Saturday, November 29, 2008

Dog-Walking As Metaphor

We have an extra dog this week. The Pug, Princess Wiggle-butt (not her real name) is in the house. This makes the evening patrol a little slapstick. Jonah reconnoiters the neighborhood to assert his sovereignty. Like a well-organized leader, he marches with military precision and chooses his targets judiciously. Semper fi!

The happy little Miss wants to sniff every blade of grass, every tree, every everything, on both sides of the sidewalk, not in consecutive order but with joyous abandon.

We choreograph the leashes (under and over, do si do) so it’s no problem. But I found myself in the position of wanting to explain to Her Pugness that you can’t sniff it all. No, I didn’t try to reason with a dog, but it did start me thinking.

I’ll never sit sesshin with a zen master in a Japanese monastery. Nor am I likely to ride the Trans-Siberian railroad (nod to Steve Hely, wherever you are.) I have no desire to see Katmandu, or the Forbidden City, or even the Taj Mahal. My father was a committed traveler, who had his passport stamped with pride of conquest. If the only Paris I ever see again is on the Las Vegas Strip, I’ll still be happy.

There’s a Sufi story I don’t remember, but the point is that when you travel, you take yourself with you and that’s what you find there. Like the dogs peeing on the same trees night after night, I happily return to Las Vegas to relax in the casino and luxuriate in the restaurants when I feel the need to be Elsewhere. We’ll be there in the foreseeable future. The dogs can only hit so many trees, and we can only eat so many meals. Like them, we have to choose judiciously. Dog-walking truly is a metaphor, but then, so is Las Vegas--- another metaphor, for another post.

By the way, the nicest Ladies’ Room in Vegas is in the Venetian. I have a photograph if you ever want to see it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It Takes All Kinds

Last week, I happened to phone my nameless faceless national financial institution with a question about my statement. Don’t ask me how or why, but I had a conversation about chickens with the nice lady who took my call. Not eating them, but taking the eggs out from under a broody hen (which I’ve done so often in the past that I devised an ingenious method for staying un-pecked—which received tremendous admiration from the nice lady, who hadn’t thought of it before.)

Yesterday, in a shop, I got into another conversation which started out about a clock and ended up about the 12 cats and four dogs for whom the saleswoman was about to cook Thanksgiving dinner, of which only two cats and one dog were hers.

Does this happen to you?

I was going to write about personalities, about the angry French man who jabbers away in French at the gym. (A French-Canadian friend told me that the man does nothing but bag on women.) There’s a Russian lady there whose eyebrows go up and meet in the middle, making an upside down V, when she asks, “How are you?” with tragic sympathy--- though I’m always cheerful around her as a matter of policy. A genial Thai man makes corny jokes that are indecipherable because of his accent, though the good-naturedness comes right through so I know to smile and chuckle no matter what I think he’s saying.

Personalities are only part of the equation. We all live inside the solitude of our minds, some of us are more okay with this than others. This blog, in itself, is an act of outreach. You stalwart few who read it often see what I’m thinking, what I should by all the laws of politeness keep inside my skull but I don’t. Instead, I smear it over my bit of cyberspace for us to talk about when we meet, or speak, or just email. At least, unlike the financial lady, I don’t go on about chicken plucking. Yuck.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Frick: “ik ga er ook af welterusten”

Frack: “even berichten kijken nog”

Frick: “doei”

The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but they really said it. Whatever it is. Isn't public chat wonderful?

Monday, November 24, 2008

God Bless Rube Goldberg

Go ahead, say it. Luddite. Technophobe. Jim, I am your “Amish friend”--- which is in itself a Quaker joke but never mind.

After finally making the adjustment to a digital camera, thus admitting to posterity that convenience trumps artistry, and maneuvering the photo center at my local drugstore with a minimum of appalling missteps (beginning with failing to insert the thingy properly and concluding with failing to insert the disc at all) I brought home my brand-new photo disc (a bargain at $2.99) and loaded it onto the computer, only to get stuck again.

Personally, I blame you. Not all of you, just the handful of well-meaning ones who told me how unflattering my profile photo is.

Now I have a disc replete with adorable doggy pix (not just ours, also the Pug Princess, the Duchess and hizzoner Branz) none of which I know how to email to the relevant parties. Every time I try, my computer just laughs mockingly. Or maybe I’m hallucinating that after having clicked on every possible whatsit. Maybe it’s my adorable dog who is laughing. It isn’t me, that’s all I know.

Oh sure, I can (and will) wait for Robert to get home and take care of it, but that belies my honest attempts to navigate the technology myself. So, to posterity, I say, “I told you so!” and from now on I will leave machinery to Rube Goldberg and get on with my day.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Said to me very earnestly, by a woman at my gym,

"I don't read. I'm much too creative a person."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

At the Castle...

Gather round, friends, it’s story time. A foolish but cross my heart true story happened last night at the World Famous Magic Castle™ right here in Hollywood, California.

Yes, I went back. When I tell you that Eugene Burger was there, you’ll understand why. For those of you who haven’t had the sinister pleasure, imagine a fiendishly skilled hybrid of Rasputin and Santa Claus. Nuff said.

The close up room seats about 20 people, so we were all clustered together. There was a pretty blonde selected to sit at Eugene’s table. Now, you have to understand, darling Eugene’s voice can growl from hellish pits that would terrify Hieronymus Bosch. (He is a sweetie, really, and universally adored.) Eugene did a card trick, which had a story about the Spanish Inquisition. Don’t ask, it’s his trick and I’d only mangle it anyhow. The thing is, all he was doing, physically, was folding two cards together then magically turning one inside out while he told a story. If anyone else did it, it could be dull. It was transfixing, because it was Eugene, and the story was so good.

Here’s why you’re reading this; when Eugene got to the part of the story about torture, when he actually folded the cards in half, the pretty girl gasped in horror. Loudly, and involuntarily. When one card magically twisted in his hands, the girl gave a little yelp of genuine fear. When Eugene, playing Torquemada, tore the cards in two, she almost screamed. So much so that her friend in the back called out, “She’s vegan, she can’t hurt anything!”

That’s magic for you. I’m a vegetarian too, but I can tear paper.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Today I made Max Maven laugh, thus proving that life can indeed be sweet.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Kant do it

Once upon a time, back at the University when-and-where I was a Philosophy major, life was at once more sophisticated and more simple. Simple because everything in life reduced to manageable ideas, based on where in the cycle from ardent to disaffected I happened to be at the time. ‘Sophisticated’ literally because of the sophistry inherent in the process.

Of course the logical progression (heh, concept pun, I’m actually chortling at that one, what a nerd) goes from epistemology to rationalism to zen.

Epistemology first, what is knowledge? That’s easily written off as what can be known, what is fundamental to us as thinking beings. From there we go to rationalism, reason, logic. Then the inevitable backlash— transcendence and dismissal of reason in favor of … what? Intuition, the inescapable and ineffable moment. Being alive, being happy, just Being.

Of course, just Being makes the idea of Meaning, meaningless. Hell, that’s arguably the whole purpose of zen. And we can’t have that, no we can’t.

Nuh huh, no way.

Why not? Because we care. Because stuff matters. Because when bad things happen (California is burning as I write this, and I worry for my loved ones in the path of destruction, enough to break the ‘no topicality’ rule I set myself when I started this blog) we react. And we don’t react in an ineffably intuitive way. We plotz. Plotzing is neither rational nor zen.

To paraphrase my favorite rationalist David Hume, from “A Treatise of Human Nature”, no matter how intellectually evolved we are, we still get bitch-slapped by Life. To which I can only add, the trick is to get back up and be happy again as soon as you can.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why Do You Care?

From thinking about what makes us care about a story, I wandered further, into what makes us care about anything.

The negatives are easy, from Injustice (anything from Prop 8 to bad tippers) to Tragedy (pick a fatal disease, any fatal disease), obviously we’re going to care about that.

The positives are more difficult. Why do we like what we do? I don’t even know why I like the food I do. None of it is a holdover from childhood, except maybe those sugar cookies with the colored sprinkles, the round sprinkles, not the oblong ones eeuw. Since I rarely ate vegetables or anything I eat now, I can’t use either nostalgia or tradition to justify my preferences.

Tastes change. I won’t say “evolve” because I’m not sure it’s an improvement. But we do care, about a lot of things, or else we’d be dead inside, and we’re not.

So why do we care about the things we choose? How would you even approach an answer to that?

I tried looking at what I care about, what I like, as if I could find a visible pattern. Hey, it was a start.

What do you care about? What things, what causes, what stories, what music? (People with children, please recuse yourselves or focus elsewhere, that’s too easy. Likewise anyone who has successfully loaded Lich King, if you don’t know what that is, be grateful)

You’re an eclectic bunch, whose collective answers would probably charm a statistician, if we all answered honestly and thoroughly--- which we won’t. Never mind. We care because that’s who we are. And I’m the one who coined the phrase “Why doesn’t matter” so I guess I should listen to myself and go back to Pogo where I belong. Thanks for playing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What Makes A Story Good?

Don’t look at me. I like crap. And I am capable of reading something really, really good (which I just did, Busiek’s “Secret Identity”) and still being ambivalent about it.

What makes a story good? If you care. If you care about the characters, if you care what happens next. Two separate things, one of which is necessary. Either one, but it’s rare to find them separate.

Think about a story you like. Nothing epic, tapestry narrative takes on a momentum of its own and the characters are either Joseph Campbell outlines or superficial plot-movers. No, think of something smaller, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Doesn’t have to be fiction, but fiction is easier because it ends. Movies are fine, it can be anything. This isn’t rhetorical. I mean it, think of something.

Now, what do you like about it?

I bet it isn’t the gloriously lyrical descriptive passages, or scenic vistas if it’s a movie. It might be the way the ending comes together so perfectly--- but I doubt it.

My money is on the characters. Ford Prefect. The Dread Pirate Roberts. Nero Wolfe. Kiera the Thief. Eddi McCandry. Chiun. Simon Templar. Perry Mason (from TV, not the boring books). Our lists might overlap, they might not, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that a good story is made up of at least one good character, someone who becomes real to us and makes us care. Otherwise the Happiest of Ever Afters is irrelevant.

Caveat: Discussing this at the gym today, I was given the example of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” in which there is a gloriously descriptive active passage without significant characterization. Show of hands, how many of you thought of Dostoevsky for your example? I sure didn’t.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Excuse me

Courtesy is stupidly easy. When people go through a public door, they could glance behind them to make sure it’s not going to close on someone, but they don’t. (Robert has a theory that more women ignore this than men. Since he said it, I’ve been watching. He may well be right.)

Would it kill people to thank a waiter/ess who’s shlepping their food and refilling their cups? A tip doesn’t cancel out an occasional smile or a monosyllabic “Thanks” now and then. How hard is that?

No one should block the aisle with their shopping cart, nor the intersection if they can’t get through on the light. Don’t get me started on parking lots. Figure out which way the spaces go and go that way. Jeez.

The Internet is a rudeness magnifier, anonymity is psychological Kevlar. I played Bingo last night, not chatting at all, and got chewed out – by name, no less—because someone in the room didn’t like the way I was playing. Yes, in Bingo, of all places. Nowhere is safe.

What a relief that my friends are all outstandingly gracious individuals and good tippers. You make my world a nicer place to live, and I thank you.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


My paternal grandmother called it the Evil Eye. She wasn’t the nicest person around, nor was she particularly happy. Which is just as well, because she believed that if you were too happy, something bad would happen to cancel it out. She died in 1995 and to this day her crypt is marked with nothing more than her name on a piece of tape. No one in the family ever put up an official plaque. I’m as guilty as the rest of them, but I do go and look at it every year or two.

As you all know, I am superstitious as hell. Not because I believe in demons or evil forces, but because I believe in human neurosis and self-fulfilling prophecy. If I fail to touch wood (or hold my breath when passing a cemetery, or cover my mouth when I yawn, etc) then I might subconsciously do something stupid to screw myself up immediately thereafter, because on some level I expect something bad to happen. God forbid.

This leaves me in a strange place. After a lovely Sunday dinner with my mother, I find myself both comfortable and serene. Nothing to rant about, no bilious complaint about bad food or bad service (both were excellent), my ferocious yet adorable dog has recovered from his alimentary distress (knock wood) – it seems my choices are, keep away from the keyboard, or risk the Evil Eye.

I have as much chance of keeping away from the keyboard as I have of rollerblading down Hollywood Blvd in a green tutu. Since I can’t rollerblade, I will just say Happy Birthday to the U.S.M.C., and wish you all as good a day as I had today.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Three Rules

Once upon a time, I crafted three rules that apply to just about any situation. Here they are:

1. It can’t be helped.
2. It’s got to be done.
3. People suck.

Having just spent the morning clearing off a nearly foot-tall pile from my desk (mea culpa, I admit it publicly, I did NOT go to the gym today, go ahead and jeer or cheer as you prefer) an aggregation of old projects, new projects, receipts, photos, business cards, postcards, playing cards, ticket stubs, random notes, bits and pieces and whatnot—I found myself thinking about the Three Rules. You know what? They still work. Try them yourself, you’ll see.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Zinzinbar x 2 = Infinity

“There were some men, sitting around a campfire. The Captain said, ‘Zinzinbar, tell us one of your famous stories!’ So Zinzinbar stood up, and he said that there were some men, sitting around a campfire. The Captain said, ‘Zinzinbar, tell us one of your famous stories!’ So Zinzinbar stood up, and he said…”


“Feeling in need of refreshment, I stepped into a nearby café. There were some men, sitting at the bar. ‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘I have just killed a man.’
‘Killed a man?’ ‘Yes, killed a man.’ ‘What was his name?’ ‘His name was Zinzinbar.’ ‘Zinzinbar?’ ‘Yes, Zinzinbar.’ ‘Z-i-n-z-i-n-b-a-r?’ ‘Yes, Z-i-n-z-i-n-b-a-r.’ ‘Sir, you have killed my brother, we must fight!’ We retired to a field near the outskirts of Paris. I, being the innocent party, fired the first shot. My opponent fell dead. Feeling in need of refreshment, I stepped into a nearby café…”

These stories were told to me when I was a child. Told repeatedly, as well as many times, by my parents’ friend Oscar. Oscar never said where the stories came from, and I never asked. I would practice them until I could get each repetition identical in inflection and emphasis—because I would end up going through four or five cycles with each telling.

Time passed, and I forgot them. Oscar died years ago, and the stories stayed forgotten, though I must have told them at least once, to Robert, because he just asked me about them.

It took a while to jog my memory for the full text of both, I couldn’t remember one line. Before I got it (which I did, eventually), he’d gone online to see what he could find. What he found amazed me. Apparently there are several versions of these stories floating around, although most use the name Zanzibar. And in every reference, the writer claims to having been told the story as a child, without ever knowing the provenance. Just like me. Spooky, no?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Ideas come out of nowhere. Inspiration doesn’t, that generally has a catalyst of some sort, but ideas spring up spontaneously.

The problem, of course, is that wit requires inspiration which requires a catalyst. So I am left with fragments of possible posts, each of which began with an idea but never grew into actual wit. As my friend Cliff would say, it’s half-witty. And while I am comfortable with mediocrity, I refuse to be a half-wit.

So when it was pointed out to me today that I haven’t posted since Sunday, I took a look at those bits and pieces, verbal seedlings that need mental fertilizer to grow into something useful or at least entertaining. For once I find myself insufficiently full of shit, so this is all you get. Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s only temporary.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Reaching The Bowling Point

It happened partway through my daily hour on the treadmill this morning. The TV suspended midair for the distraction of the human hamsters was turned to professional bowling, not uncommon on a Sunday.

You groaned just then, didn’t you? Well, you shouldn’t. Bowling’s really fun to watch. No, really, it is. I’ve gotten hooked over the years, having seen a lot of it on the treadmill. Okay, pretty much the only TV I see by choice is “Iron Chef” but still. Bowling can be impressive, or in this case, agonizing.

Here’s what happened. I noticed that this guy (he looked like Tom Skerritt’s accountant) was 49, and he was throwing off some serious attitude. There’s no sound, just patchy subtitles. They said something about his grandkids, but I couldn’t see what. He was up against a young guy who looked cool. Tubby, arty facial hair, you know, normal. The young guy was knocking out strikes while Gramps kept having to pick up spares, and Gramps was pissed. I was rooting for the kid. One by one, they stopped showing the other competitors, it was down to these two.

The Kid was ahead, and then it happened. Not just a 7-10 split. I’ve seen how they pick those up. No, this was two pins on each end. Impossible shot, and The Kid didn’t make it. Now, The Kid has two pins left and Gramps, who was behind, is out in front. There are two frames left to bowl.

If The Kid makes both strikes, he can win the competition. The next throw is everything. If he misses, it’s over, but he’s been striking like a demon up until now. Suddenly, the screen went black. Then it turned to football. Guys in green and white (with yellow trim) were playing guys in blue and something. Aargh! And don’t tell me it’s only bowling. I don’t want to hear it.