27 January 2008


I was 13 when John F. Kennedy was elected, but I remember it more vividly than any election since. I especially remember Inauguration Day, when the nuns brought in televisions so we could watch the first Catholic president take office. I remember Robert Frost trying to read a poem despite the lectern having caught fire, the dignitaries standing about bare-headed in the bitterly cold aftermath of the previous night's snowstorm, the almost giddy feeling that things in Washington and in the country as a whole were never going to be the same again.

No doubt some of that feeling came from being 13, an age at which things never are going to be the same again, but it was at least as much inspired by the speech that Kennedy gave, some bits of which I can still recite from memory today. JFK has his share of critics who claim he was all style and no substance, or that he was merely a well-groomed and glib front man for the same corporate interests who had always run things, but I don't think anyone can deny that he had the power to move and inspire people in a way that no American politician since has been able to do. In fact I've often theorized that part of the reason the 60s started out so hopefully yet ended in a paroxysm of nihilism and madness was the collective disillusionment of the young people who'd pledged their troth to the New Frontier only to see that vision violently snatched away while still in its infancy.

Commentators have tried to hand the "Kennedyesque" mantle on any number of politicians since then, essentially on anyone who was reasonably articulate and didn't look as though he had one foot in the grave. But to my way of thinking, none of them - not even RFK, who to me always felt like a weak and insincere facsimile of his older brother - has come close to deserving that description until Barack Obama.

I'm still not sure I can vote for the guy - I think he's wrong on the war and I'm not even sure what he believes on some of the other issues - but I sure want to. Even the TV pundits and commentators were all but endorsing him tonight after his electrifying victory speech in South Carolina. "Hillary is toast," I kept thinking, which may not be true at all, given her tenacity and huge financial advantage, but she certainly looked tired and inconsequential alongside the momentum Obama has built up for himself.

And while I'm as cynical as the next guy about vague calls for "change" (the one truly sour note was the audience chanting rather mindlessly, "We want change" as if they were a mob of street beggars), Obama's claim to have a built a coalition "as diverse as anything America's seen in a long, long time" was, if anything, an understatement: it's beyond a doubt more diverse than anything America's ever seen.

Even Republicans figured out how to pepper the audience that the TV cameras see with as many black faces as they could find, but it would have been impossible to script or contrive the race-mixing evident in Obama's supporters. The only places I've previously seen that degree of integration is in Coca-Cola ads and the New York City subway, but this looked a lot more real than former and more pleasant than the latter.

Do I think Obama can be elected president? I do, and at this point, even though I disagree with him on some important issues, my vote is his to lose rather than the other way around. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some scandalous revelations to surface (especially likely with the Clintons in the hunt) or some shocking faux pas on his part. And as for the Kennedy thing, well, just as I was mulling that thought over in the aftermath of his speech, wondering if I were getting carried away with nostalgia and sentiment, came the news that Caroline Kennedy had endorsed the man, saying, "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."

What does she know, some might argue; she was only a small child when her father died. But there are those of us who do remember John F. Kennedy, and right now I'm inclined to think she may be right.

25 January 2008

A New York State Of Mind

When I decided to leave England and return to the United States, there was some uncertainty in my mind about which coast I was going to settle on. I was overwhelmingly in favor of New York, it's true, but there was a part of me that said California made more sense, mainly because I'd be close to my family and the handful of old friends (but really good old friends) who still live in the East Bay, but also because it would have been more affordable.

I wrestled with this dilemma for the better part of a year before deciding that since I wasn't getting any younger, it probably made the most sense to live where I most wanted to live, and for quite some time now, that has been New York. And now that I've been gone from London for over a year, and have been in Brooklyn for almost a year, I can safely say that hardly a day goes by that I'm not grateful to be exactly where I am.

Part of this is down to a simple sense of well-being. Even on days when I do nothing remotely "New Yorkish," even on days when I barely leave the apartment, I feel good just to be here. And when there are nights like the one last weekend, where I followed up an excellent Indian dinner with several good friends in the East Village with a quick subway ride down to the Knitting Factory to catch the Leftovers and the Queers, followed by a stroll up to Little Italy with six more friends for late night coffee, hot chocolate and hilarity, that just wouldn't have happened if were living in the dark and sullen East Bay, where for one thing almost everything closes by 10 or 11, and even if it didn't, is almost always too far to walk.

People often ask, and I wonder myself, how I could have gone from being the unabashed Bay Area booster I was for many years to a regular reviler of most things Californian. When I reflect on this, I realize that California is almost certainly not as bad as I make it out to be, just as it was probably never quite the paradise I once thought it was.

And also that it's more a case of people needing different things out of where they live at different points in their life. I may have made this analogy before, and if so, forgive me, but when I used to live in the country and did a lot of gardening, I found that transplanting things from one side of the house to the other or from a shady or hilly spot to a sunny or flat spot (or vice versa) could make an astounding difference in how well the plant did. But over the 20-some years I had my place in Northern California, the landscape itself gradually but inexorably altered: places that had once had unobstructed sunlight became overhung with fast-growing bushes or trees; the land itself moved into new contours and shapes every rainy season.

And sometimes, after years of thriving in one place, a plant or tree would no longer do well at all, often to the point where if it was no longer possible to move it, it would stop growing or even die. I think people often operate in much the same way; when I first came to California in 1968, it was like Dorothy stepping out of the monochrome Kansas farmhouse into the technicolor land of Oz. Things that I'd never been much good at in Michigan suddenly seemed easier and more productive, and even when the money was scarce and heartbreak in abundance, I felt glad just to be there, a sensation I had rarely if ever experienced in Michigan.

Why it changed, I don't know, but by the 90s I was experiencing that feeling less and less, and the last few times I've been to California for more than a few days, I started getting bad headaches, almost as though I were allergic to the place. And that sense of well-being, of being in the right place at the right time, seems to have moved me with to New York.

I do think the quality of life has deteriorated in San Francisco and Berkeley for reasons I've often expounded on here, but not so much that they still aren't amazing and beautiful places to live - for those who belong there and like that sort of thing. And indeed, I sometimes wish that I were one of those people, because it would be wonderful to be able to live near my family and old friends without feeling as though I was shortchanging myself on the rest of my life. Today on TV I saw some politician being interviewed from Berkeley, with an azure sky and the Campanile in the background, and it all looked so lovely compared with the gray and frozen streets of New York City. But I knew that for me at least, that sort of "lovely" was a mirage and within a day or two of being there I'd be stalking the streets glowering any time someone tried to tell me what a nice day I should be having.

I still don't know where this New York adventure is leading me, but it was the same way during my first few years in California, which despite my joy in being there, were often hard ones financially and emotionally. Many years later I could look back on my life and see where I had been headed, how everything, even the obstacles and defeats, was leading me toward what I was ultimately meant to do there, but looking forward in the early days, I had nary a clue.

Sometimes it feels that way now, as I still don't have much in the way of meaningful work, and despite knowing quite a few people, still occasionally feel like a madman locked away in his garret (it doesn't help that the apartment I'm living in actually is a garret of sorts). But having had a little more experience with such feelings by now, I no longer worry too much about them. I just reckon that whoever or whatever is in charge of my life (I definitely don't think it's me) didn't bring me this far just to dump me on my ass. And if he/she/it did, then it's probably only because I needed a good ass-dumping to help clarify my thinking.

Bottom line: I'm really, really happy to be here. Several friends are traveling out to the West Coast this weekend to see the Hi-Fives and the Mr. T Experience play a rare (these days, anyway) show together, and while I'm slightly melancholic about not being there with them, I'll console myself with whiling away a probably non-eventful weekend in (for me, anyway) the greatest city on earth.

16 January 2008

Presidential Musings

Watched about half the Democratic debate tonight, and listened to the other half from the next room. This is about the third or fourth debate I've seen, and I'm still not much closer to making a final decision about who to vote for in the primary. And even though I'll almost certainly vote for one of the Democrats in February, it's by no means certain that I'll vote for the same person again in November.

It's looking increasingly likely, though, as Giuliani, the only Republican I had seriously considered voting for, seems to have completely turkeyed out of the race. I mean, not entering or campaigning in the first several primaries is a pretty bizarre strategy by any standards, but now he's no longer doing well even in the states where he is campaigning. Basically, he just doesn't seem to have what it takes, not that a monomaniacal lust for power should be one of the major criteria for a potential President. But at least a little bit of it is in order; I don't think you want a President whose attitude is, "Well, if you really want me to be President, I might be able to squeeze it into my spare time, but no way am I working nights and weekends."

So Rudy's out, and Huckabee and Romney were never in the running for me; I may be a very tolerant centrist, but I've had my fill of right-wing wackos for now. And I'm pretty sure McCain is out for the same reason. He's not as far right as the other two, and he's actually quite moderate on some issues, but he strikes me as being just a little too tightly wound, the kind of guy that could go all Dr. Strangelove on us if world affairs got too out of hand. I'm open to arguments to the contrary, but for now, I can't see supporting him.

So that leaves me with the Democrats, and with most of their random nutters and cranks now faded from the field, that means Edwards, Obama and Clinton. The more I see of Edwards, the less I like him. I mean, sure, genial, folksy, well-dressed and all that, and a charming Southern accent (which I suspect he dials up or down depending on who he's trying to impress), but no matter what he says (and it's inevitably some variation of "born in a mill town, first family member to go to college, evil corporations, blah blah blah"), it always comes across as, "I've got some mighty fine snake oil right here, it'll cure every one of your ills."

So it's really down to Obama and Clinton, both of whom I think I could live with as President, but neither of whom inspires much confidence. Obama would certainly be the best-looking President we've had since Kennedy (I always found Bill Clinton a bit too inflatable and pre-formatted) in both the physical and the cultural/psychological sense. And the fact that he's got even less governmental experience thank JFK had doesn't necessarily have to disqualify him; I mean, how much experience did George Washington or Abraham Lincon have?

But so far there still seems to be something not quite there about him, whether because he's playing his cards too close to the vest or there really is a vacancy - or worse - at his center. He's great at articulating a vision, not so great at spelling out what that vision might be.

Hillary, on the other hand, I've never especially liked. She's always struck me as phony, hectoring, overly ambitious, and the thought of having to listen to her leaden prose for the next eight years makes me almost willing to accept almost anyone else, regardless of party or ideology, as President.

But the times are trying enough that I can't let my personal disinclination to listen to her rule her out, and it's also true that from time to time she surprises me by coming across as reasonable and even thoughtful. Tonight was one of those occasions, and I found myself thinking, "Yeah, I guess she wouldn't be that bad."

There's still the not-so-minor matter of both Obama and Clinton being farther to the left than me on some issues, and of neither being strong enough on energy and the environment. But hey, I don't think McCain or Romney are going to be covering the land with solar panels, either, and I think Obama/Clinton's obsession with getting the troops out of Iraq even if we're starting to win the war may be held in check by pragmatic considerations (not that I have any other ideas about what to do in Iraq, at least none that wouldn't require reinstating the draft and further bankrupting our national treasury).

At any rate, for right now I only have to decide who I'm going to vote for in the primary, and at present I'm still leaning toward Obama. I guess the main thing holding me back is the concern that between now and November something will crop up (further revelations about the slightly odd, and possibly racist church he belongs to, perhaps?) that will render him unelectable and hand the contest to whichever wackjob the Republicans nominate.

The fact that that's unlikely to happen to Hillary is maybe the best argument she's got going for her. She's too well-known a commodity by now, and too practiced a politician, for her candidacy to be derailed by some surprise scandal. Unfortunately, she's also too well-known by millions of people who just plain don't like her for her to have much of a chance to win them over.

Oh, what the heck, I always end up saying, America has weathered worse Presidents than either of those two is likely to be, and will probably muddle on through no matter what happens. But there's only so much incompetence the country can handle in any one stretch, and I think Bush as sorely tested those limits already, so for all of our sakes, let's hope we get it right this time.

At Gilman Street

I have a new iPod clock radio on which the alarm can be set to wake me with music from my iPod instead of the sonorous tones of WNYC, the local public radio station, which I've found from experience are more than likely to put me right back to sleep.

Being opposed in principle to alarm clocks, owing no doubt to many miserable experiences with them during my school and working years, I rarely use them, preferring to operate under the theory that if something is worth waking up for, I'll wake up for it. This theory usually works pretty well, though it does sometimes require making adjustments to my thinking along the lines of, "Well, I didn't really want to go anyway."

But Saturday morning I had promised to attend an early meeting in the nether reaches of Brooklyn (not too far south of Prospect Park, actually, but because of the vagaries of the subway system, at least an hour away), so I reluctantly gave my iPod alarm clock its first trial.

And what do you know? It worked. At 8 o'clock on the dot, the room was filled with the sounds of the Mr. T Experience singing, "Seems like it was only yesterday, nothing to do, nowhere to play..." Although it came out long before MTX achieved what prominence they did, it's always been one of my favorite songs by them. Hell, probably my very favorite, and not because it shows them at their musical best or Dr. Frank in full Porter-Gershwinesque lyric flow, but because it so perfectly captures and encapsulates that fleeting moment in time when for at least a couple hundred of us, the Gilman Street Project was the center of the punk rock universe.

In fact, thinking back to what I just wrote about hippies and Deadheads and their delusions about how their little drug and music scene was going to change the world, I have to acknowledge that I and a few of my friends probably sounded just as nutty on the subject of Gilman Street. All I can say in my/our defense is that our visions were largely drug-free and that 21 years later, Gilman Street is still operating along more or less the same principles - non-profit, volunteer-run, no booze or drugs, no racism, sexism or homophobia - that it was founded on.

Okay, through the years many patrons have undoubtedly strolled, marched or stumbled through those doors already under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And a few of them might have even harbored traces of sexism, racism or homophobia in their hearts, but if they knew what was good for them and wanted to see the show, they kept quiet about it.

Rules were bent many times, but not that often broken. And despite periodic financial crises, pressures from a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood (a process which, ironically, the opening of Gilman probably helped kick-start), it remains one of the very few examples I've ever seen of an organization run along anarchistic principles that actually works, and has continued to work for what, in punk years, is a couple eons.

The MTX song pokes gentle fun at the Gilman purists, of whom I was undeniably one. "And if you've got nothing better to do, there's a meeting every Sunday afternoon, you can talk about skinheads at the show, you can vote on whether you're gonna vote, and you can make a speech, you can rant, you can rave, you can preach..." Anyone who ever sat through one of those seemingly interminable meetings - sometimes they'd have to postpone the show for an hour because we were still voting on whether we were gonna vote" - will recognize that picture.

"It's democracy, it's one big family," Franks sings, and for some of the Gilman kids, it probably was their first experience with the former and a very different experience of the latter. Granted, it was a warts-and-all experience, especially with regard to democracy, since Tim Yohannan, the (mostly) benign dictator of Maximum Rocknroll magazine whose money had made the original experiment possible, thought it would be in the best interests of the club if the members voted unanimously or nearly so in favor of how he thought things should be run, and was willing to keep us there voting until we came up with the correct (his) result.

This caused a bit of dissension in the ranks, but between the fact that he was right more often than wrong and his willingness to stay there until everyone else had either given in or gone home, things pottered along fairly smoothly for almost two years until Tim decided the club was no longer living up to his vision for it and took what was left (not much) of his money, shut the doors and went home. That a new, far less organized group was able to reopen the place within a few weeks and keep it going until the present shocked everybody, including, most likely, the popele who managed to to do it.

There are some who argue, and I might be among them, that Gilman was never the same after that. In some ways it was a lot more fun without Tim hovering over everything insisting it be done "properly," and the biggest and most legendary shows, like the time we somehow crammed a thousand people into a space licensed for less than 300 for Operation Ivy's last appearance, were yet to come.

But as stressful and intense as that first year and three quarters could be - one kid just back from Israel likened it to working on a kibbutz run by Stalinists - there was also the sense, and maybe this is what Dr. Frank had in mind when he referred to it as "family," that once you'd walked past that front door, you were home. It always seemed like someone's basement rec room to me, someone whose parents were always out for the night, where all your friends could hang out and do pretty much anything they could imagine.

There's a show coming up there next month that I might like to attend, and Erika was teasing me about how if I still lived in Berkeley, I could walk there, but now, because I live in stupid old New York, I'd have to jump on airplane for. And I retorted that no matter how great a show it was, and no matter how vital a part Gilman had played in my life, living in Berkeley was just too high a price to pay.

And I know, too, that if I did live in Berkeley, I wouldn't go to Gilman that often. It belongs to a different generation now; they've got their own bands, most of whom I'm not interested in, and frankly, a lot of the time I'd rather be somewhere where it's quiet enough to carry on a conversation with my friends. Not that I've given up on shows altogether; a lot of the action, especially when it comes to the kind of music I like, has now shifted to the East Coast.

I probably write about Gilman Street and "the old days" too much here, but there you go. Don't blame me, blame my new iPod clock radio.

15 January 2008

Peace, Man

I don't know if all Christian churches do this, but quite a few do: at one point during the Mass/services, everything stops for a minute while members of the congregation exchange handshakes and say "Peace be with you" or just "Peace" to each other.

Having been raised in a very old-fashioned Catholic church which of course didn't have any truck with that kind of Protestant nonsense, I was surprised to see that the handshake/sign of peace had become a standard part of the liturgy during my approximately 40 year hiatus from religion. At first I found it a little off-putting - I mean, unless you're a politician, who wants to shake hands with a bunch of strangers, right? - but I've adjusted, and have even begun to tolerate - if only just - prayers said in English instead of Latin.

The other day I was attending Mass for the first time in a while - I trust my new improved God is not going to send me to Hell for that, but I suppose one can never be too careful - and during the sign of peace, I noticed a slightly grizzled gentleman several rows ahead of me turn around and wave the old two-fingered hippie peace sign at those around him. Allergic as I tend to be to almost any residue of the 60s, my normal reaction would have been to think something uncharitable about the old coot, but being in an especially good mood today, I instead reminded myself that the old coot was very possibly younger than me and that regardless of his choice of symbols, his heart was obviously in the right place.

I was never a big fan of the V-for-peace thing, it's true. The first time I saw it being used was at the October 1967 antiwar march in Washington, the one where the hippies promised they were going to levitate the Pentagon. Being as high on drugs as I typically was during those days, I never did notice if the building had left the ground, but I did have my first experience - to be repeated many, many times - of being tear-gassed and - hopefully not to be repeated - being charged by troops with fixed bayonets.

After we'd been pushed back to a perimeter deemed acceptable by the military, bonfires sprung up at various points across the Pentagon lawn and protesters huddled around them against the autumn chill. I was thinking that the overall spectacle reminded me of a movie I'd seen as a kid about the Sons of Liberty and the American Revolution when I noticed people flashing the V sign back and forth from bonfire to bonfire.

I assumed they were reviving Winston Churchill's V-for-victory sign from the Second World War, and that this meant we had stopped demanding merely an end to the Vietnam War and were now in the throes of a full-fledged revolution. As I noted earlier, the drugs I was on - possibly an acid-and-Robitussin combo could have contributed to this perception, but it wasn't too many months later that everyone - well, everyone with long hair and on the same kind of drugs as me - was talking about a revolution. By 1968 or 69, when it had become common for hippies to flash the V-sign whenever they met, my gang started saluting back with the raised fist of the Black Panthers to show our contempt for namby-pamby "peace" activists.

A couple more years and the V had become completely institutionalized and co-opted, appearing in ads selling everything from waterbeds to "groovy" bank accounts. It was so ubiquitous that I couldn't even bother to be annoyed by it anymore, and eventually no one but the most diehard hippies and the most desperately ironic hipsters used it at all.

Which brings me back to what was presumably the diehard hippie in church today, which in turn got me pondering how I, who was once as obnoxious a flower child as any spawned by that obnoxious era, had come to feel so far removed from even the faintest vestiges of hippiedom. After all, the man flashing the V-sign could have been one of my comrades in the old days. We could have boogied side-by-side at the Fillmore or marched together through the streets chanting "Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

So why do I think of him as practically an alien presence in my world (not in a bad sense, more in the "Oh, look, those people are from Uzbekistan; I've never met anyone from Uzbekistan, have you?" sense)? Or, maybe more to the point, how did I myself become so alienated from my generation and my (counter)culture?

But never mind - water under the bridge and all that - what I'm really wondering is what if anything of the 60s has survived in me? I've read enough statements from members of The Most Annoying Generation to the effect that "the 60s changed everything" or that "the world would never be the same again," and the massive egocentricity of baby boomers notwithstanding, there's got to be some truth to that. There's no doubt that the world I'm living in today is dramatically different from the one I grew up during the 1950s, and I have to believe at least some of that dramatic change resides in me personally.

I'd often prefer that weren't the case, however, especially when I hear the self-serving and self-satisfied encomiums to "the spirit of the 60s" constantly being served up by my fellow boomers. In the Jerry Garcia book I mentioned a week or so ago, members of the Grateful Dead camp sing praises to the spirit of liberation that permeated their culture and their music during that time, making it sound as though the proliferation of LSD and psychedelic music had ushered in a new Garden of Eden, and that if it hadn't been for the occasional interference of "the man" and his annoying drug laws, we all would have lived happily ever after.

Only trouble is, half the people making these sunny predictions are dead, and quite a more not much better than zombies, in large part due to the drug use that was supposed to set us free. "The man" had nothing to do with it; most of these casualties were self-inflicted.

Listen to Garcia himself (to be perfectly accurate, not a boomer himself; he was born in the middle of the war) on the subject of Janis Joplin's death at age 27: "It was just an accident, a dumb fucking accident. Accidents happen to everybody - driving a car or walking down a flight of stairs."

Well, yeah, Jer, but that presupposes that "everybody" is taking potentially lethal drugs as a matter of course, that injecting heroin is as normal an activity as driving a car or walking down a flight of stairs. Which in the realms of hippie rock stars may not be that far from reality, but wouldn't you have to be pretty addled to suppose a new and better world is going to be constructed by an army of half-dead junkies with needles dangling from their veins?

But rant as I may, I myself delved too deeply into the hippie drug culture (minus the needles and heroin but including almost everything else) to have been left unscathed. At 20 I deeply, earnestly believed that I and my LSD-taking buddies were far more equipped to run the world than the businessmen and politicians then in charge. I suppose some of this had as much to do with being 20 as with any great social movement, but also, there were so many of us: the largest population bulge in history, and a significant number of us were on drugs that made a mockery of "reality." Megalomania was an almost inevitable side-effect.

So I still seem to be dancing around the question, maybe because I don't know the answer. Whether I like it or not, the 60s were such a major part of my life that I undoubtedly carry part of their legacy with me, but what exactly that legacy is, I'm not sure I can say. I don't go flashing peace signs at people, and in fact will reluctantly support war or military action if it seems like the least bad way of resolving a situation, yet I still fervently wish and hope for peace. Some of the tactics and aspirations of the 1960s civil rights movement now seem counterproductive and self-defeating, but I still passionately support equality of opportunity for all.

I guess what remains most from the 60s is the spirit of questioning and, to a lesser extent, confrontation. I'm a pretty law-abiding citizen these days, and have been for quite a while, but if I think the President or the Pope is talking nonsense, I'm far more ready to say so than the average Joe would have been in the 1950s. And along with that comes a readiness to question anything and everything, including the leftist orthodoxy that prevails among most of my friends and contemporaries.

But is that really a legacy of the 60s? I was already driving myself crazy with questions - especially of the religious and philosophical variety - by the time I was in first or second grade, i.e., in the early to mid-50s. The 60s happened when a bunch of us thinking along similar lines were old enough to leave home and start meeting up with each other.

So I'm back to "I don't know," and for now I'll write off the 60s as one more of those youthful adventures that I'm kind of glad I had but would never in a million years want to do again. Like spending time in jail, hopping freight trains, visiting East Berlin, or tripping on acid and cough medicine. Did I learn anything? Well, finding out all the things that you don't want to do with the rest of your life is at least a start.

11 January 2008

The Price Of Freedom

Normally I don't have much bad to say about my adopted borough of Brooklyn, but today I just might make an exception.

It was the last day to register to vote for anyone who wants to take part in next month's "Super Tuesday" primary, and while I still don't know who I'm going to vote for - and while I really don't expect that my candidate, should I ever decide on one, is going to win or lose by one vote - I wanted to make sure I wouldn't be shut out of the process.

In California, registering to vote was ridiculously easy. On any given day you'd find people in downtown Berkeley offering to sign you up just so in return they could collect your signature on one or more of the petitions they were circulating. In Brooklyn, not so much.

Not that it's that difficult. For instance, you can register to vote at the same time you're applying for or renewing your driver's license, and that's what I did when I got my New York license back in mid-October.

Or thought I did. On the application it said something like, "This will be forwarded to your local Board of Elections. If you haven't received your voter registration card within x number of days, contact them." Well, x number of days had long passed and no voter reg card. Just to be safe, I downloaded another application and mailed it in, adding a note saying, "This is just in case you didn't get my first registration. I'm not trying to register twice. Honest."

Oh, did I forget to tell you that I first did as I'd been instructed, contacted my local Board of Election. Er, tried to contact them. Dial their phone number, the recording tells you to go to their website; go to their website and it gives you their phone number. But getting someone to answer that phone... Well, after a week or two of trying, I finally did get a human who told me that keeping track of voter registration wasn't here department.

"But, this is the Board of Elections, isn't it? The one where they keep track of voter registration?"

"Yeah, but you gotta call the automated number, that's how you find out if you're registered."

Okay, fine, I can deal with automated numbers. As a rule. This one, after a long series of messages, tells me to key in my ZIP code, surname, date of birth, etc., and after a pause, tells me, "We have no data matching your entry, please try again." A couple more episodes of this and I finally find an entry that gets me a different response: "If you have a rotary telephone or can not find the information you are looking for, an operator will assist you."

So I'm transferred again, the phone rings, and someone picks up almost immediately. At last, I think. Oh, wait, it's a recording: "This is the Brooklyn Board of Elections. No operators are available to answer your call today. Try another time, or go to our website, www.etc..."

So it was that I found myself bumbling around downtown Brooklyn this afternoon in the closest thing to a monsoon with hurricane-ish overtones that you're likely to encounter in New York City in mid-January. I should note, especially for my Northern California readers, that it's been warmer here than in San Francisco nearly all week, and on at least one day, even warmer than LA.

It was still mild today, but the rain, and the blocked gutters turning streets into rivers, and the speeding cars sending hydroplane-sized wakes across the sidewalks more than made up for it. Barely able to see in the downpour, I took a wrong turn and walked several blocks east instead of west. By the time I'd discovered my mistake, my shoes were so full of water that I was feeling like one of those cartoon characters who takes them off to empty them and sees fish flopping out onto the pavement.

Although (fortunately) I had an umbrella, the lower half of my jeans was so soaked that they were sagging like gangsta pants, and when I finally found Borough Hall, I was confronted by an airport-style metal detector and X-ray machine, where I was required to empty my pockets, etc. My money had gotten so wet that it nearly disintegrated in my hands.

Through security, I checked the directory: Board of Elections, 4th Floor. I went there. Completely empty. Back downstairs to ask the guard. "Oh, them? They moved down the street. That way."

Yes, I finally found the Board of Elections, about two hours after I started out from North Brooklyn. And when I did get there, there were more clerks than customers, and they were all eager to help. She took my info, did a quick computer check, and said, "Oh yeah, you registered. You'll get a card in the mail."

She gave me a printout showing that my original registration had been processed back in November. I thanked her and headed back out into the now mostly-subsided storm, my fury toward the inefficiency of the Brooklyn Board of Elections and the entire administration of Kings County also largely spent. Was I nuts, I wondered? Did voting matter that much to me? Hell, there've been times when I just plain skipped elections because I didn't like the choice of candidates.

But then I calmed down by remembering, cheesy as it may sound, what other people have gone through for the right to vote, and suddenly my soaking wet socks and the water dripping from my pantlegs seemed rather trivial. Now watch me sleep in and totally forget all about voting when the election actually comes around.

Shopping With Wally

It seems I've developed a bit of an eating disorder, in that I find it extremely difficult to pass a donut shop or a pizzeria without wanting to go in and devour its entire contents.

Oh, and ice cream, too. The first time I purchased a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream and ate the whole thing in one sitting (and not a very long sitting at that), I felt a bit ashamed, not least because of the name; if I'd had to ask the storekeeper for it by name, I probably never would have got started eating it. But after it became a several-times-a-week habit the shame gave way to a bloated, sluggish, headachey, almost hungover feeling.

I'd wake up the next morning and say, "Well, I'm definitely not going to do THAT again," and my resolve would last until... well, sometimes a day or two, sometime only until that evening. I seem to recall having gone through much the same thing with cocaine, albeit at considerably expense, a few decades ago.

Speaking of which, I've taken on a new writing gig for a semi-local magazine called Verbicide, and my first column is due almost immediately. Racking my brain for what to write about, I hit upon the resurgence of cocaine use that's allegedly taking place right under my - pardon the expression - here in my beloved Brooklyn.

To be quite honest, the last time I actually saw any cocaine was in 1985, and even that was late enough in the day to be pretty tacky, as coke had lost all its underground cachet by the mid-70s and was more mainstream than disco by the time Ronald Reagan took office. But lately my normally quiet downstairs neighbors have taken to "partying" rather loudly at some unusual hours (5:30 am?) and I suspect some stimuli other than alcohol or hormonal hyperactivity might be involved.

Anyway, stop me now before I publish my whole projected column right here; I only meant to ask you if you thought it was a good topic. Answers by email or in the comments section, please, and now back to my lovely eating disorder...

So, about a week ago I decided I'd better do something about this. I've always had a rather high metabolism, and most people think of me as skinny, but I've gained 20 pounds in the past year or two, and as much as I'd like to think it was all new muscle gained from my semi-regular gym workouts, I don't think the "muscles" that accumulate mainly around the stomach are the sort I'd like to cultivate.

So, donuts, pizza and ice cream are out, and a number of other things that I was eating more for comfort and pleasure than any nutritional need. Actually, I'm staying away from sugar in general, which means no more of my recently discovered Starbucks white mocha decaf cappuccinos, either. Instead, I've returned to cooking simpler, healthier meals at home, and to that end I was picking up a few items in one of those unbearably twee (and unbearably expensive) West Village shops (hey, it was near the subway) when I noticed a short, bald, older man standing at my elbow.

Well, he was at the level my elbow would be if I were scratching my head, but let's just agree that he was short. He had just finished picking up his order from the butcher counter started whispering and giggling like schoolgirls. This seemed especially implausible because they were both big, strapping fellows and, for want of a better adjective, very butchery.

Finally one of them pointed to the other and said to the not-so-tall man, "He wants to know your name." This seemed even more unlikely. Were they engaging in some mock flirtation to buck up the older gentleman's spirits?

"It's Wally Shawn," he answered, which sounded familiar, very familiar, and then I remembered My Dinner With Andre and about a dozen other movies and realized that the giddy butchers were merely starstruck. Then, while waiting in the queue, er, I mean on line behind Mr. Shawn, I watched a much taller man walk in and say, "Hi, Wally."

No, it wasn't Andre, but I'm almost certain it was somebody from one of those Woody Allen movies that they'd both starred in. It'll come to me one of these days, probably when I'm flipping channels on the TV and I see them both together onscreen. I waited for them to something funny or dramatic or insightful, but they just exchanged greetings and mumbled niceties while I paid for my own groceries. Then Wally caught a cab uptown and I took the subway home.

Falling Down On The Job Again

Yes, it's been a few days since I've posted anything, and I don't know how you feel about that, but I'm not pleased.

I realize that there is more than one way of looking at this: while it's nice to keep my readers posted on any and all developments in Larryland (Livermoreland? Liverland?), it could be argued that it's better to wait until something of general interest happens. Otherwise, this thing becomes little more than a glorified LiveJournal (and I don't even know how glorified it could claim to be).

On the other hand, it could also be argued that if I have any pretensions or presumptions about being a *writer*, I should be able to turn the most mundane events or non-events into fascinating reading, even for people who don't have the slightest knowledge of or interest in who I am.

And as usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Speaking of which, I got some people over on the PPMB riled up when I claimed that by trying to explain away the origins of the universe with the Big Bang theory, scientists were merely offering their own version of "Let there be light" to compete with the many religious creation stories/legends/myths, take your pick that have been kicking around for as long as human beings have wondered how and why we got here.

I was being outrageously stupid, I was told; scientists have to measure and quantify and test and prove every theory, whereas the religious and the philosophically inclined can simply speculate and make leaps of blind faith when the numbers and/or the syllogisms don't add up.

And no matter how many times I pointed out that science was perfectly good at explaining and analyzing the workings of the universe after it came into being, it had not been able to offer a shred of insight into how the universe came into being. There was a Big Bang, they say, as if that answers everything. But if there was a Bang, there had to be something to go bang, and that something had to come from somewhere. Or else it materialized out of nothing, which would be an even more amazing and unexplainable phenomenon.

What I found interesting was how mad some partisans of science got when in fact I hadn't said anything at all against science apart from pointing out that there were certain questions it couldn't answer. "Idiot," I was told, "The Big Bang theory isn't meant to explain the origin of the universe." Okay, fine, I understand that. Now, instead of calling me names, why not simply answer the question of how the universe did originate?

Or else admit that you have no idea, something I'm perfectly willing to admit myself. But at that point, you'd be dangerously close to acknowledging my original point: that this is where science and religion meet up the same blind alley. And when I say "blind alley," I don't mean to disparage either science or religion, because I have a high regard for both, merely to note that even when we're able to trace existence back to within nanoseconds of the original Big Bang (or Creation, which to an outside observer might have looked very much like a Big Bang), we'll still have no insight whatsoever into what if anything went before it.

That's of course where the religiously inclined would offer up God as the all-purpose explanation, and the religiously disinclined scientists will come up with their own deus ex machina involving multiple dimensions and infinity turned in upon itself and similar stuff that you may have first seen explored in old issues of Superman comics.

Upshot: none of us know or are likely to know, at least not as long as we are confined to a human, earthly existence. But some of us are willing to admit we don't know, while others insist on constantly changing the subject.

07 January 2008

The Great Debaters

I'm driving myself crazy from not being able (or willing?) to write a brief, concise post. I'm always, it seems, lapsing into logorrhea, and even if some of you find that interesting, I suspect it's pretty off-putting to the average person who stumbles across this site.

I'm going to try once more to deliver a simple message unencumbered by the usual verbiage, but first I have to mention (see, I'm already doing it again!) just how nice it's been to be in New York City these past two days. No, it's not exactly spring just yet (last night I remarked to a friend, "Well, winter's almost over anyway," to which he, aghast, replied, "Over? It's just getting started!"), but after a couple icy days, temperatures have at least made it up to what I'd expect in a London winter, which has made for very nice walking-around weather.

I've clocked up about 10 or 15 miles this weekend wandering the streets of Manhattan with an occasional stop for coffee or newspaper and book-reading (I used to think that one of the advantages of living in New York would be having the Times for my local paper, but yesterday was only the second time I've bought it since I've officially lived here; apparently digital downloading is killing the printing industry as well). By this afternoon my sore foot (yes, that one again) had had enough, and rather than flop down in another Starbucks, I decided to see a movie.

The only thing showing at the time was something called The Great Debaters, about which I knew very little except that it involved Denzel Washington and was about a debating team from a small African-American college in Texas.

I wasn't even aware when it was set (1935, as it turns out) or that it was based on a true story (one of its principals was a 14 year-old James Farmer, Jr., who went on to co-found the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1940s. As it turns out, The Great Debaters is an outstanding movie, and i don't think I was alone in that view: as the last scene faded to black, a spontaneous round of applause rose up from what there was of a crowd, not something you encounter too often in seen-it-all New York City.

The film could have played to cheap sentiment, but didn't, and could also have pandered to the woe-is-me victimology that so often crops up in modern treatments of racial issues. Maybe I'm a sucker for paeans to the power of education, but I was far from the only one with tears in his eyes with the young students from the segregated backwoods of Texas stepped as equals onto the debating stage at Harvard University. The wide-eyed wonder they displayed at what must have been as alien and exotic a journey for them as traveling to Mars would be for us today just melted my heart; although my own personal journey was not a fraction as arduous or fraught as theirs, I felt a bit of that same awestruck wonder when I got the letter telling me I'd been admitted to study at Berkeley.

Another thing I really liked about the film - and which saddened me as well - was its portrayal of courage and devotion in the face of unspeakable hardship and repression. Despite living a precarious existence which could be upended or simply ended by racist cops and unrestrained lynch mobs, African-Americans went about pursuing the best education they could get, preparing themselves for the day they could take their rightful place in society.

Even if it was an idyllic portrait, the neatly-dressed, well-spoken and behaved students of cash-strapped little Wiley College can't help but cause one to question why today, with nearly every barrier to education and equality having been stripped away, so many young African-Americans spurn the opportunities their forbears won for them in favor of a surly, thuggish contempt for all things academic. To me it provides a damning indictment of affirmative action: the young scholars of Wiley College knew that they had to be not just as good as, but twice as good as their white counterparts if they hoped to get anywhere in life; today, almost any desultory effort is accepted on the grounds that, "They're oppressed, you know."

A graphic illustration was provided by one of the trailers that preceded The Great Debaters, for something called How She Move (produced by MTV Films; one can almost hear the nice white folks at MTV saying, "Better give it an illiterate-sounding title if we want the black kids to come see it"). (That being said, the music and dancing made it look pretty exciting, and I may well go see it myself.)

70 years ago, even 30 or 40 years ago, there would have been outrage on the part of African-American educators at white movie executives portraying young black people as incapable of using standard English; they probably would still more shocked to see the film's ludicrous premise: a young black woman has to enter a dirty-dancing contest to get money for - wait for it - medical school. And when the girl's long-suffering, proper-talking mama asks, "Why are you associating with those people?" the young lady responds with, "It's what I got to do to get out of here," "here" meaning the ghetto, the substandard public school, etc.

As the Virginia Slim people used to say when making a mockery of the women's movement, "You've come a long way, baby." From dirt-poor Texas sharecroppers' children studying their way out of oppression unimaginable to anyone living in America today to the present day's sullen, defeatist mindset that excuses, almost enshrines failure as the legacy of injustice from decades or even centuries past and scorns education itself as "selling out" or "acting white." I can only hope this movie gains the mass audience it so richly deserves; it could go a long way toward dispelling that crippling delusion.

06 January 2008

Killing The Music Business

I'm reading the first chapter of a biography of Jerry Garcia (don't ask; no, go ahead and ask, I'll tell you in a minute anyway), and have already learned that a) Garcia was named after Broadway tunesmith Jerome Kern; and b) that his dad, Joe (born José) Garcia was a professional musician and band leader until the 1930s, when, according to his brother, the rising popularity of "canned" (i.e., recorded) music helped kill off the industry.

I found this ironic considering that we're again in danger of drowning in the crocodile tears of those bewailing the umpteenth "death" of the music business, especially since today's situation appears to be the reverse: supposedly the problem now is that digital downloading has destroyed the sales of recorded music (or at least the ability to make large amounts of money therefrom) and musicians are being advised to make their living by through live appearances and the sale of image-related paraphernalia.

Could thing really have gone in such a circle? I'll have to acknowledge that although I don't feel good about getting free digital copies of the music and very rarely succumb to the temptation to do so, I am in a rapidly dwindling minority. But I'm not (and haven't been for a long time) in the prime music-buying (or shall we say "obtaining") demographic. What I buy these days is mostly limited to stuff by friends or, occasionally, a few songs from my antediluvian youth. Put it this way: I doubt I'm keeping any musicians in business.

The live music business does seem to be flourishing (though once again, nearly all the shows I attend involve friends or friends of friends), but is it realistic to expect musicians to again earn their living that way, as they had to all through all of history apart from the 20th century? I don't know, but it may be exactly what is happening. I can't - people far more technologically knowledgeable than me tend to agree - see any way of putting the digital genie back in the bottle in such a way that recorded music will ever be the license to print money it once was.

And true, a greater emphasis on tours and live music will disadvantage those who aren't young and good-looking, have family or other responsibilities that make travel difficult, or simply don't have the kind of extroverted personalities that make for good show business. Actually, I don't know why I'm worrying about this: neither the records my band recorded nor the shows we played ever made money, while most of my musician friends are talented enough that they'll be right (though maybe not get rich) no matter what they have to do.

Which brings me back to the matter of Jerry Garcia, who even in his heyday bucked the tide by focusing more on live performances than on selling records. Now I know I'm not supposed to like him (hey, I put out the Queers record that reviles "Jerry's ugly face" and probably a few others in that same vein), and if you read some of my writing from the 80s and 90s, you'll see I was quite vicious toward him myself. In fact one of the reasons that pack of Iron Peak dope growers threatened to burn down my house was my regular bashing of the Grateful Dead in Lookout magazine.

I saw the Dead a great number of times in the 60s and early 70s - about 25 times, I'm guessing. A big part of the reason was that they were always playing for free, but I kind of liked them, too, inasmuch as I was capable of making any rational decisions about what I liked in those acid-addled days.

I turned against them almost instinctively when I turned against the hippies, which I'd already done at some point not far into the 70s, and my disdain both intensified and became more vocal once I'd joined up with the punks in '77. From then on you can't tell me much of anything good about Jerry or the Dead without my getting right in your face and telling you how far from having any brains or taste you must be.

So it was kind of disconcerting when it dawned on me one day that I'd never really stopped liking my favorite Grateful Dead record, Workingman's Dead. Didn't listen to it for a decade or two, true, but when I finally checked it out again, this time when I was drug-free or nearly so, it sounded better than ever. In fact, I was able to appreciate it much more without the chemical enhancement that had always been an integral and inextricable part of any Dead-related experience for me back in the day.

And while I still haven't become a fan of most of their extended-jam stuff, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both from the early 70s, are and will remain classics in my view. If that destroys any shreds of punk credibility I may possess, so be it.

But that's not why I'm reading Jerry Garcia's biography. It's more because I like biography in general, but also because it covers times, places and people that, if not completely a part of my life, certainly intersected with it. I was startled, for example, to see one of my old Spy Rock neighbors cited as one of Garcia's lifelong friends, dating back to boyhood. I knew he - and a couple other neighbors - were affiliated with the Dead camp, but not to what extent.

And of course I like to read stories of the 60s so I can be reminded of just how degraded and debased the whole flower power, peace and love revolution was, not only when the "bad drugs" crept in post-1967 (which is how popular hippie legend would have it) but pretty much from the start. Even though this bio is written by a near-worshipful fan and hagiographer, Garcia doesn't come off as such a great guy on a personal level. Musically, yes; if you've got any appreciation at all for those who devote themselves to the playing of music, you've got to admire the guy for his near-limitless devotion to the craft. Personally, assuming you weren't part of his inner circle of family and friends, a bit of a jerk, I'm guessing.

Maybe I'll change my mind as I read on, but it will be an interesting experiment either way. I tend to avoid learning too much about my musical heroes because experience has shown me that it's usually the source of great disillusionment. Fortunately, Garcia isn't and never has been a hero of mine, just an enormously gifted musician whose music I can enjoy but probably wouldn't like to hang out with.

03 January 2008

From The Heartland

I got into a bit of a tiff down at the local burrito joint earlier this evening. A group of us were discussing the election campaign and the guy sitting next to me - I'd never met him before, but he knew other people at the table - said, "I've got no use for those people out in Middle America. They're ignorant, racist, narrow-minded..."

Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, but at that point I couldn't help interrupting him to ask, "Aren't you being just as prejudiced as you're accusing them of being?"

He looked startled for a minute, but then shot back, "If that makes me prejudiced, then so be it. Those people voted Republican, and there's no excuse for that."

I tried pointing out that no one party or faction had a monopoly on virtue or integrity, that people from all over the ideological spectrum wanted more or less the same things for their families and their country even though they disagreed drastically on the best way to achieve those goals, and that as annoying as the two (or more) party political system could be, trying to simplify things by doing away with annoying opposition parties hadn't worked too well in places like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

But he wasn't in the mood to hear it. "I'm outta here," he grunted, and headed for the door with his friend who, moments earlier, had been telling us how a Jew (we had also been talking about Bloomberg) or a black would never stand a chance of being elected President because of those same supposedly small-minded Middle Americans.

"Don't the polls show Barack Obama leading in Iowa?" I called after them. "How much more Middle American do you want?" Shortly afterward, I came home to find out that the polls had, if anything, underestimated Obama's strength and that he had won a resounding victory in that 95% white state.

I wasn't surprised. I've maintained for a long time that Americans are far less bigoted and far more open-minded than they're generally given credit for. During my time in London I had to endure a constant stream of Englishmen and Irishmen queuing up to tell me exactly what was wrong with a country they'd never visited and knew little about apart from what they'd heard in a Michael Moore "documentary." I find, sadly, the same to be true of much of the alleged intelligentsia here in New York City.

Yes, they may be a little better read and slightly more sophisticated than their kneejerk counterparts out on the Left Coast, but that old New Yorker cover showing the world ending at the Hudson River remains as valid an observation as ever, and, ironically or not, it seems to be the most educated and cosmopolitan who cling most devoutly to that viewpoint.

Or maybe not; the guy I was arguing, er, discussing things with tonight was not exactly part of New York's ruling class; in fact, he more or less bragged of being "homeless" in a way that suggested those of us who lived in houses or apartments were hopelessly bourgeois (Janelle Blarg told me the other day about being derided as a "housepunk" for locking her doors in an attempt to discourage random travelers and street people from walking in and crashing there).

The "homeless" guy did have a new cellphone and had just flown in from the West Coast (well, you didn't expect him to travel through the hateful heartland, did you?), but more than anything else, he reminded me of myself in the 80s, half-hippie, half-punk, and seething with rage toward anyone who dared contradict my oft-stated opinion that Ronald Reagan was the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. Let's just say he was pretty grumpy.

I don't know what he'll make of it when he hears that those Iowa rednecks had rewritten history by making a black man the frontrunner to be the next president of the United States. Probably go off on a new rant about how Obama is not "really" black or is controlled by the "corporate interests" (which he may well be, but, as I tried to point out, who did he think would prop up the economy of the United States if at least some corporations didn't flourish?

For me, though, Obama's victory provided a satisfying "in your face" for all those pinheaded Brits and New Yorkers and San Franciscans who've been telling me for years that Americans are "too racist" to vote for a black man. Give them a respectable, competent candidate (i.e., not a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton), I replied, and they'll come out in droves to vote for him, and what do you know, for once I was right.

I still have my own doubts about Obama, although I'm more favorably inclined toward him than most of the candidates. Given that one of the president's main jobs is to look and sound convincing, he's got a big head start over the hectoring Clinton or the oleaginous Edwards. But even though TV commentators raved about his victory speech tonight, calling it Kennedy-esque (though usually referencing the wrong Kennedy, Bobby, who himself always struck me as a bit of an empty suit), it was still a case of lots of style and not nearly as much substance. He reminds me more of Carter or (Bill) Clinton - themselves both only semi-convincing JFK-bots - than of either Kennedy.

Obama as president would send a powerful message to the world, and by that I mean more than a well-deserved "Shut up" to all the America-bashers whose own countries have yet to provide a fraction of the opportunities that America has to citizens of African descent. As some have observed, he's very nearly a post-racial candidate, and better yet, as close to a post-baby boomer as we're likely to get. I'd just like to know a little more about what he actually thinks and what he plans to do as president, something more specific than the "It's time for a change" mantra beloved of every non-incumbent since elections began.

But even with those fairly substantial reservations, I'm very pleased with tonight's result, and even more pleased to see the message emanating from what I genuinely believe is America's heartland: that we're growing up as a country, that the old clichés and old prejudices and fears are fading away. The rubes and the hicks out there in the sticks may be ahead of the curve on you oh-so-sophisticated New Yorkers.

At Long Last Winter

We had a couple days early in December when the temperature got down to the low 20s (around -5C), but apart from that, winter hasn't been the onerous burden or frightful specter I had made it out to be in my mind. Today, though, the temperature has been dropping ever since dawn, and when I got home just after midnight, it was 17 (-8C).

Still nothing too serious, at least not compared with upstate or New England or the Midwest, but I think it qualifies as genuine winter, especially considering that tomorrow's high is supposed to be 24 (-4C). But it's hard to get too exercised about the awfulness of it all, even considering that a year ago at this time I was lounging on a beach in Sydney, because the current cold spell is supposed to last a mere two days before we're back to the kind of temperatures I was experiencing last week in San Francisco.

Which prompts me to wonder: why does 50 (10C) seem miserable and cold in Frisco and delightfully balmy in New York? Oh well; I'm not complaining in any event. In fact, so uncowed was I by tonight's weather that I walked uptown from Chelsea to Times Square (into the teeth of stiff northerly gale, I might add) when I could have just as easily taken the subway, and actually enjoyed the walk.

Of course I was wrapped up pretty snugly, with long johns, a sweater and polar fleece under my down jacket, topped off by scarf and (fake) fur hat, and apart from a few chinks in the ensemble where the wind was able to briefly get at me, I was almost completely comfortable. And not that I saw any baddies lurking about on the streets, but had there been, I almost felt as though even bullets couldn't have gotten through all that padding.

When I lived in the mountains of Northern California, it only very occasionally got this cold, but we did have to contend with an awful lot of rain. It was not unheard of, in fact, for it to rain pretty much nonstop for days or even weeks at a time (but only in winter; summers were bone dry). On such occasions, assuming I didn't want my road or my house to be washed down the side of the mountain, it was often necessary to get out there with a pick, rake and shovel to clear blockages out of culverts and redirect the torrents of water back into the gullies and ravines where they belonged.

I acquired a rain suit, consisting of rubber boots and a rubberized plastic jacket, hat, pair of pants, and gloves. Enveloped in this getup, I could happily shovel and dig for hours in the worst of downpours and come back to the house with no more than a smidgen of moistness having found its way onto my actual person. I'd never before been what you'd call a rain kind of guy, but there was an almost inexpressible serenity and joy about being able to defy the elements in that way, almost, I imagined, what it must be like for an astronaut whose snug-as-a-bug space suit enabled him to go weightlessly gallivanting in thin air (erm, the absence of thin air, I guess) hundreds of miles above the earth.

And that, my friends, is what it felt like tonight as I traipsed up 9th Avenue. The only thing that concerns me is that should it get a lot colder, I may not be able to add more layers of clothing and still be able to walk. But as my old friend Patrick Hynes always said, we'll jump off that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, I think I'll re-attach my detachable (fake) fur collar to my down jacket so that I can make a fashion statement out of being warm. And hey, it's January already; spring's practically around the corner!

01 January 2008

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Well, I can think of some former acquaintances that definitely should be, but for the most part I'm feeling pretty benign about humankind in these early hours of 2008. That may change soon, as apparently they're holding some sort of presidential election in the United States this year in which only fools, buffoons, charlatans, mountebanks and scoundrels are allowed to stand as candidates, and this just may succeed in getting my goat at some point.

But with any luck my goat will remain as ungotten as it has in recent months, meaning I'll continue to fulminate about the Bay Area and malfunctioning transit systems and occasional bouts of bad weather, but apart from that will remain inexplicably content with my own lot and that of the world at large.

I know I really should be angrier about something, and no doubt some of you will write in with long lists of exactly where I should start, but really, why should I squander the energy? The world's going to continue to get warmer? Well, I know plenty of places that could use the warmth. The economy's going to hell in a handbasket? It's been there before, and people (mostly) survived. The war is going to drag on forever? Well, actually, it seems to have gone awfully quiet of late, raising the dreadful possibility that George Bush, against all odds, may have turned out to be right about something.

In relation to the latter scenario, a lady at my mother's church was telling me yesterday that her son, who's a Marine stationed in Fallujah, reports that for the past couple months attacks on US patrols have almost ceased, this after a year in which he felt in mortal danger every time he set foot outside of headquarters. True, even if things have taken a turn for the better, Bush could very likely find a way to screw them up again, but it's worth asking: what if his much-ballyhooed and even more roundly decried "surge" turns out to have worked? How will all the "Bring the troops home now" people react to that? Will they still insist on a precipitous withdrawal on the grounds that America deserves to lose the war even if it somehow ends up winning it? Perhaps we shall soon see.

On the other hand, if the war does end up taking a turn for the better, we might end up with another Republican president, and with the possible exception of Giuliani, that would probably be a disaster. Of course most if not all of the Democratic candidates look pretty disastrous, too, so, um, big deal, I guess. Nonetheless, I sent in my New York registration form the other day, and as per family tradition registered as a Democrat, so come next month I suppose I'll have to be choosing one of them. The thought does not appeal.

But never mind; the thing that I found myself getting most exercised about these past couple weeks (it's a rather small matter, I'll admit) is people sending Christmas/New Year/holiday greetings, usually by email, in which they say something like, "Boy, wasn't 2007 a terrible year? It'll be great to see the end of it."

Now this annoys me in two ways: first, the assumption that just because you're having a "terrible year," everyone else is, too. And secondly, the rather childish assumption that the date on the calendar has anything at all to do with your luck or lack thereof.

Even if you could produce a graph showing how your index of misfortunes spiked dramatically at the beginning of 2007 and continued at unusually high levels throughout the year, the idea that your lot in life will suddenly improve as a result of turning the page on a calendar seems about as ludicrous as these people who say, "Oh, sorry I haven't called you for the past year, but I just couldn't help it; my Mercury's in retrograde and you know what that does to my communication skills."

Well, no, I don't, really, nor do I care to. You may think I'm being a little harsh here, both as a former believer in astrology and someone who was once convinced that years, not to mention decades and days, had their own special karma over which I was powerless to exert more than the most trivial influence.

The older I get, the more inclined I am to believe that "luck" as we commonly understand it plays a very small role, if any at all, in the ways that our lives unfold. Oh, sure, there's always the, "If I had got on the previous train instead of this one I wouldn't have met the love of my life (or been beaten senseless by a gang of thugs, etc.) thing, but I'm inclined to think that most of these seemingly inadvertent twists of fate are decisions that we consciously or unconsciously make with full knowledge of where they are likely to lead us.

Agree? Disagree? Well, I'm not here to argue with you, even if you choose to believe the complete opposite. What I am here to say is that while I enjoyed spending a week with my family and friends in California, I'm really, really glad to be back in my nice, warm apartment here in New York. And even more than that, to wish you all the very best and happiest of years, new, old, or otherwise. Oh, and thanks for keeping me company here on the internet. Don't know what I'd do without you.