Wednesday, February 28, 2007

This Time I Know I’m Ripping Off Benchley

My desk at work is a mess. (I always thought that my desk at home was a mess, too, but as it turns out , I don’t actually have a desk at home, just a heaping pile of unclassifiable stuff. I’m not sure what it’s sitting on, and I’m a little afraid to find out.) My desk constantly needs to be “red up,” as my Irish grandma from Homestead would say, but I never “red it up.”

There are time when I try to, about every year or so, but I usually get sidetracked by my wonder at the things I find buried among the detritus of my job. Today, for instance, I made some head-way: I recycled a whole stack of papers that were filled with red proof reading marks. I always keep these papers around, long after they are needed. I tell myself that it’s because I may have to refer to them later, just in case someone wants to know who the hell put that coma there. But I think the real, unconscious reason is that having stacks of papers on my desk, especially one scrawled all over with red marks and arrows and loopy “delete” marks, makes me look really busy.

So anyway, I actually managed to throw away a whole stack of these papers. Mixed in, though, were sticky notes. Ah, sticky notes! I use them (apparently) for everything: jotting down grocery lists, figuring out my taxes, making enemies’ lists, converting bushels to drams. This morning, I found a sticky note that contained a list that said:


1500 cal.


Bistro du Coin

I can’t possibly imagine what this means, and I have no recollection of writing any of those things down. I haven’t been to Bistro du Coin in years, and I don’t recall having plans to go there recently. “X29435” might be a missile code of some sort, maybe even a launch code. Perhaps I was entrusted with it for national security reasons. Or maybe it’s someone’s extension. I thought about dialing it, but the missile code idea scared me a little (I could hear Joshua’s voice saying “Would you like to play a game?”). The “paper” may have been a reminder to buy paper, or a paper, perhaps a “news” paper (why, oh why, am I not more specific in my list making?). But combined with the “1500 cal.” I can only assume that I intended to eat paper. Quite a lot of it. Why would I do that? Maybe as a way of cleaning up my desk? I’m pretty sure I never followed through with it, though, judging by how far down in the stack of paper I found this particular sticky note.

Pondering this note used up about 45 minutes, but I managed to move on to another part of my desk, where I had a stack of sticky notes containing phone numbers. I suppose my plan was to enter these numbers into some sort of data base. The only problem is, most of the phone numbers had no name associated with them. Just the number, hastily written out in a shaky hand, as if I had been under some sort of distress. I thought about calling each of these numbers to see who answered, but the missile code idea still jarred me.

Among these sticky notes, I found another one that contained a long list of names. Next to each name was either a check mark or an X. I recognized some of the names, mostly friends. Others were more generic, like “Jim” and “Anne.” I have no idea why I made this list. I hope it’s not a hit list. That would bring up many psychological issues that are better left un-examined, not the least of which is my lack of follow-through; to the best of my knowledge, I haven’t assassinated anyone on the list, not even an anonymous “Jim” or “Anne.”

The discovery of this gruesome little list caused me to abandon my desk cleaning. I was afraid of what else I might find, especially in my top left drawer, which contains some bulging #10 envelopes. I hope they are full of money, but the chance that they might contain fingers or old cups of coffee or weapons of mass destruction or heaven knows what has left me daunted. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

DC’s Newest Literary Magazine

The first issue of Lines & Stars has just hit the web! I highly recommend it. Lines & Stars is a brand new literary magazine devoted to great writing produced right here in DC. The first issue really showcases some great work, a refreshing literary breeze blowing through the city. And I’m not just saying that because I have a story published there (at the bottom of the fiction page).

The editor, Rachel Adams, has done a fantastic job of putting together the primier issue. There are plans to print a “3-D” version as well, which will be available in local book stores. Spread the word, submit your stories and poems, and simply enjoy the writing!

America Should Fire Margaret Spellings

I saw Margaret Spellings, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, on one of the talking head shows on Sunday, and I have a question: is she related to Tori Spelling in some way? Her aunt? Mother? Sister even? And a follow-up question: did Bush nominate her because she was principal of Beverly Hills (90210) High School? Because, I’m sorry (actually I’m not), but the woman is an idiot.

She spent most of the time bashing America. Now, I’ll admit to being a liberal who, from time to time, bashes certain aspects of American society. But Peggy, what is up with you? She made statement after statement about how the American education system is so far behind the rest of the world (even though the U.S. still has the largest and most robust economy in the world and people from every country on earth come here to not only go to Harvard and Stanford, but to George Mason University and even NOVA!) She went on to say that kids in math class are bored, that we (and I’m assuming she means you and me) need to make math more interesting. What the hell does that even mean? Math is math. I don’t remember being bored in math. I remember being frustrated in math, and at times hating it, but not being bored. She must be confusing math with something else. American Idol, maybe.

But the best thing she said (and by that I mean, of course, worst), was that the days when you could make a decent living from manual labor are over. This statement could stand some pondering. It is at best misguided and at worst a wildly irresponsible thing for the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education to say! The message that came across to me was that if you can’t hack it in algebra 2 and trigonometry class in high school, thus eliminating you from going to college, then your life in the United States of America is pretty much over. Just wait over there, we’ll give you some hand outs when we get around to it, and if you could please hurry up and die, that’d be great, thanks! Because if, as she says, the only way to make a decent living is to go to college, these people are shit out of luck.

Of course, this isn’t true. There are many jobs (in the trades, as mechanics of all sorts, starting your own business, even bookkeeping) where a college education is not required and you can make a very good living. Anyone who has had to hire a plumber or electrician knows how good of a living they can make. The problem is getting the training to do these jobs. School districts around the country have eviscerated their “vocational” curriculums and trade schools, at a time when we sorely need them.

Case in point: there are sections of this wonderful city where the official unemployment rate borders on 40 percent. Forty freaking percent! But there are plenty of jobs in the trades, what with all the renovation work and all the mammoth construction projects around the city. The problem is, the people in these neighborhoods don’t have access to these jobs because the city has lost the capacity to bring people into the trades; this city no longer has public trade schools. (If it does, please correct me; this is a case where I’d be happy to be wrong.) These are really, really, really good jobs, by the way, with wages between 18 – 50 bucks an hour, depending the trade, most of them with full benefits. Spellings has no idea what she’s talking about.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education should spend her time figuring out not only how to help college-bound kids, but also how to help out the people who won’t qualify to go to college but would make great carpenters or plumbers or SAE certified mechanics or electronics repairmen, and would love to start their own small businesses doing all sorts of different things. Instead, her message to them is: there’s no place in America for you! She should be fired.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Writing: Sincerity vs. Truth

“For a creative writer possession of the "truth" is less important than emotional sincerity.” George Orwell

I find it quite surprising that George Orwell said this, the writer who told the “truth” about a lot of things. He lived the truth. He fought in the Spanish civil war against the Fascists, unlike Hemingway who did more meddling than actual fighting, or Henry Miller, who didn’t even show up. How can a writer so associated with telling it like it is (Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia) hold the belief that truth is not as important to a writer as some ephemeral idea like “emotional sincerity”?

The quote comes from Orwell’s 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, an essay I consider required reading for any aspiring writer. He is actually writing about Henry Miller, the writer now considered to be a rather quaint dabbler in literary smut. Miller refused to be political, and instead wrote from a position of “emotional sincerity,” as Orwell puts it. In fact, good writing depends on “emotional sincerity.” This is what makes Edgar Allen Poe so great, Orwell says; not truth in the literal sense, but a kind of sincerity:

…there exist 'good' writers whose world-view would in any age be recognized as false and silly. Edgar Allan Poe is an example. Poe's outlook is at best a wild romanticism and at worst is not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense. Why is it, then that stories like The Black Cat, The Tell-tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher and so forth, which might very nearly have been written by a lunatic, do not convey a feeling of falsity? Because they are true within a certain framework, they keep the rules of their own peculiar world…

(I love that: “not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense.”)

During the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Orwell further contends that there was a lack of good writing (prose fiction, specifically). This was because most fiction writers were involve in politics in one way or another, too concerned with telling the “truth” about politics. Henry Miller being the exception, of course:

I first met Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain. What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot. He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity, for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense obligation was sheer stupidity. In any case my Ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney.

Orwell seems to have, shall we say, a grudging respect for this point of view.

The title of the essay, “Inside the Whale,” comes from the story of Jonah; swallowed by a whale, he is protected from what is happening in the outside world, relatively comfortable inside all that warm blubber. However, soon he will be vomited up on the shores of reality, whether he likes it or not. This stems from Orwell’s own peculiar world view: he assumed the world was quickly sliding into fascism, and that people like Miller, apolitical to a fault, would not much longer be able to stay on the sidelines. The ability to stay on the sidelines, however, is what enables great literature to be made in the first place, and why great books are rarely produced by those who vehemently believe in any sort of dogma or doctrine, political, religious, or otherwise. (Although, ironically, Orwell may be an exception.)

Good literature has nothing to do with pushing some point of view. That’s called propaganda. Good literature comes from this idea of emotional sincerity, an engagement in the things that can be known personally, subjectively. It is very hard to write good fiction (or at least get it published) at a time when political orthodoxy, whether right or left, red or blue, fascist or communist, is the order of the day:

Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.

What are they not frightened of? Sincerely expressing their version of reality, full of angst and emotion and humanity, even if it doesn’t fit the larger orthodoxy of the time.

I’m not sure how to go about this, myself, but I think it has to do with those nagging little voices I hear in my head as I’m writing: “what will people think if you write that? What will your grandmother think of you? Won’t people think you are a leftist/racist/sexist/socialist/capitalist/you-name-it-ist?” etc. These thoughts paralyze the creative writer.

But I think that if we write honestly, sincerely, emotionally, then we begin to approach the larger “truths” of the human condition, which is what literature is all about in the first place.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blackberries and Airport WiFi Are NOT the Problem

Blackberries and laptops at the airport don’t really bother me as much as those people you see carrying briefcases. I mean, come on! Who are they trying to impress? Do you expect me to believe that you’re carrying around briefs in that thing? We all know you’ve got your lunch in there, and maybe this morning’s newspaper. Don’t try to be all hoity-toidy because you have a job.

And then, have you seen the people on bicycles carrying around “courier” bags? Just who do they think they are? They want us to believe that someone is paying them to carry stuff from one place to another. And so I’m supposed to worship you or something? Boy, what nerve!

And have you seen these guys walking around in neckties? Do you know the origin of the necktie? The French invented it. The FRENCH! They call it a cravat (which I’m sure is what all these guys wearing them on the Metro call it, probably saying over and over to themselves “look at me! I’m wearing a cravat! Look at me!”). Do you think that French neck wear makes you better than me? Huh? Do you?

And then, then, there are these people walking around my neighborhood carrying plastic bags full of food! The bags say such things as “Safeway” or “Thank You!” and they're carrying them in such a way as to be sure that everyone can read the “brand.” The ultimate in conspicuous consumption! They probably have stuff like milk and bananas in there.

At my job, there are these people who show off by using a pen to write on paper. I’m sure you’ve seen this at your office, too. They'll site in a meeting taking notes. With a pen! What’s up with them? What do they have to prove? Ooh, look at me! I’m so important because I use a pen! They probably learned to sign their names simply to demonstrate how much above the rest of us they are.

And what about shoes. If there’s a more egregious way of putting on airs than wearing shoes, I’d like to know about it! You know the people I’m talking about: they wear them inside as well as out side, at the office, on the Metro, while driving. No calluses on those feet! Let me tell you something, you can’t take those shoes with you, you know!

So as you can see, there are so many more pretensions that one can complain about than those cute little electronic devices.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Jasper Johns at NGA: Smashing Paintings Over Students Heads

The use of the word “inexplicable” in relation to Jasper Johns’ work is a waste of 12 perfectly good letters. Or so I thought, because I didn’t understand Jasper Johns’ work. I recently learned a few things at the Jasper Johns show at the National Gallery of Art. For instance, his early work was “intensely personal, gestural painting of the abstract expressionists.”

Now, that makes sense. His painting about naming colors is obviously intensely personal. Apparently, he was trying to remember the names of the colors he was using, but was having quite a bit of trouble. He kept making silly errors like using red when he wanted to use white. To make matters worse, the students in his atelier were snickering behind his back. To calm his frustration, he went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. There, he spilled coffee on his tie, and also realized that he had forgotten to put up the macaroni from the night before and it was ruined. His frustration grew into anger, and, looking to lash out at anything he could find close at hand, as was his want, he found that he had broken most of the crockery a few days before after a syrup stain sent him spiraling out of control (which led to his painting this). He returned to the atelier in a dark mood, only to find that his students, in the classic tradition of student pranks, had written in big block letters, directly on his canvas, the names of the colors he was supposed to use. This sent him into one of his famous blind rages, knocking over paint cans and smashing canvases over his student’s heads.

Not all of his art was done in the spirit of blind rages. Some of it was done in the coldly calculated manner of, say, an axe murderer. For instance, his target has an obvious message: he killed and beheaded four people (possibly students) and mounted their heads on pikes, and he’ll target you next, buddy, so watch out!

In 1962, somehow he became trapped in his atelier, and desperately tried to escape through a canvas, as this painting attests. I have my suspicions that it may have been his students (the same ones who had canvases smashed over their heads, although not the same ones whose heads were incorporated into his work, for obvious reasons) who barricaded him in a corner, perhaps in an attempt to escape yet another of his blind rages.

Referring, I believe, to this painting, Johns once commented that “a painting should be looked at the same way we look at a radiator.” The last time I looked at my radiator, hot greenish-yellow liquid was exploding out of it, stranding me on the side of the highway. This sent me into a blind rage, much the same feeling I get while viewing his paintings, further proof of Johns’ incredible genius!

It’s a hackneyed phrase: “I could have painted that,” with a hackneyed response: “but the difference is, you didn’t.” Jasper Johns is the truth behind this quip. Although, it should probably be modified to this: “but the difference is, you don’t experience enough breakfast-mishap-induced blind rages to be an artistic genius.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Were they the Van Buren Boys?

One thing that makes DC wonderful in the winter are the mounds of rock-hard ice in every legal parking space in the city. This weekend, I got the car stuck thrice as I was trying to parallel park. Once, on the downhill part of 18th Street near Florida. What a terrifying experience that was. I pulled in behind another car, and when I went to back up to straighten it out, I found the car going forward, down hill into the other car, instead of back. The more I spun the tire*, the closer I came to the other car.

I reviewed my options. I could wait until the spring thaw. I could wait until the car in front of us left, or, better yet, I could push the car in front of us into the empty space in front if it, maneuvering out of the space as I went. The other option was to enlist the friends we were with to wedge themselves between the front bumper of our car and the back bumper of the other car and push. This, off course, ran the risk of pinning them between the two, surely thinning our social circle from angry outrage as much as from debilitating injuring. After some negotiations, in which it was decided that we all would push (including me) from the side, we finally managed to move the car up hill about 2 feet. It took 15 minutes. (For you math fans, that’s .00009469695 mph.) I then proceeded to get it stuck again a few spaces further down 18th. But we decided to un-stick it, with much the same process, after dinner.

Then, last evening I got the car stuck once again on top of a huge mound of ice as I tried to parallel park. Half way in the space and half way out, I couldn’t move it anywhere. So, once again, I found myself pushing the car with my wife at the wheel. As I was cursing the city and the snow and Michelin and whoever made my shoes, four strangers walking down the street quietly helped. In about 3 seconds the car was free! I don’t know who they were (although they reminded me of the Van Buren Boys from Seinfeld), but it reaffirmed my faith in humanity and this city. Thanks Van Buren boys, where ever you are!

* Growing up as a boy in Western PA, I learned about things like limited slip differentials. (I think it’s on the Pittsburgh Manhood Test we all took in 9th grade.) Our car does not have this, which means that the wheel sitting on the most slippery ice is the one that will spin and spin and spin (and throw snow all over you as you try to push), while the other tire remains still. Cussing was invented soon after the limited slip differential.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

DC’s Very Own Pasquino

Residents of DC: did you ever try calling a Senator’s office, or a real representative’s office, and been told they can’t talk to you because you are not a constituent? I’ve hit upon a solution: our very own Pasquino!

In Rome, near Piazza Navona, stands a little beat up statue dubbed Pasquino. From the 16th century on, anonymous commoners would post satirical poems and diatribes on Pasquino (pasquinades) aimed at the Pope and the nobility. (As you can see from the picture, the tradition continues.) The postings were always attributed to the statue itself, and Pasquino became known as a talking statue. I’ve been thinking that DC needs its own talking statue, who would speak for the citizens of the city to the dysfunctional city government and to a Congress where we have no voice. If we can’t have voting rights, at least we can make satirical personal attacks!

I thought I’d try it out first in Coladams Circle so that the neighborhood denizens could air their grievances in an anonymous forum. However, I quickly learned that the limited population of Coladams Circle (exactly 2) made anonymous posts next to impossible, and it quickly devolved into childish name-calling. I gave up the idea.

Now I’m searching for a DC-wide Pasquino. It should be a statue of some stature, in a prominent public place where public officials and commoners alike often pass. The right “talking statue” could carry some weight in DC’s public discourse; who would NOT listen to the great figures of history? So far, here are the top contenders:

Albert Einstein, 23rd and Constitution, NW

Pro: He’s really, really smart.
Con: That doesn’t carry as much weight in politics as one might think.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Conn. Ave and M St. NW

Pro: Giant Figure in American Literature
Con: American Literature matters less in America than anywhere else in the world (including France)

Maine Lobster Man on the Southwest Waterfront

Pro: A common man with Yankee common sense.
Con: Members of Congress are terrified to leave the Capitol grounds and would never venture into SOUTHWEST!

Gandhi, Mass Ave. and 21st NW

Pro: People should listen to a non-violent idealist.
Con: People won’t listen to a non-violent idealist.

Sailor, 7th and Pennsylvania NW

Pro: I bet this guy’s got a LOT to say.
Con: Present administration doesn’t really seem to care.

Ethan Allen, U.S. Capitol Building

Pro: He carries a sword.
Con: He also hawks furniture.

I think good old Ethan Allen, due to his preferable situation inside the Capitol building, offers the most promise. I can see it now: Eleanor Holmes Norton’s staffers could sneak into the Capitol early each morning and post pasquinades received from constituents on the statue, where other members of congress would be forced to confront them!

That’s, of course, assuming the other members can read.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Napping Fights Heart Disease

In some of the best news ever reported, the Washington Post ran an article about the health benefits of napping. A recent study found that “those who napped at least three times weekly for about half an hour had a 37 percent lower risk of dying from heart attacks or other heart problems than those who did not nap.” Napping, it seems, especially in the middle of the day while at work, reduces stress. Of course, the draw backs of napping at work include getting fired, which raises ones stress level considerably. For some reason, the healthy effects of napping were seen most clearly in men. I have empirical evidence to back this up: most of the snoring in my office comes from men, although it’s hard to tell which men. Snorers are like crickets; when you try to pinpoint where the sound is coming from, it suddenly ceases, only to start up again somewhere else deceptively close by.

(On a side note, the article also includes what is perhaps the single greatest sentence ever written in modern journalism: “It's likely that women reap similar benefits from napping, but not enough of them died during the study to be sure…”)

The test subjects were in Greece where, apparently, napping at work is an acceptable, almost expected part of the conditions of employment. Kind of like federal employment. Although here in DC, unless you are really old and a GS-15, napping is not totally acceptable. Yet. So I’m happy to see the work-place nap getting the attention it finally deserves. I’ve made a rather in-depth and personal study of the matter. I have much more research to do, but so far, I’ve found many benefits to napping, such as missing annoying phone calls, ignoring emails, and being able to stay up and watch David Letterman without nodding off. Napping also builds certain necessary bureaucratic survival skills, such as “excuse making,” (pretending your praying, saying your doctor told you to avoid eye strain) and extra sensory perception (being able to know when your boss is approaching your cube even when immersed in full REM sleep).

We still have a way to go in this country before one can snore loudly in one’s cubicle without embarrassment. But this study is a step in the right direction. I see a day some time soon when federal buildings all across the land with have “rest facilities” with low lighting, fluffy pillows, and (hopefully) fooz-ball tables. Until then, I will continue my research, ever pushing the edge of the envelope (which usually ends up stuck to my forehead.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Rhode Island Place: A Lost Opportunity

With the various home renovation projects I’ve done over the past few years, I make the trip to DC’s Home Depot quite often. And every time I’m there, I wonder about the thought process of the people who approved that whole mess. The piece of land now occupied by the shopping center is some of the best situated real estate in the city: high up, with great views of the Capitol dome, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and most of the city, it is served by Metro’s Rhode Island Avenue station, and it sits just outside of the downtown area.

Why, oh why would anyone have approved the ghastly suburban low density sprawl development that is Rhode Island Place?

By building a strip mall right in the heart of DC, we miss out on the kind of great urban development that could have happened there, that could have benefited DC with more tax revenue, and could have been done in such a way as to benefit the residents of Ward 5. Instead, we have acres and acres of underutilized land, stores, such as Home Depot, that ruin small, locally owned businesses and suck the profits right out of DC, and a suburban-modeled parking lagoon that creates traffic problems and ensures that few will ever walk there.

I suppose Vincent Orange, who, as a council member, wanted to bring economic development to his ward. (He also threw his support behind the dubious New Town development at the Capitol City Market.) But development like Rhode Island Place is actually counterproductive. (For a good discussion of all this development, check out this post on Rebuilding Place in the Ubran Space.)

The only pro I see to the development is the sales tax revenue from Home Depot that would otherwise have gone to Maryland or Virginia. But other than that, the whole development does more harm than good. The amount of wasted land up there is incredible. The city could have created a walkable, mixed use neighborhood, centered around a business district that could have supplied all the same amenities: a Giant like the one in Columbia Heights, locally owned small businesses, even chain stores, along with an urban Home Depot, if we must. They could have created community amenities as well, such as a well-situated park that takes advantage of the great views, a recreation center, a job training center. Perhaps, with such a clean slate of land and great metro and street access, someone (the city? The business community?) could have thought outside the box and created some sort of small business incubator, with affordable office space, like has been done in other cities. And, of course, a mix of market-rate and affordable housing. Instead, we got a strip mall.

The idea of economic development is to help pull people out of poverty, but low paying retail jobs do not pull people out of poverty. Empowering people to start businesses and to get job training will, in the long run, help those most in need. I only hope that Fenty will do something like this and not be wooed by all the rich and powerful developers who feed on tax breaks and special deals at the public real estate trough.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

No, excuse me!

Walking home last night along New Hampshire Avenue, in the freezing cold, my head hunkered down between my shoulders, I had to stop short somewhere around S Street as I came face to face with a gentleman who had suddenly turned around. He said “excuse me,” not quite in a “get away from my car you bastard!” way, but definitely not in a “I’m so sorry” way, either. I got the impression that he was somehow upset with me.

I answered with my own surprised “excuse me” and moved past him and his friend. As I did so, he commented “I thought I heard someone walking up behind me.” And by God, I reckon he had!

New Hampshire Avenue at 9 pm on any night is quite a well-lit and busy street. People walking dogs. People walking home. People going out to bars. Taxi cabs, bicyclists, police cars, garbage trucks. So why was this guy surprised that someone was walking behind him? He was walking behind someone else! Perhaps he just moved here from some terrible place where people don’t walk anywhere, like Fairfax, and was a bit over-stimulated. Or perhaps he needs to move back to some terrible place where people don’t walk anywhere. Like Fairfax. I was baffled.

I cogitated about this for a while, and I realized that it must have been my Wonkette-christened “dipshit galoshes” that I was wearing. Apparently, they give me super-human sneaky powers, allowing me to “walk up behind” people without them being aware until the very last second. I’m not sure how to harness this power yet, but I assure you, I will only use it for good and not for evil. And maybe for practical jokes.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

I plagiarize the old-fashioned way!

I just found out that one of the wittiest things I’ve ever said I actually stole from Robert Benchley. I make no claims that it’s the wittiest thing anyone has ever said, or even the wittiest thing that Benchley ever said, just that it’s probably the wittiest thing I’ve ever said.

A few of us were sitting around one evening, talking politics and semiotics and what-not, over a few bottles of something, and someone made a comment about the two kinds of people there are in the world. I don’t remember now who those two kinds of people were, perhaps “good” and “bad”, or “smart” and “dumb”, but most likely, knowing these half-drunken conversations as I do, it was something like “those who know what it’s like to work for a living” and “those who have just knocked over the water pitcher.”

Seeing how far the discussion had sunk, I slowly and deliberately made the pronouncement: “The way I see it, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.” My comment killed. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Just yesterday, I found out that I had stolen my pronouncement from Benchley without even so much as a footnote! I don’t ever remember reading it before. At the time, I thought I had created it out of whole cloth. Which leads me to wonder, how many other of my pronouncements, witty or otherwise, have I pilfered?

For instance, what if it turns out that last Christmas dinner, when I blurted out “God bless us, every one!” at the end of the blessing (which induced gales of familial laughter, even though I was trying to be profound), I was repeating something I might have heard or read somewhere else? What if, when my membership in Skull and Bones was rejected and I sent them a note simply, but haughtily, stating “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member, anyway!”, that I was actually committing some sort of plagiarism, or at the very least, baring my uncreative soul?

If this were true, it would mean that the wittiest thing I’ve ever come up with would be: “nanny-nanny goo-goo, I got you-you.” And God help me if the provenance of that pithy saying is called into question!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows

Over the winter, one of my favorite pastimes is yelling at television “meteorologists.” These people add a certain entertainment element to my life that I’d miss if I moved somewhere like San Diego where the weather is always perfect. I’m not blaming them for the cold weather, mind you, although I can’t think of anyone else who is more responsible for it. What I’m trying to do is hold them to a higher standard. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned from experience (and as my wife so frequently points out), they can’t hear me.

This morning, it was 11 degrees in DC. As I was making my coffee, I heard someone on NBC 4 make the observation that “if there is any water on any surface outside, it will be frozen.” Of course, this is the same person that they always pick to stand outside in front of a bank thermometer in the pre-dawn hours to report on just how cold it is, the same person who never wears a hat and gets the riveting footage of pedestrians walking down the street and stops motorists who invariably comment “it’s cold!” I believe they let her write her own copy.

Cutting back to the news rooms, Joe Krebs goes over a list of things you should do to keep warm: wear a coat. Wear a hat. Wear gloves. This bears no comments from me at all, except to ask, who, exactly, does Joe think watches NBC 4? Perhaps I need to change the station. I don’t think I’m a good fit.

Then there are the “average temperature” shenanigans. Two weeks ago with temperatures in the 50s, we were told over and over how our temperatures were “above average.” Now, with highs hovering around 20 degrees, we’re told they are now “below average.” The problem is (and this is a mathematical problem, so I apologize; I find using my toes helps quite a bit) that an “average temperature” is calculated (I assume) by adding up the high temperature from, say, all the February 6ths for the past 75 years, and then dividing that number by 75. Seems pretty scientific, doesn’t it? The only problem is, it may never be, and may never have been, the temperature that the resulting “average” turns out to be. In fact, there’s a good chance that there were more February 6ths when the temperature was wildly NOT the average temperature than February 6ths that it actually WAS the average temperature, rendering the idea of an “average temperature” meaningless. What good is it anyway? I don’t base any decision on how I’m going to dress or what activities I’m going engage in based on a historical “average” temperature. I’d look awfully silly most of the time if I did. (I mean, awfully sillier than I currently look most of the time.)

I’m not one of those people from a northern clime that guffaws at this region’s neurotic response to winter. (In fact, I make it a rule not to guffaw at anything. It distorts one’s features in such an undignified way.) People come from all over to live in this city. There’s no reason that someone born and raised in Florida should know how to drive in snow, just as there is no reason for someone born and raised in Pittsburgh should know how to, ah, drive in, ah, nice weather -- Okay, so people from the north are simply better drivers. But I refuse to guffaw. Anyway, we are obsessed with weather, and thank god we are. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have it to blog about!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

How to Shop for Hardware

I used to be embarrassed when I went into a hardware store, like some people are embarrassed when going into an adult book store. As strange, and perhaps sick, even twisted, as that sounds, it’s true. Let me explain.

Before I started doing lots of work on my house, I’d go into a hardware store looking to buy, say, a valve stem for a faucet. The only problem was, I didn’t know it was called a valve stem. Or a faucet. I figured I could find it hanging on a hook somewhere in the store, if I just searched long enough. I tried to avoid the staff as long as possible, those intimidated apron-wearing know-it-alls of my nightmares, but eventually, they would corner me, say, in the broom, massive rat trap, and tea-towel aisle, and ask if I needed help. Suddenly, I found myself using rudimentary gestures and sound effects to communicate what I was looking for. I’d start with a pantomime of turning a “sink handle thingy” and before I knew it I heard the sound “swwwwwshhhh” issuing forth from my mouth. The ensuing laughter and calling over of coworkers were enough to force me to leave in shame, my face red and my manhood impugned.

So when I discovered Home Depot and Lowes, I was thrilled! Here were these gigantic buildings where no one ever, for any reason, approached me to ask if I needed help, and even if they did, they would be just as ignorant about everything hardware-related as I was! It was like paradise! I could stagger around the store for hours, without fear of harassment, ogling a full range of hardware-type objects, without any chance of anyone making me feel the slightest bit embarrassed for my lack of knowledge.

But, as they say, “necessity breeds contempt” (or “familiarity is the mother of invention”, or some damn thing), and so, as I became more proficient with the recognition and proper naming of hardware-related items (although no more adept at their manipulation and installation), I became more and more frustrated with my formerly-idyllic big box “home center” experience. For I seemed to spend hours at these places, most of which were spent looking for my cart. (And by my cart, I mean the one that was just sitting right there, with drain opener and a sixteen foot length of shoe mold on it, that someone invariably stole! When I finally find the miscreant (often in the “tool corral” eating hardtack with the “toolboys”), I walk boldly up to the thief and say “sir” (or “madam”, or “thou” if it’s hard to tell), “I’ll ask you just once to kindly return to me what is rightly mine, the property you have so unashamedly purloined in the Building Material aisle. If you choose not to comply, I can not answer for what harm might befall you!”)

(I don’t actually say this. It took me quite a while to think it up.* I usually just snatch the cart when the person isn’t looking and run like hell, tossing away their items in random places around the store as I go.)

And so I have retreated to the places of my former embarrassments: Frager’s Hardware on Capitol Hill or the True Value Hardware on 17th, where I’ve learned not to be ashamed of my ignorance. Maybe I don’t know the difference between amps and BTUs, and maybe the mere mention of a “P-trap” makes me giggle, but I bet the hardware store people don’t know the first thing about the Hanseatic League! Not that I do, either, but it sure makes me feel better.

(*With my apologies to Robert Benchley and the Benchley family.)