Thursday, March 28, 2002

I'm working on a magazine article that involved doing a lot of telephone interviews. And that means I have a lot of tapes to transcribe. I record the interviews because I'm a terrible note taker--I just can't write fast enough. But the tape recorder is both my friend and my enemy. The average interview takes twice as long to transcribe as to "do," which seems like a terrible waste of time. I also hate listening to my voice. I always think I sound like a stupid adolescent on tape. It's probably just that I'm hypercritical. But still, I'm sometimes daydream about taking one of those voice-improvement courses, so that I can sound like James Earl Jones on the phone--you know, the deep, mellifluous voice of Verizon, CNN and Darth Vader.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

A man's home is his castle, in a manor of speaking.

And a good pun is its own reword, don't you think?

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

My son and I like to watch a goofy TV show called Battlebots. It involves remotely controlled robots chasing and destroying each other in an arena, while a crowd cheers. It's sort of a combination of professional wrestling, Roman gladitorial combat and amusement-park bumper cars. Crush, kill, destroy! At least it's better than watching boxing or the WWF clowns. I wonder, though: is it "TV violence" if robots are tearing each other apart? And why is this show on the Comedy Central channel?

Monday, March 25, 2002

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find, in each person's life, sorrowing and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

While web-surfing the other day, I found a picture of my ex-boss on a website. It brought back lots of painful memories. I hated her, but there she was, smiling pleasantly in a publicity shot. Where in that posed expression was the Machiavellian, back-stabbing, narcissistic hypocrisy I had put up with for so many months? How does this person manage to function in the world, day to day, and even advance in her career? I noted that she's changed jobs several times since I knew her--no doubt leaving a trail of human wreckage in her wake, but nevertheless scratching her way up the corporate pyramid. Who is she? Who is she really? Is there a core of human feeling behind, those dark, vacant eyes, with their hint of fear? I still don't know.

Sunday, March 24, 2002

I come here late at night, trying to piece together the fragments of the day, trying to say something inutterable. It doesn't cohere, it doesn't come together--at least not yet. What is worth writing about: brunch with the other condo owners at our "annual meeting," working on my website, washing the dishes, doing laundry, watching Star Trek? No. Seeing people walking down the street, well dressed, and holding palm fronds? Not really. Perhaps tomorrow will be more memorable.

Saturday, March 23, 2002

I cleaned the living room today--a spiritually uplifting experience. The room was a mess, largely because my son tends to hang out there, watching TV or using his PlayStation. The carpet was a minefield of Lego toys and crumbs--I couldn't walk two feet without crunching something. His books, papers, videotapes and CDs were also strewn across every chair and table. In short, it looked like a major earthquake had shaken the place like a Mariachi rattle.

I can't stand it when a room gets like that. I see it as a metaphor: messy room, messy mind, messy life.

My battle plan was to first remove everything from the room that didn't belong there, including candy wrappers, plates and cups, sporting equipment, clothing and miscellaneous detritus. That took about 20 minutes. Then I removed all the portable furniture from the room. I put all the books and tapes on the proper shelves. I picked up the Legos and action figures and Burger King Ice Age toys and filed them away in the proper boxes. I put his papers into folders and shelved them. All that took about half an hour.

Then I got the vacuum cleaner out. I used the wand attachment and got down on my knees to suck up every crumb and dust ball. I also vacuumed the chair cushions. I replaced the furniture. Finally, the room looked fit for human habitation . . . .

. . . . for about 20 minutes. Now he's lying on the couch, eating potato chips and strewing tapes and PlayStation discs around again. And I can't help thinking about Sisyphus in the Greek myth, forever rolling his rock up that hill only to see it roll back down again.

Friday, March 22, 2002

A Friday in the Life

I don’t know about you, but I often find Friday to be the strangest day of the week. No matter what I have planned, things always seem to work out differently than I expect.

Today, Friday, March 22nd, I wanted to bring my projects for the week--both personal and professional--to some kind of conclusion. In the end, I suppose I did, but only after a few unexpected twists and turns.

My first mistake was to lie down “for a few minutes” after getting my son on his school bus this morning. “Just 15 minutes,” I told myself. I thought I could partially make up for all the 2 AM bedtimes I’ve had this week while struggling to keep up with my work load. (I’m a freelance writer/editor, in case you’re wondering.) An hour and a half later, I woke up with a start and decided I’d better get to work.

In order to meet a deadline, I wanted to return a manuscript I’d finished copyediting to a book publisher. It had come with instructions to return it via UPS, along with the publisher’s UPS account number.

I went online to generate a shipping label on the UPS site. I plugged in the account number, but UPS didn’t recognize it. So I fired off an e-mail to the editor who sent me the manuscript, asking him to confirm the number.

Meanwhile, the place where I was having my car repaired called to say that it was ready. Picking it up would involve a lengthy cross-town trip on public transportation--and some walking as well. I was about to set off on that errand when I remembered that this was a half day at my son’s school, because of teacher conferences. He’d be arriving home on the bus soon, so I’d have to stick around.

While I was wondering how I’d juggle all this—and as two more editing projects arrived via e-mail—I checked to see if the editor at the book publisher had responded to my message yet. No response. I also couldn’t reach him on the phone. “Screw it,” I thought, “I’ll send it back by FedEx.” I went to the FedEx website, input the information (it recognized the publisher’s FedEx number), printed out a label and scheduled a pick-up.

It was time to meet my son’s school bus. I waited at the bus stop in the freezing wind for quite a while. “It would be late,” I thought. “That’s how this day is going.” Finally, the bus came. But he wasn’t on it.

I went inside and called the school. “He’s in the after-school homework club today,” Chris, the school’s receptionist, informed me. “I thought there was no after-school program today because it’s a half day,” I said. “No, we have it today,” he said. “Oh. OK, have him call me when he finishes his homework,” I said.

I went back inside and decided that maybe I should go pick up the car after all. “But what if FedEx comes to pick up the package while I’m gone?” I thought. “Maybe I should just sit tight. But I’ll have to go out anyway and catch a bus to the school to pick up my son when he calls. Maybe I should go get the car, pick up my son, and hope I get back before FedEx comes.” While I was mulling this over, my son called. “Dad, I’m done with my homework,” he said, in the slow, deep voice that he only uses on the phone. “OK,” I said. “But I won’t be there for a while, because I have to pick up the car.” “OK,” he said. I could hear the disappointment in his voice.

I went out and caught a bus. It seemed to move in slow motion through the afternoon traffic. Finally, I got off at Journal Square and began to walk toward the car dealership--which isn’t on any bus route that I’m aware of. It was about a 20 minute walk, which I normally wouldn’t mind--I like to walk and consider myself something of an “urban hiker.” But the temperature was in the low 30s and, with the wind chill, it felt like about zero. I walked fast, both to keep warm and because I was still having fantasies about not missing FedEx.

Luckily, retrieving the car was quick and easy--once I handed over my credit card. Soon I was inching my way through afternoon traffic again, but at least I was at the wheel this time. I wasn’t quite sure how to get to the school from the car dealership, but I managed to do it without getting lost (which is quite an accomplishment for me; I’ll write here about my shaky sense of direction sometime.)

My son was watching a “boring” video with some other kids and was happy to see me. Soon we were crawling through Friday afternoon traffic again. We arrived home, but there was nowhere in sight to park. (We urbanites have to park on the street.) Finally, I found a place only a short walk from our condo.

Back inside, I checked the FedEx website to see if I’d missed the pick-up. Apparently not; the web page said that the package hadn’t been “scanned” yet. Just then the door bell rang. “Eureka,” I thought. I ran downstairs with the manuscript, but it wasn’t FedEx--just the regular mailman with a package from my in-laws. I trudged back upstairs. Just as I sat down to start some work--my first paid work of the day, even though I felt like I’d been laboring for hours--the doorbell rang again. I grabbed my package and hustled downstairs to the front door. There she was, the woman I’d been waiting for, in her FedEx overalls. I handed her the package, heaved a sigh, and climbed the stairs again. At least I got some exercise today, I thought.

It was 4 o’clock. “Nobody starts working at 4 o’clock on a Friday,” I thought to myself. “But then, I’m a work-at-home freelancer--9 to 5 should mean nothing to me, right?”

My son had other plans for me, though: “Dad, can we go to the park?” He wanted to practice his baseball moves. “OK,” I said. “I give up,” I thought.

We walked to the park, and I threw him some grounders and fly balls. It was still cold, and my fingers began to go numb. “Pitch to me,” he begged. “OK, 20 pitches,” I said.

My fingers had stiffened up, and most of my pitches were lousy. He kept giving me dirty looks. Finally, he got a series of hits, though, and agreed to call it a day.

Back inside, I made myself a steamy mug of coffee. I sat down and tried to decide if, after all the effort, I’d actually accomplished anything worthwhile this day. I still haven’t decided.

“But what the hell,” I thought, swigging some coffee and burning my tongue a little. “It’s Friday.”

Thursday, March 21, 2002

It's soooo much easier to get a novel published if you already have a famous name . . . even if that name is Saddam Hussein. Read all about it at: Excite - News.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Every wonder why we still use so much paper in this digital era? There's an elightening article on the subject at The New Yorker.

I prefer to write on the computer, but I like to read on paper, when possible. That's why I decided to give my writing website, Dream House, a background that looks like paper . . . . Now if only I could figure out how use the same background for this blog.

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

I took my son to his first baseball practice this evening. It was held in a school gym, because it's still winter around here. I haven't been in a school gym in a long time, and it brought back memories, not all of them pleasant. All the old elements were there: the squeaky floor; the harsh, buzzing lights; the faint smell of floor polish, rubber and sweat. And then the charged air of performance anxiety. He did OK, though, as they went through the drills--running, throwing, catching--and I sat on a hard bench, trying to look bemused, fatherly, nonchalant. . . .

Monday, March 18, 2002

Wisdom from the Web:

"When we die we simply shed our corporal shells and become pure spirits that float in the air, like a cool summer breeze that blows off a river. Bad people become the dust that collects on TV screens." --Brian Crowley

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Well, I've spent the whole weekend working. Such is the life of a freelancer--I've turned my home into a sweatshop. Still and all, it beats office politics and having an overseer second-guessing my every move. Things should ease up a bit this week. Zzzzz

Saturday, March 16, 2002

Plagiarism isn't funny, but this article is: Copy That. You'll see why when you get to the end of the article.
Sometimes I feel there's something wrong with me, something unAmerican, because I don't drive an SUV.

More and more people drive them, it seems. I feel surrounded by them when I'm out driving--even here in the city. And it's annoying. When you're in a (relatively) low to the ground conventional car, it's hard to see around them. And when I'm trying to pull out of my on-the-street parking space (see previous entry), there's usually an SUV parked in front or in back of me--or both--which makes it damn hard to see oncoming traffic before pulling out.

I used to think that SUVs appealed mostly to men who wanted to feel macho by driving a truck around. But I've noticed that many of them are driven by women. On CNN today, they showed excerpts from a Senate debate about fuel standards, about whether SUVs should have to meet the same standards as cars. Senator Barbara Mikulsky (sp?) said that women (specifically "soccer moms," I think she said) drive SUVs to feel safe--safe from huge trucks that might crash into them, safe from car-jackers, etc. They want to feel that they're driving a tank, even if it means spending a lot more on gas.

The SUV has now become the standard family "car," which is what the station wagon used to be. I don't think any American auto company even makes station wagons anymore. And that makes me feel nostalgic, because I practically grew up in a station wagon.

SUVs are big, wasteful, comfortable, expensive, excessive--truly an American invention. I used to think they were a passing fad, but now I think they're here to stay. If they make people safer, maybe it's a good thing (Martha Stewart drives one). But please don't run into me with your tank.

Thursday, March 14, 2002

I love living in the city, but it does have its drawbacks. One of the biggest hassles is what's known as "on street parking." We live in a condo without a garage or a driveway, so we have to park our car at curbside. Unfortunately, so do most other people in the 'hood, which means that finding a parking space can be a trial, especially at night. To make matters more complicated (far more complicated), on some mornings we're not allowed to park on one side of the street, on other mornings, the other side. This is because the street cleaners have to do their thing. Get in their way, and you get a $29 ticket. Consequently, as a work-at-home type, I often spend part of my lunch hour moving the car from one side of the street to the other, just so I won't have to move it the following morning.

I went outside to do just that today, but the car was . . . gone. For a while, I was frantic, thinking it had been stolen (which actually happened to us once a few years ago). I walked up and down the block, hoping that maybe I had forgotten where I parked it. I was getting ready to call the police, when I spotted the car parked down another street--and my wife gettting out of it. It seems she had left work early and, instead of coming upstairs to our condo, had hopped into the car for a short shopping errand. Mystery solved. Just another day in Anecdote City.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

While I'm editing, I like to listen to music. Not just any music. I usually listen to film scores, "ambient" music or cool jazz--music without lyrics, because it allows me to concentrate. I can choose to listen, or let the music function as white noise, depending on what I'm doing at the moment. I suppose that's the purpose behind Muzak, too, but elevator music has always annoyed me. It's "calming influence" is just too damn manipulative. I think they play it in stores because it encourages people to buy more stuff--it tranquilizes any concern about spending too much. Or maybe I'm just paranoid.

Today, I've been listening to a beautiful, classic film score by the great Alex North: The Long, Hot Summer. It's from an old (1958) Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward movie based on some of William Faulkner's short stories. Very lyrical and literary--just the thing to listen to while editing a long treatise on financial conditions in Thailand!

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

We walked to the park last evening to see the Towers of Light over Manhattan. It was a clear, cold night, and the visibility was perfect. The skyline: a thousand black skyscrapers studded with tiny lit windows, like jewels. Two narrow shafts of light (almost a single shaft from my point of view) reached straight up from the southern tip of the city into infinity. It didn’t look anything like the actual twin towers, but it was beautiful and powerful—the beams were brilliant, not ghostly, as I had expected. I wish this could be a permanent installation instead of a temporary memorial. But it costs $10,000 per night to keep it illuminated….

A crowd had gathered in the park to stand and watch, much like the crowd that assembled on the evening of September 11 to see the illuminated dust cloud that hung over the city that night. Except for some children who didn’t seem to understand what all the fuss was about, it was a very quiet group. CNN has a picture of the Towers of Light.

Monday, March 11, 2002

Six months today. Sometimes, it seems like six years. Other times, it feels like six weeks, or six days. I think it's a little early for all the commemoration and TV specials. September 11, 2002, would be soon enough (for me). CBS aired a documentary about "that day" last night, but I didn't watch it. At the request of my wife, I taped it for later viewing. I'm not sure when that will be, though. My wife, who worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center, doesn't feel quite ready to watch it yet. I am looking forward to the "Towers of Light" that will be switched on over the Manhattan skyline tonight, which we'll be able to see from our local park. I miss those towers....If you want to read about my "911" experience, and my recollections of visiting the WTC, it's all in an essay I wrote,The Towers.

Sunday, March 10, 2002

Today, the wind is frantic and rattling the windows. Before this winter is officially over, I want to post this quote from a famous writer:

"Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The season's difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
'This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.' "

Saturday, March 09, 2002

I love the random text generators that you can find online--for example, the Web Economy Bullshit Generator. When you go to this site, you hit a submit button (the "make bullshit" button) and then receive short, random phrases that sound like MBA-speak from the late 90s (i.e., before the dotcom crash). Some examples:

synergize extensible mindshare
leverage bricks-and-clicks partnerships
productize e-business convergence
synergize out-of-the-box networks
exploit cross-media communities
transform one-to-one bandwidth
scale world-class applications
expedite granular portals

And on and on. You get the idea....

Another entertaining one is the Genuine Haiku Generator. It's an artificial intelligence program that generates random haiku poetry. The results are often nonsensical, but they sometimes make an odd sort of sense if you think about them long enough. Examples:

boatmen pinch, dumb mouse
snapping, innocuous plough
riding, rejoicing

stale magic heron
rides rides, squelching
glumly, bunglingly

malicious fruit squirms,
piercing harp stampeding, doves
extrude, proudly soft

Have fun.

Friday, March 08, 2002

I haven't taken a bath in years. No, it's not a lack of hygiene; it's that I'm a shower man. To me, a bath seems like a luxury, a waste of time and water. "Drawing" the bath, carefully lowering myself in, feeling around for the soap or sponge like a scavenging fish after some smaller sea creature, then washing myself in slow motion, as one tends to do underwater--it all seems very leisurely and Victorian. Then, too, I don't know how to wash my hair in the bathtub. But my main problem is that it feels…delightful. It's like a trip back to the womb, and I'm tempted to linger and savor it--not good if I have to be somewhere in an hour.

Baths are for kids, I think, rightly or wrongly. My 11-year-old son insists on taking a bath before he goes to bed every night--no nagging required. I think he is the cleanest 11-year-old in town, but the appeal for him isn't about getting clean. The warm water seems to relax him, to calm his whirligig of thoughts. Often, I sit on the floor by the bathtub while he’s in there and we talk about things: Harry Potter, space aliens, why his fifth-grade classmates insist that anyone using Chapstick is applying lipstick. You know--the burning issues of our day. After a few minutes of soaking and unwinding these conversational threads, he’s ready to sleep as soon as his head hits the pillow (well, most of the time).

My wife likes a leisurely bath, too. For her, it’s “therapeutic,” especially when accompanied by mountains of bubbles, various bath oils and salts and, occasionally, aromatherapy candles. I could not take such a bath with a straight face, but I admire those who can.

I do like to sit in a hot tub, whenever I stay in a hotel or motel that has one—which is perhaps once a year, while on vacation. But such a soak is a special occasion. It doesn’t elicit any feelings of Puritan guilt, unless I stay in longer than, say, 20 minutes. But by then I’m ready to get out anyway, since I’m starting to feel like a boiled lobster.

Maybe I’ll take a bath sometime soon, just to reconnect with my fetal self and relax a little. As soon as I have an hour in the morning or evening to spare, I'll do it. And when will that be, he asks himself.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Yesterday I walked to the newstand on Central Avenue to buy a newspaper, as I do every day. It's the type of place that sells papers, stationery, greeting cards, gifts and lots of paperback books. The books are lined up on long metal racks with their covers facing out, not shelved with only the spines visible as they would be in a regular bookstore. Some of the books are new, but many of them are old and dusty, with cracked covers. Based on their copyright dates, some of them date back to the 60s and 70s.

As I was paying for my newspaper, I asked the woman behind the cash register--the wife of the store's owner--how much their used books cost. It was something I had been wondering about for a long time, but hadn't asked because they usually don't have any books that I'm interested in.

She looked at me for a second, then said, "We don't sell used books. Some of our books look old because the customers open them and read them, but we don't sell any books at a discount." "Oh, OK," I said. "Just curious." I was a little embarassed for having asked--I felt "cheap"--but now I think it was a perfectly reasonable question. They expect people to pay the cover price for these ancient, beat-up paperbacks? They're the type of books that people charge a quarter for at garage sales.

After I left, a guy came up to me on the sidewalk. He had been standing in line behind me at the cash register. "Those books are old," he said. "Why don't they give a discount?"

"Beats me," I said. "Some of those books have been sitting there for 30 years." He just shook his head and walked away.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Two of my favorite poets--Sylvia Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes--are apparently going to get the bio-pic treatment. According to the Sunday Times (of London), Russell Crowe is to play Hughes and Plath will be played by (drum roll)...Gwyneth Paltrow. I actually think those are pretty good choices. Paltrow looks a bit like Plath, and though Crowe doesn't look much like Hughes, he has that glowering, uber-male presence that Hughes had. More important, both can act. Thank God the BBC will be producing this, and not Hollyweird. At one point, I had heard that Meg Ryan was being considered for the Plath role in some tinseltown production. [He gags.]

Ananova - Russell Crowe in line to play late poet
Could Barbie dolls be America's secret weapon? "I think every Barbie doll is more harmful than an American missile," says Masoumeh Rahimi, an Iranian toy seller, in an AP story I read today (see below). That's because the "wanton" Barbie is "foreign to Iran's culture," he says. It seems Barbie's wardrobe is too revealing--not to mention her impressive polyethylene cleavage. Iran is introducing "Dara and Sara" in an attempt to reduce the popularity of Barbie and Ken over there. The dolls are described as 8-year-old twins, brother and sister, and Sara comes complete with a headscarf.

Yahoo! News - Iran Unveils Islamic Twin Dolls
As a kid, I used to love Irwin Allen's sci-fi/fantasy TV shows: "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," "Land of the Giants," "Time Tunnel," and, most of all, "Lost in Space." According to a news story I saw yesterday, all four of these series are being revived in new incarnations by 20th Century Fox. It's about time. These low-budget (by today's standards) shows weren't always well written or directed (though there were more "good" episodes than most people remember), but they were always imaginative and exciting. Each one of them had a terrific premise. I only hope that Fox can stay true to the spirit of the originals. The story, "Fox Rewinds Sci-Fi TV Classics," is at:

Yahoo! TV News & Gossip -
"Writing is the voice of an absent Person."
--Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

A correspondent writes: "My 7th grader assures me this means Akash has ordered a hit on the bully who's been gleeping his lunch money."

My son came home from school today and informed me that Akash, a fellow fifth-grader, had given his "issues" to someone. I asked him what he meant by "issues." "Problems, duh!" he said. (Don't you just love it when kids respond to you with "Duh!"?) I asked him what it meant to "give" your issues to someone. He didn't respond, apparently because this question was too imbecilic to deserve a reply. "You mean, he told someone about his problems?" I asked. "Duh!" "Well, what are Akash's problems?" I asked. "I don't know," he said. " does somebody do that?" I asked, wondering if he was trying to tell me about some new psycho-therapeutic technique that fifth-graders have developed. "Maybe they talk into a tape recorder and then play back the tape for someone really fast while they run away," he said. End of conversation. Things have certainly changed since I was in the fifth grade.
Brilliant sunshine today but bitterly cold, with a biting wind. I run out to check my mailbox and buy a newspaper, then scuttle back inside like some bug or a nocturnal rodent that hates the light. Spring can't come soon enough.
Today, I'm copyediting a book manuscript about Japanese herbal medicine. Earlier this winter, I copyedited a book about Sante and Kenny Kimes, the con artists and serial killers. Life has many a curious twist and turn--and is full of opportunities to spout cliches.