of the encouraging results she's seen. A great deal of her portion of the documentary is footage of her standing in front of her bathroom mirror, trying to ascertain how much breast mass she has gained from her regiment.

Another cleavage-deficient woman on the show is in her early 20s and is one of the more attractive women I've seen. If she was a few inches taller, she would be indistinguishable from a professional model -- an occupation for which a large bust is not considered an asset at all. Regardless, she is disgusted with her "little girl's" body, so much so that she is considering registering with the Web site,, where women who don't have the money to buy breast implants get donations from men who do, in exchange for photos and letters chronicling their breast enlargement experience. (Btw, I am not making this shit up. Go ahead and look at the Web site yourself.)

Before registering, though, she visits a boob doctor to become more acquainted with the breast augmentation procedure. He recommends an ideal cup size for her skinny frame and gives her instructions on how to simulate the experience of owning a larger set of knockers. According to his instructions, she boils a pre-determined amount of couscous and dries it out. After allowing it to cool, she divides the couscous into two mounds and packs them each into a piece of hosiery, which she then ties off, snipping away the excess hosiery with scissors, leaving her with two faux implants to put in her bra. These allow her, pre-surgery, to become accustomed to the weight of carrying the extra boobage, as well as gauge reaction to her new beamers while walking around in public.

The camera follows her through the streets of London, sporting her homemade implants in a tight top. They not only look real, and huge, but the knots where the hosiery has been tied off make her seem like she has hard, thumb-sized nipples, as well. Her faux bust proceeds to stop traffic. Giggling, she points out the gawkers and is all too amused by how her couscous-enhanced blockbusters are disrupting the pedestrian street scene.

Up to this point, the documentary has been nothing but supportive and understanding of these women and their particular struggles with their body image issues. Here, though, it finally suggests the ridiculousness of these girls' obsession with their lack of tit. As she walks down the street -- shaking her fake howitzers and turning heads left and right -- nonchalantly, she says that this, of course, is not why she wants bigger boobs. This kind of attention is an unwanted side-effect, she says, at which point the driver of a van pulls over to the curb and asks her if she has a boyfriend.

All the while, the makers of the documentary have chosen the Stone Roses song, "I Wanna To Be Adored" as the soundtrack playing through this segment. For those of you unfamiliar with the song, its lyrics consist of the following:

I don't have to sell my soul / He's already in me. / I don't need to sell my soul. / He's already in me. / I wanna be adored. / I wanna be adored. / I wanna, I wanna / I wanna be adored. / I wanna, I wanna / I gotta be adored.

I had planned to wrap up this post by asking how these attractive and otherwise intelligent women could become so deluded that they see themselves as ugly because they lack a robust bust? Is it a personal obsession? Are they damned, as the Stone Roses song suggests, with their vanity attributed to the Devil (He) inside of them? Or is the superficiality and materiality of our postmodern society to blame for these women not being able to see themselves for the beauties that they are?

Then I realized that I was making an assumption in this questioning -- that these women are, in fact, beautiful. One could argue they are not, and that presupposition would entail a different line of questioning.

However, I personally could never make such an argument, and I realize it is because of a superficial bias all my own -- I am entirely too attracted to hearing British women talk about their breasts, big or small, to speak about them objectively. (Btw, there is another BBC documentary "My Big Breasts And Me" dealing with the flip side of the coin.)

I always found the British accent to be alluring, but when discussing this topic of conversation in particular, it's simply irresistible. Perhaps I need help with this infatuation as much as they do. Maybe there's a Web site out there for me to turn to.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


What made leaving the news station easy was the thought of returning to California. What made it even easier was the Group of 20 summit.

When the White House announced that Pittsburgh was selected as the host city for the G-20 summit, not only did the White House press corps laugh but the news station also got its panties in a bunch at the prospect of what was to come. Unlike the swine flu and Jacko's death, the G-20 summit is not a blockbuster national story that the station will have to spin to localize. It's an international blockbuster, and all Pittsburgh's. Its biggest story ever... until, of course, the next biggest story ever comes along.

It was a slow, moving freight train I saw coming in the distance, and I waited, and waited, until the end of August, and then proceeded to step out of the way. It's just now rumbling by.

After I left the news station, I tuned out completely. I didn't pick up a newspaper except to read the sports section. I didn't watch the news, nor visit the station's Web site to see what's been happening. (I didn't write any blog postings since that time, either. Work elsewhere -- on finding a new job, on writing a memoir -- is more responsible for my blog negligence, though.)

Now that I've stepped aside, I've begun slowly to read the newspapers again, and I'm thinking the G-20 summit may just live up to the hype it's receiving. I've read and heard some wild reports of things to expect from the protesters who have converged upon Pittsburgh. Previous meetings of the Group of 20 have provided a venue for protest groups such as The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army to voice their deliciously insane opinions.

David Cheskin/AP

Bands of protesters are apparently congregating in camps in the city's parks like bands of Merry Men, awaiting the conference and their chance to do their warped Robin Hood impersonations for an international audience. I've read numerous businesses -- Starbucks, Target, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's -- are being targeted for various corporate policies or opinions expressed by corporate officers. Based on prior G-20 summits, they'll be throwing balloons filled with piss and shit at the minimum wage workers in these businesses, in an effort to affect change in their corporate practices -- thereby proving to all you anti-Darwinists out there just how similar we, in fact, are to our monkey cousins.

My old boss mentioned that he'd heard city police officers have been instructed, while on patrol, to look out activity in the basements of abandoned homes where anarchists are reportedly hosting bomb-making and shiv-fashioning classes for their acolytes.

I have to remind myself how quickly uninteresting even the most exciting story becomes once it becomes your job and ceases to be a spectator event you can, at any moment, get up and walk away from. The allure of the G-20 consequences -- both positive and negative -- makes me forget this. What a potential boon for the city! How potentially catastrophic if, among the piss-and-shit throwers, there's a bonafide Lex Luthor who intends to unleash some grand-scale wickedness for all the world to see!

In all likelihood, though, the world's leaders will come and go from the city, and the pluses and minuses of their visit will add up to close to zero. There will be no boon to herald on high, nor catastrophe to lament. But the news will try to make it seem like it was one way or the other, regardless.

Fortunately I no longer have to bother -- I can sit back, watch (or not watch) and hope for the best while I busy myself with my relocation West.

Monday, August 17, 2009

tax-free shopping. and bears.

My friend found this poster on the wall in a London tube station.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

the death of michael jackson

Step aside swine flu. As far as over-hyped headline news goes, Jacko's death has no peer. The station bent over backwards trying to localize this mega-event. We got local Jacko fan reaction throughout the city immediately following his death. We got video of local mourners contributing flowers, letters and old album covers to a makeshift memorial set up outside the Mellon Arena -- the venue where Michael Jackson's last performed in the city. We got sound from a woman who had been at the show (back in 1990-something) and how it changed her life forever. We also got sound with a local DJ speaking about his iconic status and speculating there would never be an individual artist more influential in pop music. We also interviewed a couple who had tickets to see his next scheduled performance in London and how, with his death and the concert's cancellation, their year is now ruined.

Before Jackson's memorial service, we got our mike in front of Jackson's personal trainer, Lou Ferrigno, who just so happened to be in town for some sort of health-awareness event, but the Hulk was too distraught by the news to comment upon the tragedy. We covered Jackson's memorial service in Los Angeles live along with every other local news station, as well as live-streamed the video on our website. We got same-day fan reaction from university campuses and Hill District barber shops and from the owner of a guitar store who provided good video of an impressive collection of Jackson memorabilia. We got a before-and-after exclusive with a local resident who won the lottery for a ticket to Jacko's memorial service. Days later, she was still wearing the wristband needed to access the pen of humanity from which she viewed the memorial and, with tears in her eyes, told our reporter she had no intention of ever removing it.

Some might accuse me of being insensitive by referring to Jackson by his derogatory nickname "Jacko," and they might be right, but not because of any particular animus toward the King of Pop. Granted, I've never been a Michael Jackson fan, even before a team of plastic surgeons did his bidding and turned him into an effeminate, aracial marionette. Even before the pedophilia fly flew into his soup.

(I'd like to repeat what the comedian Ron White had to say about the pedophile allegations against Jackson. He told a stand-up audience that Jackson slept at night with a life-sized doll of a Boy Scout in his bed. White mentioned that if it became public knowledge that he (White) slept with a life-sized doll of a naked woman in his bed, people would think he was fucking it. And they'd be right.)

Even if I had been so thrilled by Thriller and dreamed so ardently of Billie Jean that I could look past his freakishness, I still wouldn't be a MJ fan any longer -- in large part because I am working on the front line of one of the networks responsible for over-sensationalizing his death, and I am more privy than most to the scope of the ludicrousness surrounding it.

Here's a fun fact -- for days after the memorial, we had a link up on our Web site to the Los Angeles Mayor's Office Web site where you could make a donation to help the city of Los Angeles pay for Jackson's memorial service. They received somewhere in the neighborhood of $19K in donations from Jacko fans via the Web site. Reportedly, it cost $47K just to provide lunch for those participating in the memorial service the day of the event. $47K for lunch alone.

When asked by co-workers if I donated money to help pay for the memorial, I told them I refused to on the grounds that the city had chosen to go with a 24 karat gold coffin for Jacko. If they had chosen a more reasonable 18 karat coffin, I said I would have been more amenable to making a donation.Oddly enough, there were some co-workers of mine who did not immediately perceive that I was joking when I said this.

To see how worked up so many people are about Jacko's death makes me think I am lacking something essential in my makeup. There is a capacity I apparently do not have, and perhaps if I did have this capacity, I wouldn't think our society is as flat-out demented as it is leading me to believe.

So I've sat and thought about Jackson and the phenomena that inspire all this grief. This thought process led me to scroll through Jackson's discography, back to the days before he was King of Pop when he was only 1 of 5, and I became conscious of the fact that a calendar year was attached to each album. Taken as a whole, his discography spanned the history of most of his fans' lives. The fans that prostrate themselves before his image at curbside memorials are those who grew up with his music and see their lives in relation to it. Each album in his discography is a dot plotted on their own life's time line. They are touchstones as relevant to them personally as they are collectively to his fan base. This is why album sales spike upon a popular musician's death -- not only is there an urge to relive the artist (now dead) through his music (which survives) but there is also the urge of the fan to embrace one's own historicity occasioned by the artist's death.

In this light, one can view the event as an opportunity for an individual to reflect upon one's life in a society that offers fewer and fewer of such moments of introspection. For a short while, the inexorable march forward of the present pauses, maybe even opening a large enough window of time to do something like write a poem. And that's never a bad thing, regardless how trite the poem might be.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

the wizardry of toto

Of the possible trips I could take now in life, which would give me cause to recall my first sexual experience, a trip to the bathroom would seem the most unlikely.

It is the most ordinary trip that can be taken and, thus, hardly an occasion to provoke the same conflicting emotions your first time having sex did. The jump-out-of-your-skin excitement. The crawl-into-a-hole nervousness. I remember feeling as if I had to wrestle past two people in the hallway before I could pass through the bedroom door. I was a wreck by the time I slipped between the sheets with Wendy as a teenager. In retrospect, I’m amazed I was able to conquer my emotions and get down to the business of losing that which is never to be found again.

Maybe a trip skydiving for the first time, or even para-sailing would possibly recall that tense thrill. But a trip to the bathroom? No chance. No fucking way.

That was before I was introduced to my friend Rob’s new toilet, the Toto Neorest.

I mean that exactly as I say it -- Rob escorted me into his bathroom and introduced me to the toilet, like we were at a cocktail party. The Neorest automatically raised its lid as I approached, as if to say hello.

Neanderthal man retreats before the obelisk, innately fearing that which he doesn’t understand, and I stepped back away from the Neorest with his same apprehension.

Rob proceeded to rattle off the Neorest's features: the proximity detector, the seat warmer, the wall-mounted control panel, and the conspicuous lack of a toilet paper dispenser.

Warily I stepped back into the Neorest's proximity so Rob could show me each button on its control panel and describe its function. As he did so, I came to understand why there was no need for a toilet paper dispenser. The buttons controlled a jet stream of water that shoots up from the rear of the toilet basin; they regulate the intensity of this stream, which can also be adjusted to pulsate or oscillate according to personal preference. Once the jet stream had washed your bottom clean, there was another button to control a drying mechanism from inside the basin, again adjustable to one’s preferences.

I asked about a button on the control panel that illustrated a jet stream shooting at a reverse angle -- from the front of the basin backwards. Rob mentioned this was ‘for the ladies’ and recommended that I not push it. (Later, I would be tempted to ... but, in the end, I'd be able to restrain myself. My struggle with the temptation reminded me of the following classic Ren & Stimpy clip:)

He did recommend that, as a Neorest novice, I should use the ‘soft’ jet stream setting. If I was feeling daring, I was welcome to use the ‘regular’ stream, though he cautioned I might find it a bit intrusive. I was also encouraged to play with the buttons adjusting pulsation and oscillation if I felt like experimenting.

“If at any time you feel uncomfortable with what the Neorest is doing,” Rob said, “you can press this large, orange button for manual shutdown.”

The fact that Neorest could possibly do something to my ass that necessitated installation of a ‘panic’ button compelled me to step back away from it again. I declined Rob’s offer to ‘take her for a spin’ and, later that evening after dinner, opted to use the good ol’ American Standard in his home’s downstairs bathroom.

However, the next morning, after some strong coffee, I found myself standing outside the Neorest's bathroom doorway. To say my nervous excitement was analogous to that of my first sexual experience would be (admittedly) hyperbolic, but a similar feeling was there, albeit muted.

But that was where any similarities between the two experiences ended. There was nothing similar about the two afterward. In fact, I found myself wishing that my first sexual experience had been as gratifying as that with the Neorest.

With its lid opening upon my entry into the bathroom, and its seat warm to greet my ass cheeks as I sat down, my apprehension passed quickly. Neorest put me at ease that first time together in a way Wendy never had even attempted. I had remained tense in her company throughout our mutual deflowering.

And after I was through, Neorest knew exactly what to do. On the recommended 'soft' setting, its jet stream of water was just forceful enough to get the job done. What is truly amazing is that it hit its target with laser-guided precision from the outset, with no need for calibration. Nary a trickle of water misguidedly splashed a butt cheek. Really, I cannot stress enough how impressed I was by its accuracy. The drying mechanism was sufficient, too. I had to dab my backside with a little tissue afterward, but that hardly detracted from the experience.

Neorest did its job professionally and tenderly, and made my first experience shitting with it a memorable one. It now makes me wish I had my first sexual experience with someone other than Wendy, an older woman who knew what she was doing, maybe a prostitute even.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

dick swinging in wind

I'm planning a trip to California. Each time that I do, I think back to my first time there. I drove from New York to San Francisco with Carv, my college roommate sophomore year, and I'll never forget driving-thru an In-And-Out Burger outside Hercules(, Ca.) and hearing, for the first time, the voice of the intercom attendant ask me, "You want fries with that, dude?"

I think of how, over lunch, I asked Carv's brother Thomas what to do in case of an earthquake, and he instructed me to head for the nearest exit at the first twitch of a tremor. As fast as humanly possible, he said in all seriousness, knocking aside children and the elderly as necessary. He told me to find an open space outdoors, away from anything that could topple upon me, and curl up in the fetal position until the shaking stopped.

I think of when I challenged Carv's friends' each to come up with a single image that best captured the essence of CALIFORNIA. The most memorable answer: a pick-up truck filled with lawn mowers and Mexicans.

And I think of my very first excursion upon visiting the San Francisco peninsula. Our mission objective stood atop a cliff off Highway 1. There were NO TRESPASSING and U.S. MILITARY signs all over the place, but not a soul around. Just an abandoned military bunker built into the cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was one of several such installations built by the military, fearing a mainland attack after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

(I found this picture online, taken in the '70s or '80s, of a WWII bunker off Hwy 1. It might be the one Carv and I sought out, but if not, it's close enough to give you an idea.)

It may seem a strange excursion choice for Carv to suggest to a guest visiting the West Coast for the first time. However, it was totally in line with Carv if you knew him. One of the things that I always admired about him was the way he tends to militarize anything he does. For example, in college, we didn't go to the supermarket; we went on a grocery acquisition mission. To go check out a party was a keg reconnaisance sortie, etc ... Any action, once militarized, carried that much more weight of purpose. There was the illusion of lives in the balance in every activity. In short, it made even stupid shit seem important.

Also, it may have been that this first choice of excursions was meant to dash the notion of San Francisco that I'd had -- that most have -- as it being the gay nexus of the universe, more gay than even Vassar campus. Nothing could be farther from gay than visiting an abandoned military installation, right?

Or we may have (probably) just been drinking beforehand and thought it was as cool a place as any to check out with a good buzz going.

And it was cool. Imagine looking out through a hole in the bunker wall, sized to the diameter of a howitzer's barrel, and see pristine Pacific blue. And looking out and imagining what the soliders manning the bunker must have been on the lookout for -- the Japanese navy massing on the horizon during WWII.

Fucking cool.

Like the shitstupid sophomores we were, we decided it'd be awesome to climb down to the base of the cliff and see if there were any sea lions or tortoises swimming in the rocks below. Dressed in shorts, T-shirts and Tevas, we proceeded down a cliff face that, in retrospect, demanded repelling gear. We got about a third of the way down before we realized we couldn't go any further. And when we started to climb back up, we realized it was even more difficult to go back up than continue going down.

So we scaled the face of the cliff sideways until its steepness relented, and slowly but surely, down we went. The sun was cooking us against the rock, and fatigue was setting in, but Carv solidered on like he was a commando assailing Hitler's Eagle's Nest, and I fed off his conviction. I tried to ignore the sound of the waves slamming against the cliff below. Having only been to beaches in New Jersey and North Carolina before then, I wasn't used to hearing how fiercely the ocean interacts with a cliff. And I certainly wasn't accustomed to seeing this interaction from 60 or so feet above, scarily over my shoulder just beyond my sandal heels.

At the base of the cliff there was scrub brush and seaweed through which we scrambled and, like two frogmen, emerged upon the beach. Only then did I experience what I imagined California to be like-- the cloudless sky blue, a strip of beach wending down along the coast, the ocean lashing at its flatness with a tidal pulse.

Except no people. I imagined on such a perfect day, people would flock to this place. But except for a few people off in the distance, no one was taking advantage of this deserted island-grade stretch of beach. When I mentioned to Carv how I'd be down here swimming every day, he encouraged me to take off my sandals and walk along the water. Only then did I realize it was brutally cold. Carv explained the water current along the California coast originated in the Aleutian Islands and, being Alaskan, was fucking cold ...

which reminds me of a joke told by Carv's brother ...

A polar bear and his son, a polar cub, are sitting on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, and the cub says to the bear, "Daddy, am I a polar bear?"

The bear looks at his son, smiling. "Of course you are. We're both polar bears."

Some time passes, and the son turns to his father again, pulling at his fur. "Daddy daddy, are you sure I'm a polar bear?"

"As sure as sure can be!" the bear laughs. "You're my son. I'm a polar bear; you're mother's a polar bear. So that makes you a polar bear, too."

Some more time passes. Once more, the son pulls at his dad's fur. "Daddy daddy, are you really sure I'm a polar bear?"

"Yes!" the father exclaims, exasperated, "Not only are your mother and I polar bears, but our parents -- your grandparents -- were polar bears, too. And their parents before them! And their parents before them!

"For Neptune's sake why ..." the father begins to ask, calming himself down, "Why do you keep asking this question? What makes you think there's even the slightest possibility that you are not a polar bear?"

The cub looks up at his father.

"Because, daddy, I'm fucking cold."

... so, Carv was explaining to me how the ocean didn't warm up until you got farther south down the coast of California. We were making our way down the beach, and when I looked up next, the beachgoer we'd seen earlier in the distance walking toward us was now pretty much on top of us.

I don't remember anything more about the beachgoer, except to say that he was a dude who was obviously in shape by the tone of his muscles -- and that his dick was swinging like a rope in the ocean breeze as he passed us, smiling.

Then, as if they materialized out of thin air, like in the old SNL commercial for Bud Gay, naked dudes were everywhere on the beach. Naked dudes lying on beach towels. Naked dudes throwing a frisbee. Naked dudes rubbing suntan oil into one another's shoulders ...

Carv and I went from speed-walking to a flat-out sprint in less time than it took for a swinging dick to swat both inner thighs. We ran as if naked dudes were raining down upon the beach from above, parachuting with their dicks flapping like weather socks in the wind as they descended.

When we finally left the gay beach in a cloud of sand, found the staircase to the road above and climbed into Carv's car and drove away, I don't remember exactly what I said to Carv. Something along the lines of ... "Is this the first place you take all your friends who've never been to California?"... or "No, you were right about San Francisco ... it doesn't hold a dick in the wind to how gay Vassar is."

Whatever I said, though, of this I'm sure -- it wasn't nearly as funny as Tom's polar bear joke.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

squirrel falling out of tree

Walking home from the nearby Giant Eagle supermarket this morning, I saw a squirrel fall out of a tree. It fell directly in front of my path, exactly one concrete square ahead of me on the sidewalk. And it fell on the concrete from a low-hanging branch, with a fur-muffled thwack.

(This squirrel photo was actually copyrighted
by a douchebag who spends his free time
photographing squirrels and chipmunks.
On principle, I refuse to credit him here.)

I laughed audibly. I don't particularly like squirrels, ever since Vassar, where they roamed the campus without fear and, more irritatingly, with a sense of entitlement. However, my laughter's source was not in malice. I had no wish for a large predatory bird (a Giant Eagle?) to swoop down and snatch the fallen rodent. Nor did I find joy in the small animal being hurt, because it wasn't. In a blur of brown fluff, it righted itself and scurried off uninjured, for the base of the tree from which it had fallen.

Rather, I laughed because I looked in its rodent eyes and saw my same surprise of it falling from the tree before me reflected therein. Its eyes said, "I can't believe I just fell." Or maybe more precisely, "I can't believe I just fell where you (a human being) could see me fall." As if it had just broken some squirrel code -- don't ever let the tall, two-legged ones see you fall.

It scurried off -- not out of fear or instinct -- but because it hoped no squirrels in neighboring trees witnessed its fall. And if they did, an ultra-quick exit from the scene might -- just might -- erase the faux pas from their memory. The same way you quickly righted your chair in the 5th grade, after leaning back on two legs and falling backward in the middle of class.

At least that's what I was thinking when I crossed the last street before my block and caught the curb with the lip of my Teva toe. It wasn't enough to trip me up, but it did jostle the coffee cup in my hand just enough to belch a few beads of hot coffee out from its sipping lid, over its rim and down into the soft skin between my thumb and forefinger.

It didn't burn badly enough to trigger my dormant fear of coffee somewhere buried in my subconscious, but it was enough of a nuisance that I shouted "Fuck!" out loud. And, to my immediate left, a playground full of grade-schoolers stopped playing at recess, and their teachers stood and lasered their gazes into my face.

I rushed home like the squirrel back to its tree. Stupid squirrel. Stupid poetic justice.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

the pleasure chest

I traveled to New York recently. Not only did I get to see some very dear friends, and have the opportunity to eat and drink well with them, but I also got to remember what it is about the city that I love and miss so much.

It's no one thing in particular. It's the snatching grasp of relief upon finding no line for a taxi at the airport upon arrival. It's a group of black teenage girls practicing a cheer on the corner of Smith and Hoyt while a man old enough to be their grandfather stands and watches, puffing on a cigar. It's eating affogato for dessert for the first time in a cozy Brooklyn restaurant. It's finding old MTA card in your wallet with $5 left on it, but then discover it expired yesterday, and just as you're about to pitch it, a subway attendant asks for the card out of the blue and changes its expiration date for you.

I could live there again; I would live there again; and I think it wasn't so bad working a dead-end job for a private investigator there. It had its moments, like when I had to go out and buy several hundred dollars worth of lubricating jelly for a case we were investigating. Actually the investigation had concluded; the case was on the verge of going to court, and our client's intellectual property lawyer needed product samples purchased from a local retailer to present as exhibits.

Our client (a large, family-oriented manufacturer of consumer goods -- think baby shampoo) did not like the fact that another company was selling flavored sex jellies under a name similar to their own. So I needed to buy only "Doc Johnson" brand lubricants. I did this on a Tuesday after a slice of Ray's pizza for lunch. I walked uptown on 6th Ave. to The Pleasure Chest.

Shortly after 1 p.m. on a Tuesday seemed as innocuous a time as any to visit an adult variety store and purchase several hundred dollars worth of lubricating jelly. As it turns out, I was mistaken.

The adult shop was packed wall-to-wall, and not with the perverts you'd expect to find doing weekday porno and sex toy shopping. They were almost exclusively women -- almost exclusively mother-daughter pairs to be exact. And they looked wholesome -- Midwestern wholesome -- as any group of mothers and daughters I'd ever seen. They could have just as easily been perusing designer clothing in the aisles at Macy's.

There was a giggling mother helping her teenage daughter try a pocket vibrator in her Jordache jeans. There was one teenager asking another if she would ever wear a string of golf ball-sized beads like the one she had dangling from her fingers.

As I made my way through the aisles of the store, I pushed past two mothers trying to decide between different models of inflatable Chippendales. At the very back, a daughter was asking her mother what the pinky-sized hook-like appendage jutting upward from the base of a modest-sized dildo was for. Her question went unanswered as her mom, wearing a blown-out expression, examined another, less modest-sized dildo named "The Bulldozer."

I went entirely unacknowledged by anyone in the store as I proceeded to fill an entire shopping basket with tubes of warming sex cream, "Sin-amon" flavored oil, and glow-in-the-dark gel. As I made my way to the counter, without a stray eye lifting in my direction, I wondered if I may have wandered upon some truly depraved mother-daughter nympho-cult that was ballsy enough to meet in the light of day right under normative society's nose. I wished (more than I wished for any thing at any time before or since) that I had gone to high school wherever these teenage girls went to high school.

I had already developed a pretext for why I was buying so much sex lube with a corporate credit card if the cashier were to have asked -- I was a production assistant for Hand Over Fist Films -- but the cashier rang me up for $300+ as stone-faced as if I was buying groceries at Garden Of Eden.

"Is this your typical Tuesday afternoon crowd?" I asked.

"No," the cashier sighed. "Sex In The City tour."

Apparently the adult shop had been featured in an episode of the show, and their next stop was the Gray's Papaya hot dog stand above which I used to live. A scene from the show had been filmed there, as well. On the way out, I noticed their charter bus parked along the curb, and my dream of a depraved mother-daughter nympho cult was dispelled. The world returned to making sense, kind of.

But, really, my job working for the private investigator didn't get any better than that, and I forget that about city living, as well. It's as two-faced as a deceitful lover -- for every thing you cherish and remember there's another you beg in your weaker moments to forget. The oppressive heat of the summer. The difficulty inherent in escaping on the weekend. The people oh so many fucking people all the time. Ugh.

I think next time I need to travel back to California.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

sick and tired of the swine news

When a story like the swine flu dominates headlines nationally, the pressure to localize the news story makes the prospect of going to work each day grim. i've seen photos of the steelworkers who used to labor the mills along the rivers in this city-- those of the workers at the end of a shift, with expressions of utter dejection, soot-faced, exhausted and knowing the same waits for them the following day. minus the soot, i share their end of day labor expression.

Yesterday a woman reported symptoms akin to those found in swine flu, and Allegheny County sent a swab sample of her sinuses to be tested for swine flu. This was the headline news story, until the news broke that her sample tested positive for the influenza virus but was still inconclusive for swine flu. This was "breaking" news-- an Allegheny Co. woman had the flu, and it might be swine flu.

Why suspect the swine flu? Because the media's supersaturated coverage of the swine flu story has sensationalized this story enough to have everyone who listens too closely behaving like a hypochondriac. And if that's not enough, as is the case with this bullshit headline story (which, btw, I wrote, albeit with a figurative gun to my head) the news spins it to fit their needs. The story said not only did she test positive for flu and inconclusive for swine flu, but she also has "a travel history to Mexico" which does not mean she'd recently been to Mexico. It means she's been there before at some time in the past, that's all. Big deal.

What's crazy is it's not intentional to over-hype and fearmonger to this degree as the conspiracy theorists claim -- it's simply natural after those responsible for reporting the news become conditioned to working in an over-hyped and sensationalized environment, which the news station is. To be in the newsroom reminds me of the bees you see, close-up in the hive, under the camera lens of a Discovery documentary-- how they are flitting around and crawling over one another on the honeycomb. Busy. Fucking. Bees.

They've been so busy it hasn't occurred to anyone at the station yet to use their new favorite news tool, twitter, as a way of keeping the viewers up-to-date on the spread of the virus. This actually would be a sound application of technology, if the virus was the threat it's being made to be (which it isn't) and wouldn't be just another tool in the fearmonger's toolbelt (which it would be).

It'll be like a bear swatted the hive when I go in today; the first confirmed death from the swine flu in the U.S. was reported-- an infant in Texas. I'm just going to imagine my cubicle in the station is a hexagonal cell in the honeycomb, and I'll occupy this space and tolerate the buzz just like the steelworkers tolerated the heat and soot, until it's time to go home, and drink.

Here's a poem I wrote some time ago while living in New York for which I've developed a renewed appreciation of late.

Local Newscasters

My friend in TV says they’re all
drunks, every last one of them
from the evening crew to the morning
news first at 5AM.

Some show up sauced for work
like the rush-hour traffic girl
who booted a bellyful of bloody marys
her last time up in the helicopter.

Ask anyone in makeup how much
foundation the meteorologist must wear
to seal the gin inside his pores
before he goes on-air, and

listen for the lisp of the sportscaster
who outed himself after too much
champagne this year at the station’s
Christmas celebration.

Consider their lives spent
sticking to the cards, reporting the facts
in a rented suit and a voice paved
smooth over regional accent,

all in exchange for recognition
in line at the supermarket, maybe
an invitation to speak to the graduating
class of some local high school.

As proof, my friend points
to the anchorman, elbows
weighing down the end of the bar,
sipping his whiskey staring

into the mirror like a camera
obscura -- at the inverse of a person
he never knew. The person
we see on Channel 2 everyday.

Friday, April 17, 2009

best commercial ever

the hilarity is self-evident, and on so many levels.

"Booty is booty."-- Sir Mix-A-Lot

Friday, March 20, 2009

consider David Foster

Wallace, RIP. I am on the verge of finishing reading his last collection of essays entitled, Consider The Lobster. I've been reading the book like Charlie eats Wonka chocolate, limiting myself to only a few pages each day in order to prolong the experience. Last night I splurged and plowed through the collection's title essay in one read, and this morning I've got a Wallace hangover, which is precisely the opposite of a regular hangover, in that my mind is spooled up and sparking out in all directions.

This is Wallace's great gift to his readers. His prose confers upon the reader the experience of the author's wonderful thinking-- which is hyper-intelligent, expansive and surprisingly accessible. Reading him reminds me of the stream-of-conscious writing exercises we would do in early writing workshops. His writing leaves you thinking it's just rolling out from under his pen, but is so erudite and intellectual that it can't possibly be. It has to have been labored over and revised over and again and not even attempted until a rigorous groundwork had been laid down first. Exhaustive research on the subject matter must have preceded the writing, and then only slightly less exhaustive research upon a myriad of subjects tangential to the subject at hand, so that, by the end of the essay, you consider the author to be not only an expert on the subject, but also an entire solar system of subjects that orbit around it.

Yet, Wallace gives you the impression through his voice that he's just writing off the top of his head. His shorter essays, like "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed," could believably have been written sometime after he ate breakfast and before he took his morning shit. He's that good.

In addition to his diction's wizardry, there's also the way that he transcends the subject of his writing that I find so appealing. I was struck by this quality in his first collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The title essay was written for Harper's; it was supposed to be a magazine article about the experience of taking a cruise. It was supposed to be, you know, a travel piece. What it ended up being was not only an article fiercely critical of the cruise ship experience, but also profoundly critical of contemporary culture in general and what we conceive "vacation" to be.

He reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson this way, who was also paid by x publisher to write about y event and then, essentially, wrote whatever the fuck he wanted to write about. However, where the media event became merely the backdrop behind Thompson's political rants and chronicling of his drug-and-alcohol abuse, the event is a nexus for Wallace that he not only explores exhaustively, but around which he also discusses whatever seems to come to mind, no matter how far-flung that whatever might be.

"Consider the Lobster" (the essay) starts as a piece of reporting on the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine; it ends up moving from his own witty observations about the lobster festival to an examination of the festival-as-an-experience in general. He explores the ethical question of whether we can be morally justified in killing and devouring another sentient being that experiences pain, and how we rationalize our responses to this question. DFW admits himself to being unsettled that he can't justify his own appetite for animals anymore than a) he'd developed a taste for them and b) it would be inconvenient not to eat them.

Perhaps my favorite essay in the collection is "Authority and American Usage," a review about a reference book-- the Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. Its opening line is thoroughly DFW: "Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?"

Here Wallace is at the top of his game. He proceeds to just goes nuts on the topic. His stated plan in the essay is simple enough; the essay is a review (like any review) meant to suggest why you should (or shouldn't) buy the book being reviewed. In order to explain why you should or shouldn't, though, he says he has to put the book into context. He then proceeds to summarize the historical context of English usage in America (no small feat) and familiarizes the reader with the major camps (Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist) and key shifting points in contemporary usage debates, in order to then make his argument for the book and its worthwhile contributions to the field. And he does it in such a way that this very SNOOTy topic of conversation holds your interest, even if you care as much about your own language usage as you do... say, the French.

He makes it interesting not only by drawing upon your attention with good writing -- by hitting the hot-button "near-Lewinskian" issues in usage and writing about them in an interesting way -- but in two other ways, as well. He personalizes the topic and generalizes it.

This is applicable to all of his essays-- not only does he know his shit, and write well about it, but in writing about it, he makes it his own and enables his readers to make it theirs, as well. In a nutshell, this is why DFW is great.

In "Authority and American Usage," the essay is filled with (footnotes of) personal anecdotes of his childhood and his mother's insistence upon correct usage, and hearing these particular insights into the writer's early years increases the reader's interest in his writing and the topic of usage. DFW then takes his fleshed-out understanding of usage and applies it to common parlance, to pop culture, to academic usage (I love how he attacks the phenomena of Political Correctness,) and (most illuminatingly) to politics, and beyond... it is here that he shows you how the lexicographical debates engaged in by a cloister of SNOOTs in these dense reference books actually have heavy load-bearing consequences in the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and he makes you (the reader) at the very least pause and look into the mirror and ask yourself, "Have I ever really thought about how I use the language that I call my own?"

DFW's ability to enact this pause in the reader makes him a great writer-- not merely "this generation's best comic writer" as J. Keirn-Swanson, of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, blurbs on the back of my paperback copy of his book. He may be the generation's best comic writer, but to laud him as such when he is so much more than comic in his writing, well... it's just flat-out irresponsible for Keirn-Swanson to characterize him this way.

I compared DFW and HST above, but in doing so, I didn't mean to suggest an equivalence in their writing. The contrast is stark. HST was gonzo journalism, the 60's counter-cultural literary equivalent to, say, today's shock jockeyism of Howard Stern. HST did not engage his subject matter like DFW in its journalistic writing, nor did he engage himself and his readers in its subject matter, as well.

I thought to compare the two writers because 1) they got paid to write pretty much what they wanted to and 2) they both killed themselves. The latter must have been at the forefront of my thoughts. Wallace's death in September last year passed here without mention in this blog, and after reading his last essay collection, I felt compelled to comment upon the man.

With HST, we lost a larger-than-life personality and celebrity that transcended the medium (journalism) in which he wrote. With DFW, we lost something larger. He not only transcended his medium, but he sought to transcend humanity through his writing, as well. He was less a great writer than he was a great philosopher who brought his wisdom and keen insight upon the world to us via the written word.

In praise of DFW, in my copy of Consider the Lobster, David Lipsky, on NPR's All Things Considered, is quoted as saying, "After reading him, I feel buzzed-up, smarter-- I'm better company."

While HST's death surprised few, given his uncompromising train-wreck lifestyle, DFW's death was truly tragic. I've read that it was a straying from his anti-depressant medication that led to his suicide, so his death can be viewed as largely accidental. I like to think of his death this way. I like to think of him as having slipped and lost his footing while doing our culture's heavy lifting, thought-wise.

I like to think if he hadn't slipped, and continued to write, we'd continue to gain a better understanding of ourselves, to be better company to one another. I think we lost as close to an Atlas as can arise in our time, and in a world that is increasingly less and less comprehensible, his absence will be sorely missed.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

why twitter makes nothing better

I am still working for the news station, and thankfully so, given the declining state of the economy. Yesterday, in our afternoon news meeting, one of the meteorologists was bent out-of-shape when he discovered the news director wanted him to begin regularly twittering his weather updates.

I couldn't understand why. Perhaps he's just sick of jumping through all of the hoops being placed before him. In the 6 months I've been in the news biz, I've seen the duties of the station's meteorologists increase significantly as the station jumps head-first into every new media trend. The station has a (free) subscription text message service for weather and school closing updates. Each meteorologist has their own blog. The station has a facebook presence to which they have to contribute content. And now they've got to twitter, as well.

But I don't understand his adversion to having to twitter weather tweets. Since weather is so variable in nature, the science of meteorology fails with regularity to predict what is going to happen outside. When the prediction falls well short of the mark, I've seen the emails we get from viewers and loggers-on to our site. "Anyone could do your job." "A blind-folded monkey throwing darts at a weather map could give me a more accurate forecast." "You said there was going to be a light dusting of snow; I'm looking at half-a-foot on the ground right now, and it's still snowing!"

Meteorologists often have their science questioned and are dismissed as unfounded prognosticators whenever their forecasts go awry. So why wouldn't a meteorologist want an immediate way to get the latest change in the storm tracker out to people, in 140 characters or less? It's a quick eraser for the forecasting pencil. "The snowstorm isn't moving through the area as initially projected; expect 4 to 6 inches, up to 8 in higher elevations." (99 characters)

If I were a meteorologist, I'd want to twitter for two reasons. 1) The technology allows for changes in the weather to be addressed more quickly than my next scheduled email update or TV broadcast. 2) It provides yet another reminder to people how important the weather (and, in turn, my existence as a meteorologist) is. Win, win.

Making changes to weather forecasts is one of many useful applications for twitter. We've seen, in this past prez election, how useful twitter is in quickly disseminating information re: candidates for office. Performing and non-performing artists use twitter to remind fans and friends of upcoming gigs, showings, readings, exhibits, etc. Any marketing event or product or press release gains that much more of a audience if twittered with a tweet.

But, on the whole, twitter makes nothing better, insofar as society and our culture is concerned, and not just because talking about twittering tweets makes you sound like Elmer Fudd.

The advent of texting has the current generation (Generation "teXt"?) treating English language and grammar with the same, wanton disregard that mortgage lenders have been dispensing loans for the last decade or so. The advent of facebook (with a nod to MySpace, as well) has succeeded in bringing out the inner-sociable narcissist in all of us. And Twitter, in effect, has combined the two, in a soft-serve swirl cone that everyone seems to be licking and loving nowadays.

(By the way, if you'd like an insight into why precisely we're in the shit we're in, economy-wise, watch the 60 Minutes report on World Savings here.)

While I agree with old man Stewart's reasons for shaking his fist at Twitter, my own gripe with the fad stands upon poetical grounds. Twitter, as I see it, is yet another nail in poetry's coffin. Not only because it is another techno-distraction to swerve our attention (and more importantly, our children's attention) from the page and thoughtful consideration of language, but twitter celebrates those character traits that are a bane to poetry, culture and society, in general.

... I was planning to continue here, by identifying those traits, arguing by way of example, etc., but it's almost dinner time, and my bottle of wine is calling from the kitchen... perhaps I'll get back to this later.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

on hockey spectation

Our family has been season ticket holders for the Pittsburgh Penguins since 1972, the year I was born. Our two (kick-ass) seats in section C25 of the Civic Arena are one of very few extravagances my parents indulge in. Every year the season ticket price goes up, especially with the team selling out 90+ games now in a row. This year, each seat jumped from $66 to $71.50 per game. And with every increase, there is heart-aching about the rising cost of the seats and talk of giving up the tickets. However my parents' love of hockey always wins out over their frugality. As their son, and an often-recipient of these tickets, I'm pleased it does.

No live sport holds my interest like hockey. Unlike football or baseball, the game runs unbroken by innings or changes of possession. It's fluid like basketball, but more so, since it has fewer fouls and interruptions of play, and is more graceful, given that the players are constantly skating on a sheet of ice. (However, I know of not a single poem about hockey, while there are several fine poems about basketball, e.g. Slamdunk by Yusef Komunyakaa. I tried to write a hockey poem once, and put myself in the penalty box for the attempt.)

A basketball fan I know argued that his game had at least as much grace as hockey, and I found his argument laughable. I told him there is simply no comparison. (Though, after giving it some thought, I agree an argument could be made that each sport's players exhibit a similar grace in playing their respective sports. However, I maintain that, for spectation, there is no comparison.)

Hockey is art performed to the hushed scrape and clatter of skate and stick on ice. Basketball is nothing but a constant chase of squeaking shoes and an incessant banging of a ball upon hardwood.

In response, my basketball aficionado friend countered by saying, "At least you can follow the basketball."

This is the no. 1 complaint of a stranger to the sport of hockey -- "I can't follow the puck." -- and it's also what makes the sport as unique as it is. Besides hockey being a blend of grace and bare knuckle violence, it is the only sport that makes a demand upon those who choose to watch it. You must make a conscious effort to follow the puck. Period. And once you begin making this effort, you develop a sort of Zen mastery as a spectator -- you begin to see the puck without seeing it. You intuit where the puck is by the movement of the players in relation to it.

By requiring the spectator to actively engage in the act of spectation, the sport chooses its own fans. It embraces those willing to be mindful and attentive and, in turn, repels those who are not. Those who the sport deems unworthy are denied the privilege of seeing moments like this:

Not only does the sport reward you with this kind of eye candy, but it also (used to) punish you for failing to give your rapt attention. (This applied to fans in the stands before they began draping nets above the boards to keep stray pucks from flying into the crowd.)

As a young lad I became accustomed to seeing spectators bleed in the stands from errant pucks. It was as if the game took it upon itself to remind the crowd of its one requirement-- you must watch the puck. Just as the Greeks explained lightning as a consequence of Zeus's anger -- the god hurling bolts down from Olympus in a rage -- I explained a puck striking a distracted spectator in the face as the game exacting its vengeance upon the unworthy. If the businessman two rows ahead of me had been watching the game instead of schmoozing the client next to him, he wouldn't be bleeding into an usher's towel.

Now that the nets are up over the glass, though, the game can no longer make the unworthy bleed. Without fear of being struck by flying pucks, fans can drift in and out of attention to the game with impunity.

This has sullied spectation of the sport. How many times I've found myself seated next to a teenager, texting his friend on the other side of the arena while the game is being played, and wished a puck would somehow find its way over the glass and remove the foremost bridgework from his mouth.

No longer is the sport played for a pious audience that, under its breath, is earnestly hoping for a puck to come screaming through the air at them. Because they're ready for it, have been ready for it and would catch the frozen disk of vulcanized rubber in a heartbeat, though it may dislocate a knuckle or two in order to do so. Now, it's become a haven for the business-schmooze. For the techno-distracted youth. The unworthy. Remove the nets. Let them bleed.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

37 is a prime age

When I get sick it's rare, but always severe and always at the worst time. Until just recently my last bout with the bug was four or five years ago when I went to visit Carv in San Francisco. He was living in the Marina among the sanfranimals, and I spent the long weekend shivering beneath a pile of blankets on his living room couch.

This latest flu torpedoed my birthday, my birthday dinner and the Steelers record 6th Super Bowl win. And I had to go in to work, to boot.

I'd go through it all over again, though, if it meant missing my father's retirement party yesterday. It was an occasion I didn't think there would be much to. I thought this, I now realize, because I had never been privy to my father's life as a doctor. I had been to his office on occasion when I had been growing up. I knew a few of his associates, a few of his secretaries... but I had no understanding of how many lives he had intimately touched as a gastroenterologist.

And this was the running joke throughout the retirement party... exactly just how intimately a gastroenterologist touches people's lives. The party was held in Suburban General Hospital, and the dinner served was (unsurprisingly) hospital food. How I managed to keep my meal of overdone steak, overcooked asparagus and burnt rice down while listening to jokes about peptic ulcers and perforated colons is a testament to how special of an evening it was.

In addition to seeing my father in his element, who reveled in being the man of the hour, and my mother's obvious joy at his side, my own personal joy came from hearing from the doctors, nurses, patients and hospital staff who showed up to wish him a happy retirement. It came from gaining the knowledge that there was a group of people who admired him as much as I did, and who also testified to how much of a pain in the ass (no pun intended) he can be. Especially on the topic of politics. They also mused incredulously, like my mother, about what the hell he was going to do with all his free time.

In short, I became aware of a kinship I had with a group of complete strangers, and this I was not expecting.

Neither was I expecting the hospital to name its GI lab after him, plaque and all on the wall.

I'm feeling much better today, and my father's retirement party is responsible for this. Same goes for my birthday, which went unacknowledged here, and being a year older, too. I credit my dad's party for this, as well.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

apres-holiday three-way, pt. 3

Where Hoagland concerns himself with the operation of three poetic tools—image, diction, rhetoric—at work in the poem, Stephen Dobyns advocates analyzing three different contexts—emotional, intellectual, and physical—in a poem in his essay, "Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory."

I thought of applying Dobyns’s approach to this poem after reading Hoagland’s analysis. They are two different approaches, but complementary. And this poem lends itself well to both.

Dobyns begins his essay with a definition of art. “A work of art, such as a poem, seeks to communicate with a reader,” he says. He contends that an understanding of artistic communication can be reached by thinking about the relationship between the three types of context and the events in a poem.

Just as Hoagland contends that extraordinary poems employ all three altitudes—image, diction, rhetoric—Dobyns contends they employ a balance of emotional, intellectual and physical contexts. He argues that when one of these contexts is exaggerated, the poem breaks down. “For instance, when the intellectual context is exaggerated, the poem tends to become emotionally barren; and when the emotional is exaggerated, the poem becomes sentimental.”

Goodman’s “Birthday Cake” employs all three contexts in a balanced way, just as the poem employs the tools of image, diction and rhetoric in what Hoagland calls a “fluctuating alloy” in its “savagery and sophistication.”

The poem shifts from a predominantly emotional context in the first stanza to one that is predominantly intellectual in the second, and then predominantly physical in the third. I say predominantly because, in each stanza, there is also another (sub)context at work.

Now isn't it time
when the candles on the icing
are one two too many
too many to blow out
too many to count too many
isn't it time to give up this ritual?

The first stanza of the poem has a strong emotional context. Hoagland identifies strong emotion being conveyed in the rhetorical questioning here, as well. However, I read the poem differently than Hoagland; I don’t see the emotional tone as being childish and resentful as he does. Rather, I read the tone as being one of frustration, not resentment—the tone of a stammering old man, who could just as easily be complaining about the number of stairs up to his apartment as the number of candles on his cake, for example.

There is also a physical context to this stanza which, as Hoagland points out, is conveyed through the poet’s diction. He argues the poet’s repetition, and his decision to break the lines unevenly, support his reading of a childish, resentful speaker in the poem. However, I think the stanza’s diction better supports a reading of the tone as an older, frustrated one. Its language re-enacts the heaving of one’s lungs, huffing and puffing, in an effort to blow the candles out, and being unable to. Because they are too many, too many, too many… What is implied here is that a task that the speaker used to master—the task of blowing out candles at a birthday—is now one that has mastered him. This physical re-enactment of breaths being taken in the poet’s speech supports a reading of the emotion being expressed here as frustration.

With this frustrated, breathy first stanza, the poet turns us neatly into a second, entirely different context in the second stanza, turning on the word “although” where the speaker seems to catch his breath.

although the fiery crown
fluttering on the chocolate
and through the darkened room advancing
is still the most loveliest sight
among our savage folk
that have few festivals.

As Hoagland notes, the words flow lucidly and articulately here where they were broken and underscored through repetition in the first stanza. This gives the stanza an intellectual context; the speaker is speaking authoritatively in making judgments about “our folk.” It states we are “savage,” have “few festivals,” and judges emphatically that, of these few, the birthday cake celebration is the “most loveliest” of them.

There’s also an emotional (sub)context here. I disagree with Hoagland’s reading of the speaker’s emotion shifting here from being childish and frustrated to being sympathetic and culturally-minded. Here I believe Hoagland is stretching in his perceived resonances and associations in making this claim.

I don’t see a shift in tone here, except for a brief moment with the judgment of the cake; the double-superlative “most loveliest” does stick out here. Here the speaker sees the cake with a childish wonder, as if it were his first memory of a birthday cake. However, it is a fleeting memory; it stands in contrast to the rest of the poem's tone. The final few lines suggest this. As readers, we can’t get too enthused about the “most loveliest” sight of the birthday cake because it’s only the best of the "few festivals" our "savage" people have to offer. It’s as good as it gets, but it ain’t that good.

Where Hoagland reads the beginning of this stanza as being evocative of a communal, tribal scene, I read it as being wickedly ominous. The “fiery crown …through the darkened room advancing” is downright spooky, especially if you read it as not the fiery crown advancing, but rather the darkened room advancing, shadow encompassing, the symbolic advancing of the ultimate darkness that terminates old age—death.

After pausing to give us the only bright spot in the poem, the speaker returns to the frustrated tone of the poem in the first stanza.

But the thicket is too hot and thick
and isn't it time, isn't it time
when the fires are too many
to eat the fire and not the cake
and drip the fires from my teeth
as once I had my hot hot youth.

The image of the “fiery crown” that the speaker pauses to praise in the second stanza is now a “thicket” that is “too hot and thick.” The repetition of thick in this line, and isn’t it time in the next, re-establishes the emotional context of the first stanza.

However, the speaker’s frustration finds a resolution here where it was previously unresolved. The first stanza ends with a question mark, as if the suggestion to give up this ritual was a matter of debate. This stanza ends in a period, implying there is no debate. It is time “to eat the fire and not the cake.”

The emotion is acted upon here, and the act of consuming the fire gives this stanza a predominantly physical context. The line “and drips the fires from my teeth” suggests an animal hunger motivates this act, the fire dripping (like blood) not burning (like fire) from his teeth. It’s primal, and as such, a fitting act for “our folk” who the speaker earlier characterized as savage.

By consuming the candles on his birthday cake, the speaker succeeds in resolving the conflict underlying the frustration expressed in the first stanza. He can’t blow them out; they are too many; he’s too old to perform the task required of this ceremony. But, by eating the fire instead of cake, he symbolically devours his old age. Paradoxically, the speaker consumes what is consuming him.

And if we read the poet himself as the person who is speaking in the poem, then we can read this poem itself as an absurd, virile act that defies old age. Here, at its conclusion, I find myself in agreement with Hoagland when he says “the aging king of his ego eats his own crown, affirms his virility and concedes his absurdity all at once.”

However, in the savage act of eating the fire, it is not “his absurdity” that he concedes, but rather the absurdity of “our folk.” Our absurdity. Humanity’s. It is the finite aspect of our human existence, and our unwillingness to accept youth's loss, to be mastered by mortality, that is being defied by this poem.

Through a balance of emotional, intellectual and physical contexts, “Birthday Cake” effectively does what Dobyns says a poem should do—effectively communicate with a reader. It communicates a metaphysical truth about humanity, and the reader recognizes it in the poem, even if he or she cannot articulate why. Not until I sat down (and labored) to analyze this poem could I begin to articulate why I liked it. I could only say, “this poem fucking rocks.”

This is what great poems do.

Friday, January 9, 2009

apres-holiday three-way, pt. 2

In his essay, “Altitudes, a Homemade Taxonomy,” Hoagland discusses three poetic tools which he calls “altitudes.” These are 1) image, 2) diction and 3) rhetoric. In calling these tools “altitudes” he is speaking figuratively about them, suggesting in this metaphor that one tool is “higher” than the other – image being the lowest altitude, rhetoric being the highest, and diction somewhere between the two.

Now, Hoagland is quick to stamp out the contention that he is talking about a hierarchy in poetic craft here. By no means is he suggesting that a poem fashioned primarily by image-making is inferior to one which relies more upon employing the tools of diction or rhetoric. Rather, by speaking of these tools as “altitudes,” he is suggesting the hierarchy of accessibility intrinsic to these tools.

As I stated in pt.1, Hoagland upholds “Birthday Cake” by Paul Goodman as a poem that employs all three of these tools successfully. In doing so, the poem has, in Hoagland’s words, not only a “great visceral force and urgency” but also “intellectual precision” and “rhetorical persuasiveness.”

The poem’s force and urgency is generated primarily by the poem’s use of imagery. Image is a poetic tool that that confers, as Hoagland says, “unmediated communication.” Take this central image in the poem, “Birthday Cake”:

…the fiery crown

fluttering on the chocolate

and through the darkened room advancing

Of this image Hoagland notes how it is “perceptually intense.” In other words, it’s readily visualized and accessible. Imagery is immediately gratifying because, as human beings, we are visually-oriented. In very few words, Goodman is able to create an image that is instantly perceived and understood.

However perceptually intense Goodman’s images are in the poem, they do not work alone upon the reader. His imagery works in conjunction with diction in the poem to work upon the reader at a different (“higher”) level, as well.

Hoagland defines diction as “speech that is consciously making reference to the history of its usage.” In the second stanza of “Birthday Cake,” we can see how the poet’s conscious choice in words works with the image he presents the reader.

although the fiery crown
fluttering on the chocolate
and through the darkened room advancing
is still the most loveliest sight
among our savage folk
that have few festivals.

The image of the cake, alone by itself, is a powerful one; however, the poet chooses the metaphor “fiery crown” to describe its candles. He chooses to describe our folk as “savage” and calls, by inference, a birthday party a “festival.”

Hoagland argues that the speech the poet is using here is not at all arbitrary. It is, rather, consciously being employed to work associatively upon the intellect of the reader. He says that words such as fiery, crown, savage and festival work together to evoke “feudal resonances of crowns and fire are communal and sacred.” The darkened room suggests “a cavernous, pre-electric setting” where savage folk gather for warmth and comfort.

One may or may not agree with Hoagland’s interpretation of the poet’s diction, or whether the poet was consciously making his decisions in his speech throughout the poem, but one cannot refute that the poet’s diction puts the reader’s intellect to work. His diction in this stanza works with his image of the birthday cake, causing associations and resonances to percolate in the mind of the reader.

The poet is also expressing an opinion about birthdays, as well. In this way, Hoagland argues, the poem possesses a rhetorical persuasiveness. At first glance, after the first stanza, it seems predominantly to be advocating a course of action.

Now isn't it time
when the candles on the icing
are one two too many
too many to blow out
too many to count too many
isn't it time to give up this ritual?

What the poet seems to be saying here is relatively straightforward—why do we even bother with birthdays? As Hoagland says, this rhetorical question implies its answer—“Yes, it’s time to give up this ritual.” He also notes the poet’s diction here—through its “repetitive simplicity” and it’s “run-on syntax”—underscores this contention. Twice he’s asking “isn’t it time” to give it up. The candles on the cake are “too many … too many … too many.” It suggests “feverish emotion,” a frustration with getting old.

However, with the second stanza, the rhetoric shifts. The image of the birthday cake prompts this shift, and the poet calls it “the most loveliest sight / among our savage folk / that have few festivals.” The second stanza argues for the ritual where the first stanza argues to do away with it. Hoagland understands this shift in rhetoric from “an aging, childishly resentful speaker” to one who “sympathetically recognizes” its use and “considers the welfare of the culture as a whole.”

The third stanza steps back from this more considerate, sympathetic stance once again to childish, emotional one:

But the thicket is too hot and thick
and isn't it time, isn't it time
when the fires are too many
to eat the fire and not the cake
and drip the fires from my teeth
as once I had my hot hot youth.

Once again Hoagland points out we have the same broken, run-on syntax in the first stanza and repetition “isn’t it time, isn’t it time” here. However, while the diction is similar, the rhetoric—what the poet is arguing—is markedly different. Instead of the ruminative “self-pity” found in the rhetorical tone in the first stanza, here the tone is angry and forceful, and the poet advocates action, creating an undeniably strong and forceful image – eating the fire of the candles instead of the cake. “Here,” Hoagland argues, “the aging king of his ego eats his own crown, affirms his virility and concedes his absurdity all at once.”

Having shown Hoagland's approach to poetry in general, and this poem in particular, I will next summarize Dobyns's approach to poetry in pt. 3. Then I will give my reading of "Birthday Cake," using Dobyns's approach as a means of entry into the poem.