Monday, December 31, 2012

Day One: So Many DIstractions

First was the day's news, which has become something of a ballad with a refrain, except all you get to hear is the refrain. But still. What's not to love about a cliff you're about to go over? 

Cable news is so seductive when the people rant, shame, warn, scare and blame. It's like the good old days of Sunday school. Today I listened to FOX News. Yesterday, MSNBC. What's so cool is that you know what the interviewee is going to say before he/she says it when you see the D or R after his/her name.

But the news people manage to build this will we-won't we go over the cliff tension that's very seductive. And distracting. And a time suck. It's like the people waiting outside when Sunday school was over.

And this ordeal was followed by a Facebook thread on what kind of verb should be used with a collective noun. For example, should the nouns "variety" or "family" take a singular or plural verb?

Should it be, "A variety of options is available," or "A variety of options are available?" And if you think you know, then should it be, "A family of five needs a home," or "A family of five need a home?"

This consumed a half hour and is not resolved as of this moment.

But for all that, I wrote not 500 words, but 798!  Nearly 800, and if I hadn't been summoned for--well, never mind--I may have done 1,000 or more.

This is good. This is good.

And the project is starting to look like a novel. Why? I think it's because the whole enterprise began with this strange song entering my brain from out of the blue six or eight months ago. I am totally serious about this. It really happened, and it is--was--weird and unsettling. Not only will the song not go away, but another crept in a few weeks ago. Sometimes, they wake me up at night.

I can play a guitar, a bit, and eons ago, I flailed at piano lessons. I like music as much as then next person, but songwriting is definitely not in my DNA.

So, a song not written--words and music intruding into my awareness? I did nothing to deserve this. I can scarcely carry a tune.

Anyway...more on this tomorrow--the song,the novel, the people in it. Kind of scary, actually.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Account My Resolutions, O Ye Who Listen (or Read)

I'm startring my New Years Resolutions a bit early. I.e., today. Says I, why not?

And the first thing that happens is I notice this little blurb on the admin side of my blog. It says. "Your blog is now eligible for Google Affiliate Ads." And I can click on a link that says "Learn more," in blue font.

It's very distracting. What, I ask myself, are Google Affiliate Ads? I guess Google is okay--the jury is out--but who knows jack about their affiliates?

Second, my blog is "now eligible?" Does that mean it wasn't eligible yesterday? What did I do to make my blog now eligible? By what stroke of luck, by what alignment of stars did my eligibility soar?

Third, it's so tempting to click on the little blue link and Learn More. Learn more about what? The Affiliates? The ads? Some universal ontology? I could totally spend a half hour or more on this.

Which is precisely the problem. My fingers will defy my brain, which wants to get going, do something useful and meaningful (for me, anyway) and write. The fingers see the blue links or whatever and just scamper away, and before you know it, it's lunch time or time to shovel the snow or whatever, and the day is a goner.

And I can complain about never having time to write.

So, here's what I'm going to do about it: I will write 500 words a day.  It might be more, but the minimum is 500 words.

And to kick myself in the ass an make sure I do it, I will write a blog post on writing the 500 words. That's for the accountability part. If there's no post, it probably means I've failed, and I'm announcing my failure to the world, hoping the fear and shame of failure will keep me from wondering why my blog is now eligible and wasn't before.

What will the 500 words be about? I'm not sure. I hope a novel. but it could also be a memoir of sorts. I don't know. It may all come to nothing. But if I worry about all that, I'll worry about that and not do the 500 words.

I sort of know some of the characters, I guess, but not really. They seem to be composites of people I've known. But whatever happens and how this all turns out is totally up to them.

So, world: You are now my accountability coach. Do not cut me a whit of slack.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Didn't Unfriend YOU, Baby

Tonight, I unfriended a half dozen or so people from Facebook. My degree of not knowing them from "Well" to "Not At All, "Well" being a 10 and "Not At All" being a 1, was a 3 at best. No need to go into the methodology of these determinations.

In any event, Unfriending feels weird. The term is even capitalized, as though it merits special consideration in some way. But still. If you approach someone you vaguely know, someone whose name you may not know and have to ask a mutual acquaintance on the sly, and you tell this person, "I do not want to be your friend anymore," it's enough of a big deal that you may not do it, you'd just say screw it, who cares and so on.

In middle school and high school, a lot of people were capable of just saying to you or another friend, "I hate you." Nevermind what it was the day before. You are now hated.

Worst case is someone you like and you discover he or she doesn't like you as much as you like him or her. Anyone who's lived to the ripe old age of 10 has experienced this feeling.

To wit: Looking someone straight in the eye and saying, "I do not want to be your friend," is a major statement. It's huge. It's game changing.

This feeling carries over into Facebook: Unfriending someone, even if you scarcely know this person or even not at all, feels mean. There is no walking it back.

At the same time, I have Facebook friends I have never met in the flesh, but whom I cherish. These people post remarks or thoughts that--while they don't correlate with mine--nonetheless acknowledge the right for me to exist. I simply could not do without, for example, Fred Stewart, Creedence Sabrina Gerlach, or Mike Rohrig. There are others, but these people post regularly.

My father defined a friend as someone who would bail you out of jail even if he(she) know you were guilty. If Fred or Mike Or Creedence had a bail bondsman call, I'd be morally challenged and probably couldn't say no.

What does this all mean? Fuck if I know. These are the days of miracles and wonders, the way the camera follows us in slo-mo, and so on, to shamelessly steal from Paul Simon. A New-Old World Order, where the metrics of friendship are the same as they were a hundred years ago, but the obligations and responsibilities are not quite clear.

Unfriending folks is chronically stressful. Or is it just me?


Monday, December 24, 2012

Of Potstickers and Cioppino

It began with...pot stickers.

Our traditional Christmas Eve meal is Chinese food. This morning, we messaged Istanbul's Stranger, our daughter, for a chat, and she asked if we could hold off until their food arrived. She'd ordered Chinese takeout, promising our grandson, Ender, pot stickers.

Chinese takeout in Istanbul is a very big deal, believe me. As in: no pork in Turkey, e.g. But tradition is tradition, and if there was one Chinese restaurant in Sariyer, Istanbul, she was damn well going to make sure she had Chinese food--and pot stickers--for Christmas Eve dinner.

Tonight, the rest of her clan polished off what was the best Chinese meal since leaving San Francisco. The pot stickers, garlicky and gingery, actually tasted as though a person had really made them with rough and experienced hands. The scallion pancakes were to die for, light and oniony and dipped in a soy-ginger-Siracha sauce. So the rest of the meal went. This not being a restaurant review, I won't get into details unless you email me. But I will remember the tastes tomorrow morning.

Later, in our Colorado home, a discussion ensued among the stateside clan that in true life, cioppino, not Chinese food, was our family's traditional Christmas Eve meal.

Whatever else cioppino may be, it's also a classic San Francisco dish, kind of a shellfish stew in a rich broth. It's been bastardized to a degree, with the "broth" becoming little more than a tomato-based pasta sauce with a lot of fish dumped in. But a true cioppino is made in a clear shellfish stock broth with onion (or maybe shallots), celery, leeks, chopped tomato and (not always) fennel, white wine and seasoned with oregano, thyme, bay leaf and saffron. But I digress.

Chinese food was always our tradition in Reno, Nevada, where my children were born. On moving to San Francisco, Chinese fare was supplanted by cioppino. In, Eugene, Oregon, the Chinese food was so foul, it had no right to be called that. But seafood--most particularly Dungeness crab--was easily available, and cioppino took over again.

In Portland, things didn't improve. Chinese food proliferated, but good Chinese food was rarer than Gentiles at Miami retirement homes. Cioppino claimed our tradition.

By the way, we just figured out our time-honored traditions tonight. Cioppino or Chinese food? Why care, says the deafening roar? Well, part of it is because seafood is more problematic in Denver than in Pacific coastal cities. Another part is that we found the best Chinese food since leaving San Francisco.

And food isn't just, well, food. Chinese food, for us, recalls Yen Ching, now closed, in Reno, where we lived until 1986. The Byi family who owned the restaurant are a remarkable tale of people from a difficult place who came to this country and imagined themselves to be in a better place. We can't have, say, asparagus chicken without remembering that the Byi kids were in school with mine, that the family recipes came from a tradition of Mandarin, Szechuan, Hunan and Cantonese traditions and secrets, that we maintained warm friendship we had with Paul and Marsha Byi. That my brother, Steve, always had to have the pork chow mein, that my father insisted on Mandarin spare ribs, that Yen Ching's pot stickers tasted something of heaven, that the Szechuan prawns, sizzling and sweet-sour-salty-spicy hot were a moment unto themselves.

In San Francisco, it wasn't so much Chinese food as it was what kind--Cantonese, Shanghai, Mandarin, whatever. Mike's Chinese Cuisine on Geary, no longer there, was our overall favorite, and was so tasteful I can still remember the sensory joy of several dishes, especially the peppersalt crab. But I think it was the cioppino that makes it's claim to Christmas memory for our San Francisco years.

My mother would move heaven and earth for good Dungeness crab (and a decent Chardonnay), and she usually got her wish at some point. For Christmas Eve dinner--cioppino--we trotted down to Friscia's, on Francisco off  North Point in Fisherman's Wharf. Friscia's was--is--pretty much of a fish wholesaler, but my father, with his nose for a deal, learned they also did a small retail business., At the beginning of crab season, we'd haul off to Friscia's--Friscia Fresha Fisha--for crab just off the boat and newly cooked.

He made this discovery from some stranger on the 44 bus to Candlestick Park. Whatever else happens, cioppino or Chinese food recalls The Joe Montana-Dwight Clark "The Catch," or the Will Clark-Matt Williams era of the Giants.

I can wax nostalgic, but the point, here, is the cioppino. My mother taught my wife how to make it. I can see to this day my mother chopping the onion and celery, the stains on the stainless steel knife she used, the cracks on the wooden handle, her red knuckles holding the onion. She probably had a recipe at one time. But it took up much of the day, each step having to be done in a precise manner, and this is what my wife remembers.

Whatever else food is, it's memory and tradition as much as it is sensory experience. That said, the smell of cioppino still takes me back to that Broadway flat, with the bathrooms in weird places, rooms that didn't really fit together but were made to work, the sturdy kitchen with a view from a small dining area, the den where my father had his fatal stroke.

My sons recalled their own memories of cioppino on Christmas Eve at their grandparents, mostly confined to their grandfather's jokes and the nearness of some of their middle-school friends. My schizophrenic brother--their uncle--occupied one portion of the table speaking a mostly quiet monologue with no punctuation, unless you include the word "and" at the end of a sentence. Stephen, my mentally disabled brother, was remarkably agreeable and happy, and talked of being a good boy for Santa, even though he was two years old than I, my mother talking about my brothers and sisters and their children and their children's children so as to keep the family narrative, my father making fun of the neighbors in the flat ("That old fart of a Milton? Jesus, he thinks that turkey-necked babe of a nurse 'loves him?'")

Memories, good and bad, are the foundation of a life, and without them, a life is a house-of-cards existence, I think. And I know people in this situation. They are alone, so terribly alone, even when surrounded by a crowd, especially a sycophantic one.

So our evening ended in potstickers, six on a plate, each of them a trope of a lifetime of memories. Each of these will be passed along to a new generation, with any luck. No meal should be consumed in a vacuum.






Friday, December 21, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Fiscal Cliff

Is this the Last Crusade?


In the U.S. House of Representatives, a Plan A was hatched to keep the country from going over the fiscal cliff. "Fiscal cliff" sounds scary, and like other cliffs, pretty much no one wants to go over one. A few people do, I guess, because there's never total unanimity on anything.

Anyway. Plan A fail, so Plan B took shape. Whatever it was, was pretty much of a secret, mostly because no one was particularly interested in reading all that. But to avoid Plan B Fail, it was kept under wraps so it could get modified into something acceptable.

They had Plan B, then B (a), B (b), B (c), and so on through the alphabet with modifications.

To everyone but the House of Representatives' surprise, Plan B (s) failed.

Indy--can you please peek over the edge and tell us it ain't so? Can you assure us the sequel is almost done already? Can you whip these guys into shape?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Pro Drug Advocates Push Back!


In the wake of federal and state efforts fight the drugs in schools with counseling, education and law enforcement, pro-drug advocates have been largely silent.

Today, they are pushing back against what they see as threats to their Ninth Amendment rights. Legislators, mostly southern and Republican (not counting a few whack jobs from Orange County) insist it's time for teachers and school officials to get more drugs.

In Virginia, Republican Bob Marshall has proposed a bill that would require at least one school staff member to carry a syringe of high-quality heroin. "In some schools, we have several staff members on the public dole who spend wasted hours on drug education," Marshall said. It's just plain silly and a waste of money. With my bill, if a kid comes into school with the intent to peddle drugs, a teacher or principal can just shoot him up and get on with the business of teaching."

The drug problem in America, Marshall and other Ninth Amendment advocates insist, can only be solved with more drugs. "The only way to stop a kid on drugs is with a man with drugs," he said.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reduce the Ownership of Guns--Now

No good reason exists for unlimited ownership of firearms, or of there is one, I haven't heard it.

This conclusion pains me to a degree, because a few minutes ago, I supported gun ownership. Not unlimited, certainly, but within some undefined limits. But no more.

Two reasons are offered for unfettered firearm ownership. The first is protection for family and home. The second is defense against a tyrannical government set on taking our rights.

I get wanting to protect home and family against creeping intruders, but come on. How often does that happen? How many people do you know who are victims of violent crime? Is this such a prevalent occurrence that you need a high-capacity magazine weapon to spray bullets at the miscreant sneaking into your home?

Seriously? Are you going to skulk through the darkness of your home to shoot an intruder you can't see? And do you want to get into a firefight with a home intruder? Do you want to likewise spray your house and neighborhood with bullets? 

The whole protection thing defies reason. If this is your life, you need to rethink  your right to exist.

The tyranny thing is even more mind-boggling. Let's takes the worst case and assume a Hitler-like entity took over the government and was going to rip up the Constitution. That this is a wacko, far-out possibility doesn't need to enter into the discussion.

Bad guys take over the federal government, and you--and let's say a thousand others, all armed with AR-15s, high-capacity magazine Glocks and whatever--take cover somewhere. Anywhere. How long do you think you'd last against one--just one--Army or Marine platoon?

This argument is less logical than the home protection one.

Know what? I'm totally open on this. I want someone to change my mind. Do you have a reason for unfettered gun ownership? Lay it on me, Pal.

Friday, December 14, 2012

How I Really Feel

This is my grandson. I took this photo of him last year at Christmas. He was trying to look silly. That's what five-year-old boys do.

Can you imagine the mind of someone who would walk into a room full of five-year-olds and shoot them?

How many people have actually seen the damage a gunshot does? Years ago, on a chukar hunting trip, I thought it would be a good idea to impress on my 7-year-old son the damage a gun did to a living thing. The hunting ground around Winnemucca, Nevada, was abound with jackrabbits, generally considered pests. 

I fired a 12-guage shot at a jackrabbit. It was blown in pretty much two pieces, both still quivering with vestiges of life, its purplish innards spilling out on either side. I immediately regretted what I'd done, and the look on Jeremy's face bore out my feelings.

And I never served in combat and had to shoot somebody. Have you ever put your arm around a veteran just to tell her or him that you care?

Living things that get shot don't just close their eyes and fall over. They usually get dismembered to a degree, with blood and bits of organs splattering all around. And some craven son-of-a-bitch did that to twenty children roughly the age of my grandson in Newtown, Connecticut. He looked them in the eye and did it, over and over.

If I had an immediate regret, it was that this miserable excuse of a human being wasn't still alive so I could personally rip his limbs from his torso and feed his organs to mongrel dogs. But an even greater regret is that this happens too many times in America, and the response is to pretty much just go shopping.

And a greater regret--no, not greater, just sometimes deafening White Noise--is the amount of dismembering death witnessed by, say, Syrian children, Palestinian children, Rwandan children, and many, many children and moms and dads all over the world.

What have I done to stop it? Precious little. March in demonstrations. Vote for Obama. Write letters to the editor. Wear sunscreen and consume Omega 3 fatty acids, sing Pete Seeger songs. 

If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. People: This has to stop. What're you gonna do?

What am I gonna do?


How to Restrict Gun Ownership in America

Another mass shooting in America. More than ever, anyone with a a pulse is outraged at the news of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. You can't get past the Kubler-Ross anger stage. It doesn't matter which side of the gun debate you're on to realize that killing is way out of hand in this country, and it has to stop.

Let's stipulate a few points, both for the Second Amendment zealots and for the Brady Bunch. First, the right to own a firearm is enshrined, however badly, in the Constitution. The phrasing is badly written and vague: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Jesus. :Literate people wrote that? 

In any event, (a) too many people believe this phrase means a person has a right to own a gun, and (b) the Supreme Court seems to side with them. The drafters may have intended militias, but at best, that's an academic discussion.

Second, the right to own a gun doesn't mean the right to go duck hunting. The purpose of a gun is to kill, whatever the motive behind the shooting is. An unloaded gun is an uninteresting wall decoration at best. A gun has bullets for a purpose.

Third, people, not guns, may kill people, but in America, they do it with guns. As the Newtown tragedy unfolded, a psycho in China knife-slashed 22 elementary school children. But it took the S.O.B around a half hour and no one got killed. The Newtown murder explosion took a few minutes, and 28 people--including 20 children--were killed.


Fourth--and this point was made in "Bowling for Columbine--" there's something about American society that seeks mortal violence as a cure for whatever ails folks.

So, what to do? The Plucky Observer has a couple of ideas. We need to keep guns out of the hands of psychos, and, if possible, criminals, while still respecting the right to keep and bear arms. Ideas:

1. To get a license to own a gun--any gun--you have to have a job, profession, have a long-term lease or own property, have a FICO score of 550 or so, own a small business, have graduated from high school and, if you're in college, have a B average and produce proof of continuous enrollment. If you get fired, kicked out of school, flunk out, etc., your employer or school must notify the gun licensing authority. 

The thought behind this rule is that psychopaths do not engage in usual social behavior (of course there are outliers, but you'll never get all of them anyway), so why not make rules to isolate the mentally ill? Gun advocates should sign on with this, as it restricts gun ownership to potential bad guys but leaves law-abiding citizens alone.

2. Any public employee, physician, social worker, human resource workers in the private sector, university/college staffers and the like, must report aberrant behavior to the licensing authority. I.E., if someone sees a screwball in action, he/she needs to tell someone. We have this safeguard for children who may be abused.

If someone is fired or leaves school, it becomes a matter of record in the licensing authority's database. This kind of data will necessarily become part of the background check.

Of course, the above raises questions: Who is the "licensing authority," and who has access top private data? This question is solvable, by making the data entry blind and by making those in charge publicly accountable.

3. End the private sale loophole. Most sales of guns take place among private parties, where no background check is required. If you peddle a gun to someone, you have to do a background check.

4. Require proof of insurance on each gun owned, at least to the levels of state-required driver's insurance. No insurance, no gun.

Jeffrey Goldberg, certainly no right-wing gun advocate, has written a couple of provocative articles in The Atlantic on gun ownership and American solutions to the problems arising from it. He points out that ours is a gun country, with maybe 300 million guns in ownership. They aren't going away, he says. Moreover, people need to be able to defend themselves when threatened, including mass shooting situations when no one is firing back at the shooter.

But we need to find a way to keep guns from the psychopaths and the criminals, and I hope this post offers a way forward. The above won't stop the violence, but it could mitigate it. 




Thursday, December 13, 2012

Another Reason for Boomers to Buy the Farm Early

A few posts ago, I wrote an article about Baby Boomers benefiting society by dying early. Today, I thought of another reason: It will free up a lot of bandwidth.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Revisiting Pat Paulsen and Guns

"Assuming either the Left Wing or the Right Wing gained control of the country, it would probably fly around in circles," Pat Paulsen, one-time perennial presidential contender said. Regarding Social Security, he said, "Why should old people get it? They just sit around all day doing nothing."

I miss Pat Paulsen, I have to say. The current debates over everything from the fiscal cliff to gun control need him. Regarding gun control, his position was that "guns don't kill people. Bullets kill people," and went on a riff about taxing or banning bullets.

Humor cuts to the chase. In 2012, I'm thinking pro-gun and anti-gun people have it all wrong. I know, or think I do, because I've been on both sides. As with abortion, people on both sides shout the same things they've been shouting for decades.

So boring, so tedious to do the same thing over and expect a different result. (Wait: Did I just say that? No! Albert Einstein did, and he could speak German).

Here's the real issue on guns and gun control and the right to bear arms and yadda yadda: Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Sure, they generally do it with guns in the country, but the issue isn't the gun (at least not yet--it may be at some point). The issue is why do people in America kill each other.

Canadian gun ownership compares to America's. But Canadians don't kill each other. Iraqis seem to have a high rate of gun ownership, and they do kill each other.

It may be that people will do something they wouldn't otherwise do if they have a loaded gun in their hands. I remember a newspaper story about a guy in Portland, OR, a bystander to a crime, whipped out his pistol and fired at the tires of a fleeing burglar. The bullets bounced off the tires and hit a pedestrian. His Clint Eastwood moment was brief.

The question isn't the degree to which guns need to (or don't need to) be controlled. The question is why is ours such a violent society.

About which--well, maybe, anyway, Pat Paulsen said, "All the problems we face in the United States today can be traced to an unenlightened immigration policy on the part of the American Indian."