Friday, May 28, 2004


It's Berkeley, so naturally there are bicyclists. And as a matter of fact, the city council has created a set of "Bicycle Boulevards", streets that are especially good to ride on. The only real difference between a bicycle boulevard and a regular street, as far as I can tell, is that these streets have the words "BIKE BLVD" stenciled on the asphalt. I saw one yesterday that had been defaced. Someone had spray-painted in extra letters so the stencil read BIKE BeLoVeD instead. Kind of made my day.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

More News!

Okay, that's it. Those are all the New To You Reruns from my old site. From here on in, it's all new stuff. As a matter of fact, I will try to post a new one every day or two. If I don't, feel free to hit me with a pointy stick.


I finally went to the dentist yesterday, after something like a six-year hiatus. But I figure, now that I have basic dental coverage as part of my student health insurance (thanks to the Graduate Student Union), I can go back. I tell you what, I was concerned. Six years without a checkup? I was convinced that I was going to end up with dentures and braces.

So, I had my xrays done, and the dentist takes a look at them. He chuckles and calls over the hygenist. "Look at this!" So naturally, I'm thinking 'Yikes!', but then he goes on to say, "Have you ever seen roots go that deep?" The hygenist says no and chuckles too. They're laughing about my freakish teeth. Turns out that between the deep roots and curiously strong enamel, my teeth are just fine. Long after the rest of my body has become dust, my teeth will still be in good shape. I think I am going to get back on the fitness wagon, so the rest of me can enjoy my wonderful teeth for a long time.


I'm sure it has happened to everyone. You meet someone new, and immediately think, "This person really reminds me of my old friend so-and-so." It happened just the other day to me at a party. The catch this time was that my old friend so-and-so was also at the party. So, did my new and old friends meet? Yes. Did they notice that they were cast from the same mold? I don't know, didn't ask. But consider. You've probably met someone in your life that reminded other people of you. Did you notice, or did the mirror have someone else in it? This also happened to me, late one night at the bar, drinking beers and (quite literally) talking epistemology with fellow grad students, I'm struck by the sudden strong feeling that this guy I'm talking to is really me. It can be quite disconcerting.


One long street full of restaurants. Each with a man standing in front, ostensibly the Maitre d'Hotel. In reality, they're more like hawkers, pulling in butts to fill the seats. Places like that always stress me out. We wander to a different section of town, eating at a place called Inn t'Spinnekopke, which means "Inn of the Spider Head". House mussels in a spicy cream sauce with french fries. The Belgians invented french fries. I had my first trappist beer, a Chimay.


It's late, and I want to sleep. My bed is calling, but so is Darryl. The phone rings once, twice. I answer. "Talk about a pretentious load of crap. What the heck are you thinking? You better start explaining what you're up to before I smack you upside the head. First of all, I exist. Don't go all sophomoric philosophy on me. Phillip K. Dick could have pulled that off, but there's no way you're up to that kind of level. So cut it out, okay?"

So I have to apologize both to Darryl (for casting aspersions on his very being) and to my two readers, for inflicting that earlier Word on you. But what the heck, that's what the internet is all about, right?


Now we've made it to Brussels, and we're walking in the Grote Markt, a central plaza area, named for its size (Grote) and function (Markt). Most towns in the northern part of Belgium (called Flanders, apparently) have a Grote Markt. A dark-skinned young woman just walked up to me. Her mind is flying. She gets her eyes poinnted roughly my way and says "You are doing what you want to do" in heavily accented english. Then she mutters an obscenity and wanders off.


I went to a party this weekend, a friend turned twenty-eight. I haven't hung out with him much recently, but we were roommates when we first moved out to Berkeley. As a matter of fact, Clint and I both lived with Darryl at the time, each answering his ad for a sublet. Little did we know that between the two of us, Clint and I were paying all but five dollars of the rent. So Darryl had it sweet.

Naturally, Darryl was there too. I see him even less than Clint, but he does pop up now and again. As usual, he's either being deep or being stoned. I can never tell.

"You know," he says, "I'm not even really here. I'm just some guy you use when you're getting all pretentious and literary. You want to push some sophomoric philosophy on your readers and don't want to take the blame. You should stand up for what you believe in, man."

I can't take that, when my own figments get out of control. "Look man, you exist. You're out there somewhere, the man himself, who stole from me and my friends and made me pay your rent while you spent your time at the flea market selling car batteries. Don't give me this crap. Just because I use you to illustrate some points doesn't lessen you or your existence in any way. As a matter of fact, it heightens it in a way. I'm making you far more agreeable and interesting than you ever really were."

"But," counters he, "my soul is at stake here. This is like voodoo or something. You're taking advantage of my generosity. I need this head space to think about important stuff, like the nature of God, and you have me all used up on my own nature. This dual existence is wearing me out. I need a break."

Tough for Darryl. He owes me one, so I will continue to use him. At least he is in good company. So he wanders off, grabs two beers and shares one with this other guy with the improbable name of Horselover Fat.


I'm on a plane to Brussels, and I can't sleep. It is supposed to be night, but my body doesn't believe it. So I'm sitting, half watching the in-flight movie (Tron, but this is the second time through). A few rows ahead of me, a man pulls a small book out of his pocket. Without looking at it, he opens to a random page and points. He starts reading from where his finger landed. Sitting there, I wonder: what is the likelihood that he would read the first or last page of his book? I've gotta get some sleep.


My newspaper gets stolen every day sometime between the hours of six and ten in the morning. If I get up early to get it, fine. If I sleep in (which I can do, since I am still a student), it disappears. It always disappears, without fail, by ten. Every so often I spin a little fantasy in my head where I stake out the paper to find out who is stealing it. But I think that would make me an old coot before my time.


I'm channeling Darryl again. Now we're walking down the street, he's taking me to see some guy with bargain-basement software, probably stolen. Guy's not there, but his pile of software is. About fifty copies of the some math drill software. Weird, but on to Darryl's brain.

"You ever get that feeling that you're just watchin' the movie of your life? I mean you're driving or walking or something, and really you're just controlling the screen. You get kind of detached from what's going on, you don't even feel like you're really in it any more. Happens to me all the time. It seems like a pretty good movie, but it does have some boring parts."


I like art. I also like art museums, but I always seem to go through the rooms faster than my companions, and I end up sitting in some hallway, waiting. This time, I found a very large and dark photo print behind glass. Standing at just the right angle, I can stare into the picture and look at the reflection of the other people in the gallery. It looks like I'm appreciating the art, but I'm really appreciating the people behind the art. A family of four moves across my field of view, mom and dad taking their kids to get some culture.


Whoa, flashback day again. Look around, where am I, some kind of attic? Okay, here I am. It is 1987, and I am at a sleepover birthday party. There are about seven of us, in a loft above the birthday boy's garage. I am in eighth grade. I don't really know these other kids, since I am new in town, but I got invited because I share a first name with the birthday boy. We've all recently gotten into playing Dungeons and Dragons, and tonight is the first time I've ever been a Dungeon Master. One of the kids brought a bottle of Southern Comfort and is passing it around. As it reaches me, I pass it on without drinking. I've gotta keep my head, they're depending on me to be the Dungeon Master, right?


In your average men's restroom, above the urinals (am I allowed to say that online?), there are usually posters. This one was about an art show the school was putting on in a week or so. Whoever hung it up did it poorly though, and it was off center. So I'm standing there, doing my thing, reading the poster, when I realize that I've turned about fifteen degrees off kilter, and have been peeing on my shoe. Not the best way to impress people.


Here's another piece of homework for all you readers out there. Make eye contact and smile. Personally, I do it when I'm riding my bike. People waiting for a bus, riding the other direction, or sometimes sitting in cars all get my smile now. Looking right at people can be startling sometimes. Everyone seems to avert their eyes as they walk by you. It is not sufficient to simply look at someone, though. You must smile at them. Don't be a weirdo and follow people around. Just smile. Everyone will have a better day.


Overheard at a party: "My husband is dating a married woman. That's okay though, since her husband is dating his first wife." Interpreted one way, you've taken a roundabout way to describe a standard marriage. Interpreted another way (which had me reaching for my whiteboard), you've got an interesting story. It took a few runs through before I got it.


I am the Duck of Ill Omen. Twenty feet wide am I, and fifteen long. Wise are you to fear the beat of my mighty wings, for I am the Duck of Ill Omen. Do not run toward or away from me, there is nothing left to do. It is not I that will bring bad times upon you, that task is left to others. I am merely the harbinger. I am the Duck of Ill Omen. Twenty feet wide am I, and fifteen long.


I have a bad ankle. My right ankle had some critical ligament rupture about six years ago. So every so often I will turn my ankle on seemingly nothing at all. I'm just walking along, and a tiny crack in the sidewalk will make me fall over. Just this morning, a pencil on the floor in my office put me on the ground, in a great deal of pain. Shortly after, a warm flood of endorphins spread up my leg to my knee. Nothing like nature's painkillers.


I couldn't sleep. So I lay there staring at the ceiling, thoughts about the day running through my head, listening to the traffic going by outside my window. Then my room became filled with the red from someone's brake lights. A door opens, slams. I hear a woman crying, yelling at whoever is left in the car. The car drives off, leaving us alone but apart. A few feet from me, but on the other side of my window, a woman's heart is breaking. I roll over and try to think about something else.


My ficus tree has cranes in it now. Little paper cranes. Chrissy bought some origami paper the last time we were in Japantown, and she's been experimenting with patterns she downloaded. "Nice swan", I'd say. "It's supposed to be an armadillo!", she says. Apparently, I was holding it upside down. This morning I found a half completed seahorse on my dresser. The cranes were getting out of control, though, on the kitchen table. So now they're in the ficus. If you look even closer, you'll find a dragon and a parrot in there, but it is the nesting cranes that you'll notice first.


After watching The Shipping News, I realized that I had been misled by the reviews I had read about the movie. I mentioned this to my wife, who said that most reviews only talk about the beginnings of movies. They can't really talk about the middle or end. But it is the middle that makes the movie.


She presses the operator call, geting the train driver's attention. "Stand three inches away from the microphone, you're too close." Nearby passengers all laugh that she needed so badly to tell the driver this. The next time the driver comes on to announce a station, his voice isn't nearly as distorted as it was.


The telephone on the platform is locked in a yellow case. Perhaps someone is worried it will escape, because there it is, a yellow case with the word "Telephone" written on it, padlocked. Just beyond it, a couple sits on a bench waiting for a train. They're in their fifties, but they're necking like teenagers. A train goes by very slowly, while the overhead signs flash "Train won't stop". It stops anyway, to the squeal of breaks. The doors, however, don't open.


I'm hot. Too hot to wear the jacket I have on. If I take it off, people will see where I spilled coffee earlier that day.


Chrissy went to the Elephant Pharmacy. Brand new, billed as a "Berkeley Style, Neighborhood Anti-Walgreens Drug Store". She got a yoga mat for herself and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide for her science class. The checker asked if she liked the new store, and how much the hydrogen peroxide cost. There was no price sticker. Chrissy went back to the shelf, but there was nothing on the shelf either. The checker asked if 99 cents sounded okay, and Chrissy thought it sounded like a good deal.


This will not be a ranting space. When I started trying to write for the web, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't create Yet Another Rant Site. So I won't rant. I even thought that I would try to keep politics out of my writing entirely. I might not be able to do that. I will try to be subtle though. It just seems like there is a lot going on in the world that I would like to comment on. Wish me luck.


When I moved to the San Francisco area, I ended up in a town called Pittsburg. Not Pittsburgh, which is in Pennsylvania, but Pittsburg. Look at a BART map and follow the yellow line to the end, really it was closer to Sacramento than San Francisco, I didn't even get SF radio. It really felt like the end of the world, behind my apartment building was undeveloped sere grasslands.

Each day I would get up before sunrise and make my two hour way to my job. By the time I got home, it was dark. I spent weekends with my girlfriend, so I went two months without seeing my home in the sunlight. When I finally did, the parched brown hills behind my building had become green and verdant in the winter rain. I still haven't gotten the hang of California seasons.


A man stops in the middle of the crosswalk, waves back at someone who just called his name. He is slowed just enough that he doesn't clear the intersection until someone else jumps in, she doesn't mind walking against the light, she'll make it out of the intersection before the light goes red. Another man, waiting behind the wheel of a car, cannot turn left until all the pedestrians clear. This doesn't happen, and the opposing traffic starts up before he can go (that woman just barely made it across). Now the man in the car waits a few minutes for the lights to change, but this time he guns it right away, turning left as he gets his green, before the cars in the other direction hit their gas. They honk angrily. Everyone goes on to have a slightly worse day.


While you drive, your radio may be tuned to one station. The other stations are still broadcasting, and those waves are traveling through you as well. Imagine that, you are being washed with Pink Floyd, Madonna, and Beethoven all at the same time. Hundreds of cell phone conversations floating through your head, people making and breaking relationships right there. Maybe even people you know.


Jim is a smoker. He rolls his own cigarettes, using Zig Zag papers and some pouch of tobacco I have never seen long enough to tell the brand on. When I visit him at his house, he either smokes on the front porch or sets up a fan in a window and smokes there, crouched down near the window. Sometimes he looks something like a toad, sitting there by that fan, and when he talks his voice gets crackly from the fan blade being nearby.


"You think you've thought of something new, and then bam, somebody tells you it is not only old hat, but sophomoric." Darryl is pretty upset. He was really proud of that whole two hypothesis thing, but then he went and saw the movie Signs. Same idea shows up there. So he's peeved. "Funny thing is, though, we both thought of the same idea, independently. Does that mean we're on a vibe, or maybe that we've gotten something, I mean really gotten something, something fundamental, something important." He looks up from his matress on the floor, I'm standing in the doorway. "When a bunch of people all think of the same thing independently, it is either because of something ingrained in them or something ingrained in the environment. I suppose it could be a coincidence, but wouldn't it be cool if it wasn't?" I shrug and head off to my room to watch an action flick.


To adults, the space under the stairs was a place to store christmas ornaments and other seasonal stuff. It had to be kept relatively clean, because that is where the water main entered the house. Just a crawl space behind a closet with a sloping ceiling, nothing interesting at all. But to a child, it was a fort. He put down linoleum that was left over from the kitchen, hung up his father's Boy Scout paraphenalia, and put a stack of Hardy Boys mystery books next to a musty sleeping bag. There was a bare sixty watt light bulb, but this child preferred a flashlight. When they moved away from that house, the little crawlspace reverted back to storage.


I live about six miles from where I work, and I ride my bike most days. I ride home on side streets, under a canopy of trees. When I hit the right street and the right mood, I will take my hands off the handlebar, pedal hard, and pretend I am flying.


I saw this guy almost every day. He knew my name. Whenever I saw him, coming back from his cigarette break, he'd say "Eric". That's my name, you see. He knew my name, and nothing else about me, except for perhaps my social security number. He worked in payroll, the business office. I used to turn my timesheets in to him, then he got promoted. He knew my name and said hi to me whenever we saw each other. I knew his name, it was Rich. That is all I knew about him, he was Rich and now he is dead. He died alone, in his apartment. Nobody knew about it for three days, but there he was. I wish I had known more than just his name.


The sun has gone down hours ago, and I'm outside. Strung around the lake like a necklace are little lights, in red, purple, pink, yellow. I stare for a moment at these lights, and at the skyline. Builings all around, glimmering like stars. But then I look up at the sky. The night is clear, yet there are almost no stars to be found. Some might say we captured them and brought them to earth, scattered around the lake and buildings. I'm less poetic. I think we've spent the stars, we bartered them away to buy ourselves those builings, that twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five grid of power, water, electricity. I guess it was worth it, but still, on a clear night, look up. Where'd they all go?

Friday, May 14, 2004

Big News!

Well, I've moved my blog from my own personal site over to this site. That way, it will survive the upcoming shift in employers I am about to undergo. So, for a while I will be reposting the old, "classic" (heh) stuff from my old site. It will be new to everyone but the three people who read my old site.

And then, once the new site is caught up, I will get back into the swing of posting actual new words. Art will continue to thrive in a little corner of my brain.


Here's a little exercise for our readers at home. Go into your bathroom, or anywhere else in your house (or apartment) where you have a big mirror and plenty of light. Start by staring at yourself, try and decide if that is really you. Have you really gotten that pudgy under the chin? Is that your hair? Are those your eyes?

When that starts to get uncomfortable, start whispering to the person in the mirror. Pretend that you are talking to a stranger. Explain who you are and why you are talking to them. Don't talk to loud, not only will people notice, it will ruin what comes next. Eventually your perception of the situation will shift, just like when you stare at a line drawing of a cube for too long. Up becomes down, or in this case you are no longer talking; you are listening to that other person. Next, try and let go of your speech. Really focus on what is coming from the mirror. This will cause your doppelganger to start speaking in a glossolalia of nonsensical syllables. But peppered in there, amongst the garbage, might well be something of interest, something you hadn't thought of before.


One fine day, I went over to a friend's house to play games. We're not kids or anything, just grownups who like to play board games. I'm waiting for the rest of the group to show up, sitting on the couch as Jeff and Gillian talk about their day. It is at this point that I start to appreciate the private world that Jeff and Gillian share. There is a universe of experience that they have in common; they can communicate with code words and gestures. Sometimes, walking down the street, you manage a glimpse into a hidden garden or patio if people leave their door open. Quietly listening to them, I realized that this was the same sort of thing, a tiny sliver of that vibrant secret life that goes on behind the walls of everyone's home.


I want it to rain again. I want it to rain like it did when I first moved out here, day after day of drizzle or downpour or storm or just plain rain. Pacifica falling into the ocean. I would lie awake at night and listen to the rain on the corrugated metal roof of the carport. I would sit in a cafe and watch the rain fall for hours as I sipped a coffee and tried to keep warm. Now we just get teased. I drive through the mist and fog, thinking about the rain that hasn't returned.


I put words together for a living. When the words are in the right order, a computer will do some pretty interesting things. Lately, I have also played around with picking out words and writing them down here. Perhaps I will evoke emotion or interest in someone I have never met. Most people, when you break their life's work down to the basics, put words together for a living. Those words are frequently the proximate cause of some interesting things. As Mark Twain put it, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.


The sound of polite laughter rolled through the auditorium. The room was filled with men and women in severe business dress. The speaker, an executive, had just made a joke that was not funny. Everyone knew the joke was coming by the way the speaker revved up for it. Everyone knew it was not going to be funny, and no one was surprised when it came out flat. They laughed anyway. Some people forgot to laugh, they were noted by security and watched for weeks to come. Most were fired, some promoted. All because of a joke, one that wasn't even funny.


A moment of disorientation, then I look around. I am at my old apartment, it must be tuesday, flashback day. I'm sitting in Darryl's room, on the edge of his bed. Not really a bed, it is just a mattress on the floor. Queen sized though. Darryl has this big television, thirty inches at least, and it is always on. Usually some movie channel, with the volume turned down. Darryl looks at me and says:

"Hypothesis one is that Love exists, and lifts us above our mortal selves. You could flavor the idea with the Divine, perhaps toss in God if you wish." Darryl is stoned, worse yet, he will one day steal from me to buy crack. But this is before all that, for now he's just some kooky roommate of mine. "Hypothesis two is that all is selfishness. We love each other in order to feel good, and you're addicted to the feeling you get when you make someone else smile."

I look Darryl in the eye and ask: "Can you tell the two hypotheses apart? Both would explain the way I'm feeling, which one is true?"

Darryl nods off for a moment, I think he's lost the thread of conversation. But then: "Truth is for philosophers. What matters is what you believe."

I believe in hypothesis one, but it has always bugged me that I can't think of a way to disprove hypothesis two, even about myself.


Most ketchup that I see in the grocery store is marked "extra fancy". Take out your copy of the Joy of Cooking and flip to the entry on Ketchups. I won't quote it here, since those Rombauers might just sue. But the gist of it is: that which is purported to be extra fancy is in fact not fancy at all. I recommend the red onion ketchup, it is a taste you've never thought ketchup could have.


I looked down, listening to the hiss of air escaping. There it was. I pulled out an allen wrench from where it had embedded itself in my rear tire. A man walked by, listening to headphones, looked at me and said "Sucks!" in a friendly way. I pushed my bike up onto the sidewalk.


The asphalt in the parking lot had a slope to it, so I pushed the cart downhill toward the corral. I jumped, pushing off on the handle, spun around, and threw my arms up like an olympian as the cart slammed home. Applause and cheers came from a nearby car. I looked up, and a woman met my eyes, clapping. I quickly headed for my car.


I pulled up in front of my apartment building and hopped off of my bike. There was a man standing in front of the door. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there was a weird vibe between us. I didn't want to let him into the building if he didn't live there, but I had to get in myself. So I stalled, taking off my helmet and gloves. I was about to find my keys when he shrugged, took his keys out of his pocket and opened the door. He let me in behind him.


"That bit about the sauce is cool, but what does that have to do with veils?" If anyone else had asked me this, I would have smiled mysteriously and shrugged. But this was my wife speaking, so I reached inside, pulled out what I was trying to say and put it on the table. We looked at it under fluorescent light, and it died there. "I don't get it" she said. Some things seem to make more sense if you don't think about them too hard. Or at least if you don't try to explain them.


"When the rapture comes, some people are going to float right off into heaven." This guy Michael (not Mike or Mikey) who lives in my building was talking to me as I grilled a steak or two on the front porch. "But, you can't get into heaven wearing your clothes, right? So they're going to leave their clothes behind." He looks up. "So maybe, it is already happening. You see pants on the sidewalk, shoes in trees, and you don't think anything of it". A bloodshot eye pins me to my steak. "So next time you see a pair of jeans that some indonesian kid was paid a nickel to make laying on the ground, look up. You might see a naked dude floating above you." That was the last time I talked to Michael. He kind of disappeared soon after. I wonder if he still has his pants.


I had to go to the drugstore about a month ago to get some sunscreen. While waiting in line, I heard a crash from outside the store. A man came in, borrowed a broom and a bag, and went back outside. He had dropped a jar of spaghetti sauce on the sidewalk in front of the store. He cleaned up the glass, but left the sauce. For the past month, that sauce has slowly turned into a nondescript stain on the concrete. I am one of maybe five people in the world who knows the origin of that particular stain. I may be the only person in the entire world who thinks that is of interest at all.


We see cars every day, so here is a fun game for you. Look at car license plates, the rightmost three digits if you live in a state like Ohio or something. Start looking for a plate with the number 000. Once you have seen that, look for a plate that is 001, keep going. Keep track. I've been looking since 1997 (on and off, I admit, sometimes I forget to look for a while). I'm currently looking for 284. You might need to start on 999 and go down from there, especially if you live in a state like Ohio where the 00N plates are reserved for state owned vehicles or something like that.


When I was in 7th grade, I was in the Rhode Island state spelling bee. I did okay, spelling the first word or two they threw at us. The next one I had to do was phase. I initially spelled it F-A-Z-E, which is also a word. They then told me I had the wrong word and defined it for me. Being nervous, I blurted out P-H-A-Z-E, which I realized was wrong immediately, but in spelling bees as in life, there are no do-overs. I blame Piers Anthony.


A giant container of salt (one of those round Morton's things) costs less than fifty cents at the grocery store. I've been using the same one for three years. Where do they make their money?


In the beginning there was the word. Lots of people have speculated about the prime urge, but I always wondered, what was the word? Must have been a doozy.