Monday, November 30, 2009


My work these days takes me to George Washington University several days a week. (I ride Metro to get there, and I nominate for the Annual Puerility Award the train conductor who gets such glee out of announcing, "Train now arriving at... Foggy... Bottom!")

A few days ago, it was raining quite hard. I stood out in front of an administration building, under an awning, keeping out of the tempest, waiting for a colleague. A rather large group of people was waiting in the lobby -- East Asian businessfolk, perhaps Japanese. They milled around, waiting for something. (It turned out later that they were waiting for an escort to another building.)

A middle-aged gent stepped outside -- black wool suit, glasses, hatless. Leaning over a flowerbed and closing a nostril with his thumb, he blew a gigantic snot-rocket into the foliage. A couple of monstrous honks satisfied him that his projectile had indeed cleared his sinuses, and he turned and went back into the lobby. Slightly embarrassed, I turned away as if I hadn't seen anything.

A few minutes later a second gent came outside, and occupied the same spot where his colleague had stood. I am quite sure he hadn't seen the earlier cannonade. He regarded the flowerbed with interest -- clearly, the impatiens, bedewed with the steady rain and his countryman's mucosal ejecta, had evoked thoughts of the evanescence of existence and the fleeting nature of life. Out came the camera, and he started snapping away at the flowerbed -- aiming it directly at the spot where the phlegm-fusillade had struck not three minutes earlier.

I turned away again, but this time to hide the contented smile that comes to one's face when one's day is made.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Now Joining 21st Century...

First post from my snazzy new Droid!

Gonna be real short, 'cos this keyboard is gonna take some getting used.

But hey! Lookit me! Smartphone!

(Getting some insight into that 140-character limit at Twitter. Also. Too.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Picking Up the Thread

We're all born trying to pick up the thread.

That is to say, an unimaginably enormous series of events happened before each of us was born, events that shape the moment in history we happen to inhabit at the moment of our birth. It's our job, if we choose to accept it, to figure out the plot, to understand, to the best of our ability, the whys and wherefores of the little slice of history we inhabit and why people act and think as they do. Some of us, I think, do a better job of it than others -- which fact, I believe, explains a great deal about why we are in the place we're in.

I was born in 1960. President Kennedy was assassinated on my third birthday -- one of my earliest concrete memories. My parents, literate, urbane folks, had newspapers and magazines around the house as a matter of course, and I can remember looking at the pictures even when I couldn't read. When I did acquire some rudimentary literacy (about 1965, if memory serves), there was much that I didn't comprehend because I had yet to pick up the thread. I had no way of understanding that the moment in history I was occupying was a rather hideously anomalous time. I believe I formed the impression that student uprisings, permanent war in Southeast Asia, presidential assassinations, race riots and general ideological civil war were normal things, had always been with us, and would forever be.

I don't believe that this was an unreasonable conclusion to arrive at. Of course, looking back, Oswald's rifle shots were a sort of starting gun that set off a race to utter madness that really hasn't ended yet. The madness waxes and wanes depending on the decade, but its root causes stay with us. I cherish the thought that the election to the presidency of a calm, educated, urbane mixed-race gentleman of centrist tendencies might be the beginning of the end of the Sixties madness that still roils, and in my most optimistic moments I see signs that this might be so. However, there's still plenty of crazy out there, and new, post-election Sarah Palin bumperstickers appear on too many cars for me to take much comfort in the idea.

There were jokes back then that I just didn't get, too, jokes that had their roots in issues that arose before I began my own efforts to pick up the thread. What were these references to Pat Nixon's "Republican cloth coat" supposed to mean? Why did people constantly refer to "the New Nixon" and "you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more" while laughing up their sleeves?

And why did my parents harbor such a special loathing for the man? To me, an innocent child with implicit trust in grownups of every political stripe, he seemed pretty normal. He didn't particularly exude evil to an eight-year-old, my age when he was inaugurated. By now, of course, I have come to understand why so many detested him -- but only long after Watergate exposed the depth of his repulsiveness -- but it was an effort that took decades.

Now comes Rick Perlstein's magnificent Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of a Nation, a history-cum-biography of Nixon's life through the 1972 election.

Boy, oh boy, does this book pick up some threads! Of course I remember very nearly all of the events of Nixon's administration, but many things that mystified me at the time are elucidated and, above all, given context that I, not yet having picked up the thread, could not have understood at the time.

I did not know, for example, the circumstances of Nixon's childhood, which knowledge might have hinted to me about the resentment seething in him that would lead him to a political philosophy that would exploit the same resentment in others. I didn't know that at Whittier College, like most schools a place where elites (jocks, rich kids, at Whittier known as "Franklins") look down with contempt at the non-elites (nerds, strivers, geeks), Nixon organized a fraternity of non-elites called the Orthogonians to give the non-elites a home. Perlstein deploys this duality throughout the story -- liberals and intellectuals as Franklins, the "Silent Majority" as Orthogonians -- as Nixon dives deeper and deeper into the bitterness and paranoia that would eventually lose him the presidency he spent his entire adult life pursuing.

You can see we're still living with those polarities, right? The explosion of indignation over Obama's "guns and religion" gaffe during the '08 election? The toxicity of the word "elite"? The audience at which yack radio is aimed, versus, say, the core PBS audience?

Thanks, Tricky Dick! Thanks a whole bunch!

One of the most useful graphic devices I've ever seen was a timeline in the back of Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, his masterly survey of the Beatles and their music. It is a timeline that shows the Fabs' career month by month, while showing contemporaneous events in the arts and politics. It was through this tool, for instance, that I learned that within ten days of the release of the White Album, Elvis Presley had his Comeback Special on TV. Two and a half weeks earlier, Nixon had defeated Humphrey and Wallace.

This kind of context really helps. And Nixonland provides it in spades. The reader, picking up the thread, begins to understand how John Lennon, reading his newspaper day after day, would have been inspired in the summer of 1968, to write "Revolution," and how Joe Sixpack in Poughkeepsie might conclude that the world has gone mad and pull the lever for Nixon. Look at this sequence of events, culled from Wikipedia, from the late spring and early summer of 1968. In January, the Prague Spring began (to be crushed six months later by Soviet tanks), the battle of Khe Sanh was fought and the Tet Offensive had begun:



Between April 4 and June 8 was 65 days. For purposes of comparison, 65 days ago from this writing was September 17. A glimpse at newspaper archives shows that 65 days ago we were taking umbrage at the stupid ACORN video and hating on "czars." This headline appeared in the Chicago Tribune: "Obama: Don't rush call on Afghan troop levels." So yeah, imagine opening your paper in the summer of '68 during those 65 days between the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations. An exercise in horror. Much, much more would follow: the disastrous Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Tlatelolco Massacre, the Cultural Revolution in China, and, of course, Nixon's election.

Workadaddy Sixpack would have noticed that all those punk kids tearing up Columbia University were, well, very unlikely themselves to ever become Workadaddy Sixpacks. The sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers -- Franklins, in Perlstein's terms -- were ripping up one of the nation's most prestigious universities for what seemed to him -- Orthogonian to the core -- utterly frivolous reasons. This would be the resentment exploited by Nixon in the election, and really by every right-wing politician since then. (Sarah Palin, anyone?)

You owe yourself this book -- especially if, like me, you're still picking up the thread of a mystifying childhood.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Frightfully Rude of Me...

I would be unforgivably remiss if I failed to thank the folks who emailed me during the last few months, enquiring with concern about my whereabouts.

I'm sorry I didn't answer all of you, but that's how badly in the dumps I was.

But enough of that! Since we're all about the slashes today, I do have to admit I larffed quite a bit when I read a few weeks ago that Tim Berners-Lee admitted in an interview that the two slashes in the "http://" formulation in Web URLs do nothing -- nothing! -- but waste electrons.

It's like suddenly discovering the World Wide Web's vermiform appendix or something.

A Few Observations While Waiting for the Electrician (Or Someone Like Him)

As a great man once said (I forget who), it's really great to be on vacation.

But it really blows to be on vacation for six months.

As days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, and savings get burnt away until it occurs to him that he owns three guitars that could be pawned, a fella has, it seems, a tendency to mumble into silence.

You run out of things to say. Nothing coming in, ergo nothing going out. Passivity. Watching the room get light, and then watching it get dark.

Six months like that. Avoid it if you can. My heart goes out to you if you can't.

At any rate, that's over now for the foreseeable future. I've landed (finally) on my feet, working on a very large and exciting project for a thoroughly benign client -- started last week. The commute has been a bitch -- two and a half, even three hours in soul-deadening traffic -- but now I've discovered the Brunswick line of the MARC train. It's still two hours door-to-door, but two much more relaxed hours.

Clouds are lifting, 's what I'm saying, and I begin to feel the old élan vitale bubbling up in the bits. Hell, I'm talking to my blog again. That's significant.

The iPod has kept me sane during that bitchly commute -- audiobooks, podcasts, what have you. Which brings up a point that has been nagging at me for some time. I fear a perfectly good and useful English word has been done dreadful injury, and it is up to me to patch up its wounds, apply cooling cloths to its forehead, and coo endearments to it while it heals.

The offense, which I'm hearing more and more, particularly in podcasts and radio shows that promote Web content, is this:


Folks, you do have a backslash key on your keyboard. There it sits on my keyboard under the "Delete" key (oh, if only!), an ugly reminder of the horrible old MS-DOS command-line interface. Its uppercase sibling -- the pipe character -- is nowadays chiefly seen by non-code-jockeys separating items in a horizontal list of hyperlinks.

There is no such thing as a forward-slash. There does exist and has existed for centuries a slash -- also known as a stroke, a virgule, a diagonal, a solidus, a right-leaning stroke, an oblique dash, a slant, a separatrix, a scratch comma, a slaok, a slak, or (my new favorite) a whack.

The thing that cranks my Model T about forward-slash is that it grants equal status to the backslash, a loathsome pustule of a glyph that is found nowhere in nature except in computer code. If there's a backslash, the thinking seems to go, why, its opposite must be a forward-slash. Better call it that, or folks might get confused. Feh. Ptui!

BBC, PBS, Times Online (yay, The Bugle!), all of you clowns: Knock it off. It does you no credit.