Monday, July 27, 2009

Cambridge Blues

In his movie reviews, one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert, occasionally refers to "the idiot plot." This is a device in which, in order for the plot of the movie to move forward, the leading characters must react to the situation unfolding around them like blithering idiots. This is not a compliment.

Reading the news reports of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police officer James Crowley brings to mind Ebert's description. According to various sources, a passerby saw Gates and his driver trying to shove open his stuck front door. I had a cousin who used to live in Cambridge, and you could drop a marble at one end of her apartment and watch it roll to the other. The way some of those houses have settled over the years, a stuck door is perfectly logical.

The passerby called the police, and Officer Crowley responded. He asked Gates for identification. According to Crowley, Gates refused to show him his driver’s license and only showed his Harvard employee ID. According to Gates, he showed both forms of ID. When Crowley tried to determine if anyone else was in the house, Gates became abusive and was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Now, like most Stanford graduates, I've always harbored doubts about Harvard, and not just because it awarded a diploma to George W. Bush. Its motto is "veritas," which is Latin for truth. But any campus tour guide will happily tell you that the statue of John Harvard is colloquially known as the statue of three lies. The statue bears the inscription, John Harvard, Founder, 1638. In reality, the institution was founded in 1636, not 1638, and as New College; it was renamed Harvard College in 1639 after John Harvard contributed a significant amount of money (with the stipulation that his name be applied to the college, if memory serves). The statue was cast by Daniel Chester French in 1884, but because there were no likenesses of John Harvard available, French used a student as a model. Veritas, indeed.

Back to the idiot plot. You have a woman passing by a professor's home — presumably a local citizen — who has no idea who lives there. Here's a tip — get to know your neighbors, lady.*

Then you have a police officer sent to the house who somehow believes that the 58-year-old man within is potentially a burglar. Here's another tip: show some respect for your elders. Unless you’re a big fan of Going in Style (in which George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg play a trio of unlikely bank robbers), you should know that guys with canes aren’t usually burglars. Heck, I can't even lift my television set, and I'm younger than Gates.

Then you have a Harvard professor, who, admittedly, is probably cranky after a long trip. Here's a tip: show the officer some respect for the job he has to do. Be thankful that if a burglary was indeed taking place while you were away, he arrived to investigate it.

What I find equally mystifying about this idiocy is that everyone — from Gates to Crowley to the Cambridge police chief — is sticking to his guns about who was right and who was wrong. That is, they're continuing to be idiots about the whole sequence of events.

I gotta tell you: Even with a cameo by the president, this is not a movie I would pay to watch. Even as a comedy.

*After this was posted, I learned that the woman was actually an employee of one of Gates' neighbors.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Seven Things That Really Frost Me About Middle Age

When I think back on some of the things I did to my body when I was younger — alcoholic binges, all-night poker games — I probably shouldn't be surprised that it's taking its revenge on me now when I'm most defenseless. Here are seven problems with my body that really make middle age a challenge.

After The Laughter Is Gone. There’s nothing more delightful than finding something so hilarious that you just descend into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter. Every so often, my wife and I will start dishing on someone or something and just fall into a state of uproariousness that won’t stop. The problem now is that, instead of laughing uncontrollably, I always end up coughing uncontrollably. That just hacks.

Back When My Back Was Young. I am astonished at how the slightest twist in the wrong direction can make my back not only twinge, but turn into some sort of spasm-inducing fiend bent on crumbling my evolutionary right to walk erect. When I was a teen-ager, there was a movie called Hot Rods To Hell. In it, Dana Andrews (on the downside of his career) played a man on a driving vacation with his family who was tormented by hot-rodders on the same highway. Whenever Andrews tried to take on the hoodlums, his back would go out. I thought it was a way-too-inconvenient device to keep the movie going; now I'm convinced it's just sadly true-to-life.

Overwhelming Underarms. Is it just me, or is my body odor worse now than when I was a teen-ager?

Midnight Runs. It's not getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom that bothers me; I actually find the preceding dreams about unsuccessfully searching for a urinal rather humorous in retrospect. No, it's the occasional inability to go back to sleep afterwards that I hate. At least now there are 100 DirecTV channels to entertain me, as opposed to test patterns and all-night talk radio when I was a kid.

Food, Wonderful Food. It is a cruel trick of nature that, once you reach the point where you can pretty much afford to eat whatever you want, there sits a roadblock. Whether it’s the threat of heartburn or the peril of prescription drug interaction (I want my grapefruit back, Lipitor!), I now have to be careful about what I eat and when I eat it.

No More Marathon Drives. After I graduated from college, I lived in Seattle for three years, but frequently visited friends in San Francisco. It was anywhere from an 18- to a 22-hour drive, and I used to be able to do that in one shot, only stopping for Coca-Cola, fast food, and gasoline. (Though this was after Starbucks was founded, it was before I had discovered coffee.) Now my stamina for long drives is so low (translation: my butt begins to hurt), I can’t even get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one shot. If there were still double features at movie theatres, I wouldn’t be able to sit through them either.

To Caption It All Off. And speaking of movies, it’s all but impossible for me to go to movie theatres anymore. It's not just the idea of showing up on the movie theatre's schedule, listening to other people's conversations during the movie, not being able to pause it the way I can with a DVD or a DVR, or paying more for snacks that the actual admission. It's that I have become so accustomed to watching movies with the subtitles on to catch all the dialogue that I really can’t understand what the heck the characters are saying most of the time.

The really sad part is that I checked and found that none of the foregoing body parts are candidates for transplant surgery.

Monday, July 13, 2009

When Foreclosure Comes, Blame The Cats

I do my best work in the morning. That's when my mind is most active and alert. When I commuted to magazine jobs in San Francisco throughout the 90s, I would get proportionally more work done on the train (this was before cell phones were wildly popular) than I ever did once at my desk.

Now that I'm self-employed and work at home, I'm still at my best in the morning. The problem is, so are the cats. I'm positive that if the house gets foreclosed upon, it will be because the money dried up because I couldn't work because the cats wouldn't leave me alone in the morning.

They apparently think my job is not to write, but rather to entertain and minister to them. It's a wonder I get anything done. They have not yet made the connection that the house they sleep in, the yard they play in, and the food they eat is a direct by-product of my work.

It starts with Panther and Midnight, both named for their beautiful black coats. Midnight was a skinny stray that we noticed hanging around the house not long after we moved in five years ago. We started feeding her (yes, after trapping her and taking her to the vet, we confirmed she had been spayed) and she’s filled out considerably.

For a long time, I was amazed at how much food Midnight could put away, until the day when I looked outside and discovered not one but two black cats staring at the house from the front walk, willing someone to come outside with food. Even now, I think they work in concert on bait-and-switch tactics for food: "Oh, no, that wasn’t me you fed an hour ago. That was the other one."

The problem with feeding strays is that it attracts other unwanted animals: in our case, crows. As I'm sitting down to work, there can be an ungodly cawing on the front door step, as one crow will signal the rest of the gang that it's time for the cat-food scavenging to begin. This involves getting up from my desk to retrieve the food dish.

Next on the let's-bother-Daddy agenda is Gus (see photo, in which he has apparently eaten my keyboard). Now, Gus is one of the sweetest cats I've ever adopted. He was one of two ferals whom we were socializing for adoption about six years ago, until my wife decided she couldn't part with them. (Her exact words, as I remember them, were, "If you take those cats to another adoption fair, I'll kill you.") Given toward self-preservation, I kept them.

Though his heritage is unknown, it's clear that Gus has a lot of Ragdoll in him. Ragdolls are traditionally big cats with very soft fur, very affectionate, and prone to bonelessness when you hold them (hence the name). There may also be some Maine coon in him, because he tips the scales at about 18 pounds. A bigger bundle of love you’ll never find.

The problem is that cats love routine. And Gus' routine is to come to Daddy for loving first thing in the morning; he's here purring as I post. This involves jumping on my desk, shoving the coffee mug aside (or over), and butting his head against my hands on the keyboard. I have had to become a lot more assiduous about proofreading since Gus initiated this routine. I know that while we have friends and work, our cats only have us, but I just wish Gus would choose some other time of the day to be so friendly.

Once I convince Gus that only his going into his basket will stave off bankruptcy, Tuxedo will barf up his breakfast. Tuxedo is an orange tabby who will be 18 in a couple of months. I had no idea one cat could expel so much stuff from either end until Tuxedo came into our lives. The veterinarian can't find anything wrong with him – in fact, she considers Tux to be remarkably healthy for his age – so I resign myself to keeping terrycloth and paper towels handy.

Finally, it's Bandit’s turn. Bandit was the other feral. Mostly white (except after he’s been rolling in the garden), he has a black mask that spawned his name (it's also appropriate because he stole our hearts). Far more than Gus, Bandit loves returning to his feral roots and being outdoors as much as possible, especially these days when the weather is nice.

Still within the timeframe of my greatest productivity, about mid-morning, Bandit will return from his adventures in the garden. He doesn't just trot inside, however. For a cat that meowed infrequently as a youngster (like most ferals, who’ve been taught by their mothers not to attract the attention of humans), Bandit has since developed amazing vocal cords. He'll come back in search of brunch and make a noise that sounds like a siren to announce himself. Last week he let out with something so sharp and short, it sounded like a bark. That means it’s time for Daddy to once again interrupt his work and get the kitty treats out of the pantry.

By this point, of course, there's enough kitty hair floating through the air that my eyes begin to itch. This means trotting upstairs for a dose of prescription Systane, something my ophthalmologist gave me that’s far superior to regular eye drops. I don't know what's in it, but I love it.

Eventually, every feline ends up in their favorite basket or sleeping place. Later, I try to nap too, but before that happens, it's my only chance to be productively uninterrupted and avoid foreclosure.

Monday, July 6, 2009

When Memories Collide

I find myself increasingly drawn to the subject of memories, perhaps because by middle-age we have all amassed an amazing collection of them. Memories are the only things we collect that don't need display cases. I suspect that some memories have greater durability than actual physical matter.

This is not a new concept, of course. In the science fantasy pantheon, there is a much-loved book by Jack Finney called Time and Again (1970). In the broader world, Finney is best known for having written The Body Snatchers, the book upon which the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a gazillion remakes were based.

But Time and Again, named as one of the five best mysteries of all time, is a classic about a man named Simon Morley who finds a way to hypnotize himself back in time. Richard Matheson used the same concept in his book Bid Time Return, so when he wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation, Somewhere in Time, he named the character of the philosophy professor who coaches Christopher Reeve after Finney.

Less well known is the Time and Again sequel, From Time To Time (1995). In it, scientists start discovering multiple instances of conflicting memories, as if two parallel worlds where similar events had different outcomes suddenly fused together. Some people distinctly remember the Titanic docking at Chelsea Pier in New York City in April 1912, while others remember it sinking. Someone discovers a newspaper from February 22, 1916, the day after the Battle of Verdun began — but there’s nothing about it in the headlines. A campaign button from Jack Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign turns up.

A world in which conflicting memories exist side-by-side is not that big a stretch. While the ones in Finney’s book are fiction, so many others are real. Recently in Razed in the U.S.A., I ranted about the disposability of large structures and the havoc it plays on our sense of time and place. Every building that’s been torn down still exists in our memory, side-by-side with what exists now.

In the 70s and 80s, I spent a lot of time in Reno; my best friend at the time attended the University of Nevada for both undergraduate and graduate school. Today, downtown Reno has changed considerably: I look at the Silver Legacy Hotel, the Eldorado, and even the National Bowling Stadium and think, "Wait, what used to be there?"

I've seen this happen with my father. We were heading to the barber recently, a man who’s been in the business in Palo Alto for years. I used to get my hair cut in the shop his father ran. My father had his real estate office in the same building as the barber shop. As we drove to the shop, my father helpfully reminded me that there was parking behind the building.

The only problem: the barber shop hadn’t been in that building for 20 years. The shop was now a block away, in a location that both my father and I had visited. My father was born when Woodrow Wilson was president, but his age is really not the issue. He's been in this area almost twice as long as I have, so he has twice as many opportunities to collect conflicting memories of where things used to be, rather than where they actually are.

As I get older, I feel these conflicting memories grow stronger. Is it possible that the parallel worlds that Finney envisioned actually blossom in our heads? Perhaps that's where we go when we die. Our destination at the end of our physical life is a neighborhood we create in our mind that's comfortable and familiar, with all the amusement parks and ice cream parlors and tree houses we could ever want.