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Monday, January 31, 2005

The Illusion of Power

Thanks to the efforts of an ice storm that ripped through the Southeast this past weekend, we went without electricity for a number of hours, first for an hour or two on Saturday afternoon, then for more like 18 hours from the wee hours of Sunday morning until Sunday evening. The first outage was more of a nuisance than anything else, but the second one was much more significant in its effect on our lives.

How dependent we've become on the drug of electricity! No TiVo. No Internet. No CDs, DVDs, or tapes. No dishwasher. In our case, the stove is electric, as is the water heater. And the heat.

My favorite moment was when my six-year-old son threw himself supine on the floor and exclaimed, "I'm so bored!" I took it on myself to remind him that he had approximately 17,356 toys in his room that were designed to alleviate his ennui. I don't think he completely believed me, but he went off to play with them anyway.

The deep freeze also gave me a chance to become reacquainted with the radio, since we have a battery-powered job for just such occasions. The interesting thing to me was that it was almost no use whatsoever. There were stations playing music, much of it religious, and stations on which one chucklehead or another was talking like he or she knew something about anything. The NPR station had lost its power and had taken to repeating "All Things Considered Weekend" ad nauseum while a workaround was found. The big AM news station told us that a list of closings was available on their website, which we could not access.

And the thought occurred to me that radio needs a huge facelift. It is a fascinating and powerful medium that has sunk into the pitfalls of narrowcasting and pursuing the lowest common denominator. And I think I know how to fix it.

It needs to be more like TV. More and shorter shows devoted to a variety of subjects and formats. Local news shows that are on at dependable times with a news reader, a sports guy, and a weather guy. Drama, comedy, quiz shows, and soap operas. It needs to be vibrant and intelligent, rather than slow and dull-witted.

As it is, it's enough to make you fall supine and exclaim, "I'm bored!"

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Vanishing Boy of Pacific Heights: The Barbershop (Sans Cedric the Entertainer)

On a sunny Saturday in the spring of 1970, I was playing catch with my friend Mark on the sidewalk in front of the house Mark and his family lived in on Clay Street in San Francisco. Mark was two years younger than I was and black, and we had been good friends since I forced my acquaintance on him the previous summer. In the meantime, we had had various adventures, most of them innocent, a couple of them stupid. The stupid things were mostly my idea.

We hadn’t been playing catch long when Mark’s father, Rip, approached us. Mark’s father was a big man—at least by ten-year-old standards—and had a deep and rich baritone voice. He was, at the time, the Executive Director of the NAACP in San Francisco, and was the kind of person who didn’t have to raise his voice to gain your attention or to persuade you that things were going to go his way. Especially if you were, say, ten.

As he approached us, he called out, “Mark. Time for your haircut. Let’s go.” Mark, as I recall, didn’t complain or whine, he just turned to follow his father. And Rip looked down at me. He said, “Len, you can come along too, if you’d like.” Happy to be able to extend my time with my friend, I agreed and followed them to their car.

Mr. R.—believe me, I never even began to call him Rip back then—took us on a bit of a ride. I was expecting to go to someplace in the neighborhood, but we were, instead, going to one of the less upscale areas of town. In fact, we were going to the ghetto. We were going to a part of The City called Hunter’s Point.

The building was old, as I remember, and the windows of the barbershop were huge and old-fashioned. It was the stereotypical poor black barbershop with old men sitting around jawing about anything that came to mind. As we walked in, the place went sort of silent. White boys weren’t frequent visitors to this locale; at least that’s what their stunned silence led me to believe. Mr. R. greeted everyone and the greetings were returned, but the boisterousness that had held sway on our entrance was no longer present.

It must’ve been early afternoon, because the Giants pregame show was on the radio. Russ Hodges was interviewing somebody and I listened and soaked in the distrust and confusion that was radiating at me from every part of the room. Finally, the game began, and the atmosphere lightened as we all took an interest in the contest just starting probably not more than a mile from where we sat.

I don’t remember whether I said something or if someone asked me or if it was just apparent by my demeanor when he came to bat, but the mood of the room changed toward me thanks to Willie Mays. I came to realize that all of us in that barbershop were united by one thing: We were in love—in a nice way—with Willie Mays.

Leo Durocher said that there are five things that a ballplayer can do: hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw. And Willie Mays could do all five with grace and verve. He was an artist. He was amazing. He was my hero.

Mr. R. gave me a wonderful gift that day. He taught me, through the medium of experience, what I had thought all along, that there is no gulf so great that we cannot bridge it, no difference so stark that we cannot find some common ground. A middle class white boy and a group of poor black men could root together for the same thing and cheer together for the same man. I’ve never forgotten it.

And so I say thanks to Mr. R. for the experience, and to Mark for being a better friend to me than I was to him, and to Willie for being Willie.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Confession

All right, I’m going to admit something here that may shock and dismay you. There are those who will call for my deportation. For others, simple imprisonment will suffice. However, regardless of the consequences, I must speak. I’ve lived this double life for too long, and I must come clean.

Okay. Here goes. The truth is, I like cheap coffee. Don’t bring me the Kona roast, the Venezualian Fruit Bat, or Extra Bitter Blend. Spare me the Starbucks coffee of the moment. I like the stuff I can buy in a can at the supermarket. Actually, because I use either a percolator or a French press, I have to buy whole bean coffee and then grind it to those specifications. But the truth is that I like getting the Folgers French Vanilla, not the Exotic African Blend or the Hawaiian Jangle. Plain, old coffee. That’s me.

I can remember the first time someone foisted some fancy coffee off on me, back in ’83. The friend was well intended. Fresh off the boat from Rhode Island, I was still a little wet behind the ears and green around the gills. I mean, I had left a place that was stuck in the year 1936 to come to a city that was relatively modern and forward looking. She was trying to inculcate me in the ways of sophistication, and she really meant me no harm. And it wasn’t her fault that the cup of coffee she handed me tasted—to me—like the bottom of an aborigine’s foot.

However, I felt the pressure of her earnest desire to please, and engineered a smile, and managed to force out some compliments. That most of that cup ended up gracing the bottom of a trashcan and that I much preferred the brew I got (and still get) from Waffle House remained a secret. A secret I’ve held until this very day.

I feel like a different man. My soul is unburdened. And I’ll await the Coffee Patrol with a serene heart and a mild cup.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

You Heard It Here First

According to this article in The Atlanta Constitution-Fishwrap, prisoners in Georgia may soon be working for any company that wants to set up operations at a prison. (Look for Enron to open a number of prison-based branch offices once this concept shows up in the Federal system.)

After the prisoners have paid deductions for Federal tax, state tax, SSI, Medicare, restitution, and child support, they may retain up to 20% of what they earn, which will presumably be paid out in cartons of cigarettes. So, just remember: Don't do the crime if you can't do below minimum wage factory work!

Friday, January 14, 2005

And, Meanwhile, I Have to Work for Living.

It's funny the things that will set you off. For example, I was just reading this article on Yahoo! News, and was semi-fine with the whole thing, until I got to this bit:

In addition to the music acts, former Frasier star Kelsey Grammer (news), comedian Ben Stein and New York Giant football player Jason Sehorn will make appearances at inaugural-related events on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (emphasis added)

"Comedian" Ben Stein? Now he's a comedian? I knew he was a washed-up Nixon speechwriter. (Let's face it, Nixon can go light on the speechwriters these days. Where he is now, he's probably being forced to listen to his old speeches, not create new ones.) He's also a failed actor and out-of-work game show host. But comedian? You mean like Chris Rock or Morty Gunty?

I just can't imagine Ben Stein standing up someplace and delivery 40 minutes of snappy patter. First of all, he lacks snap. Second, he lacks patter. When you come right down to it, he's less of a monologist and more of a monotonist. He's somehow combined whining and drawling into some sort of distinct vocal emission, but listening to him plaintively telling the one about the guy with the Brooks Brothers suit would be an experience akin to having your tonsils removed sans anathesia with ice tongs.

If you don't believe me, just watch one of his commentaries on CBS Sunday Morning. It's like watching a slow-motion video of a below-average life insurance salesman. I've had chest pains that I enjoyed more.

I guess he'll probably drone on about his favorite platitudes, like "Our Troops Are Swell" and "Nice Is Good," and the celebrating crowd of high-end campaign contributors will confuse pablum for wisdom. That's fine. They've got a right.

But for the love of Groucho, don't call this mook a comedian.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Two Things

First, I am going to come right out and admit that I was wrong. Blogger did not eat my post. My wife was able to get to the entire thing from home when I could not from work. Therefore, the problem was either in the laptop I use at work or in the network. I'm guessing it was the network.

You see, the IT department (remember the days before IT departments? Weren't they dreamy?) at the company I work for seems to be led by a group of Stalinists who escaped the former Soviet Union sometime after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everything is onerous. When I was hired, I actually went for about three weeks without a computer of any kind. The waiting list for a desktop model was three months. It was like being on the Vodka line in Moscow circa 1982.

Since, without a computer, my job description would fall somewhere to the right of paperweight, a ratty, loud, and slow laptop was pulled out of the junk heap for me. (Actually, I think it was picked off the corpse of a freshly terminated salesman.)

The inability of the current five-year plan to match supply with demand is not the only problem they present, however. Since Freedom of Expression is strictly outlawed by the Central Committee, they have installed a Mail Marshal program to vet our incoming e-mails. This program is so screwed up that it regularly rejects e-mails sent by customers and is so puritanical that it has rejected e-mails sent to me by my wife (I know, I know) for using the word "sweetie." As far as I know, you can send out pretty much anything. It's like the rest of the world is Radio Free Europe and I work for 690 KRML, All-Kremlin-All-the-Time.

Of course, we also suffer from the problem of having the servers go down with the regularity of Linda Lovelace. The Internet server, in particular, is prone to extended periods of debility, during which times it must, apparently, go lie down with a cold cloth over its forehead.

But enough of that. This regime will fall. That is, if the CEO's wife ever likes to call him "sweetie."

And now on to the second thing.

I successfully overcame the logjam on "Plant Your Wagon" last night. I think it turned out pretty good.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Blogger Ate My Post

In trying to add a comment to the previous post, something apparently went wrong with Blogger and now, not only have the comments been zorched, but about half the post itself is gone as well. This brings up the eternal question, why do we let these machines run our lives? Other than they benefitted from one of the great sales jobs of all time, I don't know.

But that's what I get for putting my faith in a machine.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Prospectus for a New Year


When Edward and Gordon Sludge formed Amalgamated Flange Corporation in 1915, little did they know how grand and glorious a company they had founded. The first years were hard ones; buffeted by the encroachments of a large Eastern flange cartel and nearing bankruptcy, they were saved in 1917 when they miraculously were awarded a no-bid contract to supply all the flanges needed by the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. As their uncle and shareholder, Senator Josiah Sludge, said at the time, “War has been good to us, and we shall be grateful.”

As the Roaring Twenties progressed, the Brothers Sludge—through a shrewd strategy of forcing out small competitors, gaining further government contracts, and joint ventures with the beleaguered distilled beverages industry—found themselves running the third largest flange manufacturer in the nation. Times were good—until 1929.

The stock market crash was a shock to all, and Amalgamated Flange was no exception. Thousands of workers were laid off, and more tried to organize, which resulted in the Cracked Head Riots of 1932. Government deficit spending, however, proved a raft large enough to float the company, and Edward Sludge was able to leave a lasting stamp of his stewardship by purchasing the assets of several rivals who teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. “I have met the enemy, and I have bought him,” he said, and this motto still serves the Company until this day.

The war years were a robust time for the Company, and by its end, the name Amalgamated Flange no longer suited the various interests in which the Company had since become involved. General Industries, Inc. succeeded Amalgamated Flange in 1943, and it was under this banner that the Company flourished throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. The Sludge Brothers retired, and succeeding management teams continued their policies of acquisition and government contracting.

As the years passed, diversification was coupled with a careful pruning of assets that resulted in the selling off of the last of the original flange assets, the original Amalgamated Flange factory, to the Japanese conglomerate Itsibiggi in 1986. The communications side of the business flourished, though, and in recognition of its significant holdings in cable television, satellite television, broadcasting, telecommunications, and the then-nascent Internet, the Company rechristened itself OligarCo in 1990, the name by which it is known today.


Throughout the 1990s, the Company continued to grow and diversify. New opportunities were found in such areas as Central American farming (Rain Forest Foods, Inc.), strip mining (Alaskan Frontiers Consumables, Inc.), and fashion (The Sally Clone Collection, Inc.). The most exciting opportunities, however, came with the trend toward privatizing the American penal system.

With the organization of the Internmentia, Inc. subsidiary, OligarCo was poised to exploit this burgeoning market. In a joint venture with Rain Forest Foods, prisoners were transported to Central American work farms where they provided low-cost labor for whom quitting or forming a union were not options. Similar joint ventures have been set up with Alaskan Frontier Consumables and The Sally Clone Collection, and a program is in place that will have prisoners installing cable boxes in subscriber homes within the year.

As an extension of this business, made possible by the Company’s sterling reputation and deft lobbying and marketing efforts, DeLeathIn, was formed two years ago to take advantage of the execution boom that has gripped the nation. Starting as a humble subcontractor in Texas, DeLeathIn has established itself as the nation’s leading provider of state-sponsored death. “It’s really just a triumph of market forces,” DeLeathIn president Hardin Hart explained. “We saw the market, we entered the market, and we’ve done what we needed to do to make our company number one.”

Success in the public life termination sector has been such, in fact, that DeLeathIn plans to expand its market into the private sector. According to Hardin, “Doctor-assisted suicide is the subject of great debate in the community and a tough ethical roadblock for doctors to overcome. And, let’s face it. How many doctors have purposely set out to end a life? Not many. In theory, that’s not what they do. When the time comes, we’re able to come in with the technology, with the experience to get the job done.”

Although OligarCo will never rely on life suppression services as the main source of income and profits, it is a solid niche industry in which the Company intends to remain number one.

Monday, January 03, 2005

New Year, Same Life

Work on Episode Three of "Plant Your Wagon" continues in dribs and drabs. I've been stuck on a particular line since yesterday afternoon. The answer will come, most likely in the form of omitting a joke entirely and just moving the plot along.

It will come, though. I'm reminded of a story about George S. Kaufman. He had a "conference" with Irving Thalberg during the writing of "A Night at the Opera." Irving asked him if the rewrites would be finished that day. "I don't know." Tomorrow? "I don't know." Thursday? Kaufman just stopped and glared at Thalberg. Finally, he said, "Do you want it Thursday or do you want it good?"

Unfortunately for me but fortunately for my now unwitting audience, I want it good. And that takes time and thought, and not just settling for the first convenient thing that comes along.