Monday, November 29, 2010

Pass the TV and the Cranberry Sauce

Rabbit ears...they're so 20th century!
For the second time since I began this project I left town (see Review of Room 202 post for first instance).

This time my wife, son, and I drove four hours to reach an idyllic country-side setting for the Thanksgiving hoiday. Both of these experiences tempted me to be exposed to all sorts of news, weather, sports and entertainment in the most powerful way. The accommodations offered cable/satellite TV.

Back home we remain an over-the-air, rabbit ear TV-type family. It's almost like being electronically Amish. After all, according to statistics, somewhere between 70-90% of TV watching households have cable these days. Never mind. Being in the minority doesn't bother me most of the time. We are already so little inclined to watch TV that it's hard to imagine how more channels would improve things. Still, whenever I travel and I come across a cable source, I like to channel surf and see what I might be missing.

So I watched some TV...go ahead, sue me!
This time, with the Van Winkle Project hanging in the balance, it was more risky.

First came episodes of Mythbusters. That was okay, I guess, because you can't tell which are new episodes and which not, and none of it told me anything that updated what has come to pass in the world since I became Van Winkled on Sept. 11. The main thing was that the show was enjoyable. How can you not want to know what happens when Jamie and Adam ignite one million matchheads?

A rerun of The Incredibles, was fine, too. An old movie, already saw it. But I have to say that when no one was around I did something a little more dicey.

I got busy with the remote.

Within a few minutes I saw Sarah Palin's now familiar bespectacled, lipsticked image in front of an Alaskan backdrop. My nostalgia for my days living in the 49th State or something must have kicked in and I stopped. I listened to her for thirty seconds.

The former half-term governor said that what made America "great" was "incentives." She said the current administration was "deincentivizing" everyone. Okay, did I learn anything newsworthy from Ms. Palin and violate the terms of the Van Winkle Project? Not so much. I moved on, still feeling almost as pure as the fresh fallen Alaskan snow.

Don't worry. The air force jet is NOT cleared for take-off.
 More danger lay ahead, though. On a Fox channel Bill O'Reilly was interviewing our most recent former president whom I remembered had a memoir scheduled to come out after I went to "sleep."

I listened to O'Reilly's question, something about the Iraq surge being the correct strategy...

I clicked the remote. Safe again!

Surfing, I saw a lot of Nikon ads
starring you know who...
Of course, E! was dangerous, but ten seconds of listening to it and I realized my celebrity IQ is so low I don't even recognize most of the names. I'm still stuck back in time when Demi Moore is the world's most sought after actress, Bruce Willis has hair (and  a wife named "Demi"), and a kid named Ashton Kutcher is wearing diapers.

After I got past those channels I was pretty much a free man. I forwarded myself through a blur of football games without even being able to identify who was on the field.

I did notice from commercials that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and a movie called Love and Other Addictions are coming to a theater near you, but that's all I know about them.

In the end I emerged from my cable spree with my window on the world still fairly tightly shut. I don't even know how the Black Friday sales went other than the first-hand evidence when we went into the nearby town in the afternoon and rubbed elbows with the crowds happily rubbing elbows as they wound through the little gift shops and fingered jam jars and enough Christmas paraphernalia to celebrate the holiday into the next millenium.

My ignorance more or less intact, I felt like an alchoholic that had strolled into a bar and made it out without doing any more than inhale the fumes. I had proved just how resolved I was to remain Van Winkled.

Disincentivized by Cable TV
My holiday cable browsing showed me something else. I was reminded once again why cable and I never got together on permanent basis.

I remember the days when cable was a new product and touted as 1) offering perfect reception and 2) being commercial free. We know how Number 1 turned out. A joke. In fact, in 1996 a movie could be made, The Cable Guy, and everyone immediately knew just from the title that it was a comedy. As for being commercial free, that visual Eden didn't last long before there came the Fall courtesy of Madison Avenue.

Still, cable was a place where initially one could watch movies that had appeared in the theaters. This was good if you missed them when they came out or wanted to see them again. Thus we had HBO and Cinemax as raisons d'etres. Then along came the VCR. Cable lost another advantage.

Ted Turner was one of the saviors of cable. He came up with the idea of around the clock news and CNN was born. The arrival of MTV in the 1980s gave cable another distinctive.

Eventually cable would discover that it could succeed by offering niche programming. Cable, unlike network TV which tried to have something to appeal to most everyone in the room,  would be almost like a place where you could shop for the television equivalent of a magazine devoted to your special interest. Entire channels for people who were into home decor and remodeling, channels about food, channels about history, channels about animals, channels about fashion and celebrities, not to mention channels for kids and sports fans.

They could also spend big bucks and produce original series and movies the same as the networks or Hollywood. Shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Madmen, and others have led some critics to assert that cable have given us a "new golden age of TV." And perhaps they have a point. Such shows take on mature themes, enough money is spent that the production and design are on the level of a major film release, and the series format allows for character development on par with what we find in great novels.

Isn't it about time
I got one of these, i.e., TV on Viagra?
So finally there ought to be enough reason for me to sign up for Dish or Satellite Network and get one of those cool looking devices ornamenting the brow of my roof? Even the commercials ought not to hold me back. Another innovation, called the digital video recorder, takes care of that. I can record shows and fast forward past the commercials.

But I still don't feel compelled to join the majority. The whole subscription thing feels wasteful and time consuming like being forced to buy an entire store's inventory when you actually only want a handful of items. Or it's like having to own the whole library when you're only interested in certain books in certain sections of the library. I think I await the day when all TV content arrives from the Internet and everything is on demand. I want to see what I want to see at a given moment and I don't even want to catch a glimpse of the dross, which for me and Bruce Springsteen ("57 Channels and Nothin' On" 1992) is about 98%.

I'm honest enough to admit, however, that there is a down side.

I will continue to miss serendipitous moments where I press the channel advance and hit the high crest of a video cable surf moment that can tell me so much about the state of American culture such as...

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke may
have a "situation" on his hands...
- Snooki and The Situation and the cast of Jersey Shore preparing to ring the New York Stock Exchange opening bell (here) while great economic minds wonder whether this will send a signal to the global markets to rise, fall, or belch.

- Finding out whether Adam Richman on Man vs. Food can really eat the flame-throwing Bushido's SpicyTuna Roll without smoke coming out his ears or (more likely) going to the emergency room.

You call it "little," I call it "giant"!
 - Watching a guy named Hal Wing on an infomercial for the multi-functional Little Giant stepladder showing me how to set up the ladder to hang a painting over the mantel while simultaneously drawing a blank on the name for a fireplace hearth and, adeptly, last second, like a a true pro, calling it "that elevated area in front of your fireplace." (I have to say the Little Giant looked like a pretty great invention, especially if I were to have go way up high on my roof to fix a shingle and change a light bulb in the living room all on the same day.)

Oh, yes. I don't mind doing this kind of labor intensive watching for an hour at a time, twice a year when I'm on vacation. It's only afterwards that I become troubled. Who is really asleep? Van Winkle? Or is it the version of me reclined on the couch, staring at a screen, making thumb twitches in the direction of the remote every couple of minutes? I'm all the way up to Channel 99 and I'm still trying to decide if this much TV is good or bad. 

I do know one thing, though. A Little Giant could sure make decorating the Christmas tree next week a breeze... - V.W.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mark Twain's Birthday Bumper Cars

Just before I slipped into my Van Winkle "sleep" back in September, it was announced that the University of California Press would be publishing the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. One.

In the world of literature and Twain scholarship this was big news about America's best known and most beloved author. It even made the cover of Newsweek, when I was still reading Newsweek. Without hesitation, and knowing that the book was already done and "in the pipeline" and therefore all right for me to read during the course of the VWP, I pre-ordered it from Amazon. I've had it in the house for a few weeks now.

The editors' introduction tells me that Samuel Clemens (better known as "Mark Twain") labored at his life's story for more than two decades only to have it released in partial form several times after his death in 1910. Clemens himself said that the "unexpurgated" version, in which all his opinions were expressed without reservation, should not be published for "a hundred years." Only then could he speak without fear of consequences as a "voice from the grave."

So far the first volume of the evenutal totality of what Clemens has to say about himself amounts to a lavishly rendered, weighty book containing 737 pages of small type, its dimensions the same as my Webster's dictionary. Two more volumes are forthcoming, so we can expect a mega-autobiography.

How big is this book? Compare it to the 12-pound turkey
we'll be consuming today... 
This definitive version of Clemen's story includes false starts he made in the late 19th Century and the more assured writing he dictated to a secretary a few years before his death. The story is not told in chronological order, a feat of which Clemens was proud. He found the standard "born-lived-died" historical approach to a subject predictable and boring. He wanted to leave for us a work that is innovative in form with one memory opening up on another.

Ever Thankful For The Extermination
I've been dipping into the Autobiography, doing so with disregard for the final order Clemens' own disorder. My goal is to get to know the lay of the land before I settle down and read more systematically. In the process I've found that Mr. Clemens has something interesting to say about Thanksgiving.

...Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for -- annually, not oftener -- if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.  The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day had long ago ceased to exist--the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us, and every year the President of the United States and the Governors of all the several States and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and this is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe, and sin is resumed at the old stand. [p. 267-268]

As one might imagine, Clemens' criticism of his forebears' behavior toward Native Americans was bound to be received with less than enthusiasm by some if not most in his lifetime. Even today it has the power to disturb one's idealized Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving mood more than a tad.

But the Autobiography reveals more about why Clemens is peeved by this most American of holidays.

The 70th birthday dinner held,
NOT on Mr. Clemens date of birth!
When Clemens dictated the above, the date of the Thanksgiving holiday was, as he notes, still set by the President and governors. A few years earlier, in 1904 the date was fixed as the fourth Thursday in November which happened to fall on the 30th. The significance? It was Clemens' birthday, his 70th, as a matter of fact. A friend wished to throw Clemens a nice dinner party, but because of the conflict with Thanksgiving, it had to be put off until December 5. Mr. Clemens was not happy!

Birthday Bumper Cars
Well, it's a fact. Sometimes a person's birthday collides with a holiday. Wham, bam! Too much fun happening in one space simultaneously.

The most abused of this bunch are those I meet who were born on or near Christmas. These unlucky ones include my wife who entered this world just over a week before someone decided Jesus of Nazareth did. The children with Christmas-time birthdays suffer from a well recognized overall festivity dilution and diminuition. I think it's quite likely the same holds true for those who arrived not via the careful placement of the stork but on the wings of a turkey.

However, until I read the Autobiography I'd never thought of the probably semi-numerous people out there trying to combine turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy with birthday cake and presents. I suppose one way to look at it positively is that on the years when their birthdays fall directly and hard on the holiday they have significantly more to be thankful for than the rest of us.

My own birthday very much falls on a holiday and it always will. I'm actually fine with that. That's because there's one exception to the general rule that being born on a holiday impinges on one's own nuptial anniversary festivities.

New Year's babies.

In my experience, New Year's Day is celebrated intensely right up until midnight. But like the fireworks, as day dawns on the new year there's not much left of the holiday exuberance. The people around me rise and are rather subdued (if not hungover). Everyone stays at home. Perfect! We throw together a little celebration in afternoon or evening as they gradually recover and recognize another year of my life. The presents are brought out which seem like a fine echo of Christmas one week ago to the very day.

What Shall We Give Thanks For?

Olivia "Susy" Clemens
Whether Samuel Clemens wished he were born on New Year's or some other date is open to debate, but he did seem to regard Thanksgiving as in large measure a feel-good sham. Still, I don't have to read much of the Autobiography to realize that he was a man who was capable of thanks every other day of the year, indeed who felt sincere gratitude for where he'd ended up in life, especially for having a home with his wife and four children. He lost all but one of those children, including his beloved Susy who died at age 24 of meningitis while Clemens was in England and was helpless to cross the ocean and get to her bedside in time. His heartbreak is palpable as he writes about this episode, but his keen memory also serves to memorialize a young woman with a fine intellect whose life was cut off before she could realize all her potential.

Susy Clemens 1872-1896
Clemens relates instances of a young Susy asking hard questions such as why if there are many religions and therefore many gods how do we know ours is right and theirs is wrong? and when Mama says don't fret over "little things" how am I to know what is "little" and what is not? I don't think Clemens is exaggerating when he writes that they laid to rest...

"...she that had been our wonder and our worship." 

Just as Clemens felt fortunate to have had such a child, he was perfectly willing to express thanks for the entire bountiful life that came to a small-town boy from Hannibal, Missouri. He had much that he treasured--the opportunity to write books, his world-wide travels, his friends, his children, and a wife he adored. Curmudgeon and skeptic that he was,though, Samuel Clemens wasn't going to give thanks at the behest and on the say-so of any elected official nor direct such thanks to a divine entity. And definitely he would not do it on his birthday. - V.W.


Monday, November 22, 2010

How Not To Have a Harlan (Ellison)

Today’s topic is rage because when I went to sleep 60+ days ago rage was, indeed, quite the rage. Especially political rage.

It is impossible for someone like me who is Van Winkled to know, but I’m going to assume that the little ol’ thing we called the mid-term elections didn’t quite get all the vitriol out of both sides' systems. In fact, there now may be new things to be enraged about. If our country has a personality of late it’s one with a scowling face and a finger that’s ready to jab at its neighbor and the voice is being raised to a hoarse bellow.

Last week I saw a bumper sticker that insisted that everyone do the following.

Because of my newsless state, I have no idea of what I'm supposed to stop the Speaker of the House from doing. Pounding her gavel? Getting her hair done once a week? Shopping for Christmas presents for her grandkids? I suspected it was likely more serious than that in the mind of the person who applied bumper sticker indelicately to pickup truck. With just two words their raging outrage was manifest.

All this leads me to wonder how my old acquaintance, the writer and provocateur Harlan Ellison , is faring these days.

Who Is This Guy?
I must say that Harlan Ellison is the angriest person I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. I mean pleasure without irony. The man is a force of nature. Just to be in his presence and listen to him is the equivalent of glimpsing a razor sharp mountain peak I"ll never climb, like staring into the molten mouth of a churning volcano. All that's impressive before I remember here's a man who has been writing for 50 years and who has over 1000 short stories as well as novels and novellas that have emerged from his manual typewriter (he'll never use a computer), not to mention essays and key episodes for the Twilight Zone (80s version) and Star Trek.

H.E. circa 1980 with his trusty Olympia manual typewriter.
 It was the spring of 1982. I remember the year well because my first novel had just been published. I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and an editor at The Daily News called me up and said, “Harlan Ellison is coming to town to give a talk and we thought it would be neat to have a young writer interview an older one. He writes different stuff than you, science fiction, but do you wanna give it a shot?”

Well, in high school I had been editor of the East Anchorage High Echo, so why not? I hadn’t heard of Mr. Ellison and I had never gotten around to dipping my oar into sci fi, but that left me with something to learn which is always a good thing. I said yes.

The Interview

Hotel Captain Cook, lovely view of Mt. Susitna...
 I met Ellison at the Hotel Captain Cook downtown where he turned out to be a short, youthful looking man with the original Rod Blagoajevich hairdo. He was moving fast. The first thing he did was give me a typed handout about the facts of his life and how he preferred to be portrayed in print. It began with.

“Never refer to me or my writing using the hideous neologism science fiction…”

That’s when I learned. Ellison, though he had won Hugos and Nebulas and virtually ever sci-fi and fantasy award known to humanity, was not as he saw it a "science fiction writer." He was a “speculative fiction” writer, or better, just a writer. He rightly believed that “science fiction” was a term developed to lump a group of hard-working, brilliant writers into a category widely regarded as low-brow (like “romance,” “mystery”), thus ensuring that very few of them would ever be granted respect on par with the John Updikes and Joyce Carol Oates of the literary world.

In the hotel room, Ellison banged through the door, saying to me over his shoulder, “I always do two things when I go into a room.”

He proceeded to...

1) Turn the TV around so that the screen faced the wall.
2) Find the Gideon Bible in the night stand, seize it as if it were a radioactive brick, open a dresser drawer, and throw it violently all the way to the back, slam the dresser drawer shut.

“Now do you want to interview me, kid?”

Writing a short story in book store window
while the world looks on.
But how can I explain it? Ellison wasn’t a crank. His eyes were twinkling. He was trying to make an impression the same way he wowed fans by breezing into a book store, setting up his typewriter in the front window, and while people looked in from the sidewalk, he wrote a short story. At the end of several hours he came out and stood in front of the dedicated and read his new work to them.

Chuck E. Cheese is a Nazi!
I remember one of the first things Ellison told me when we sat down and began talking. He said he had been angry in the sixties, oh, very angry! but he had reached a new level. Twenty-eight years later his words are still burned into my mind.

“These days I’m a walking boil.”

We were living in the first years of the Reagan Administration. The politics of the time did not suit Ellison who had once marched along with Civil Rights leaders,who in the '70s warned audiences in advance he was about to use a “dirty word” then said, Nixon. Was Ellison a liberal? Probably more like a radical. He also bore with him a fist slammed into the gut critique of the triviality of our consumer society.

We went driving around Anchorage and he was shocked to see what had arrived on the Last Frontier. We passed a new Chuck E. Cheese. “You been in there? The kids are standing hypnotized in front of the games and there’s this robot rat.” I hadn’t been yet. “It’s like Belsen,” Ellison assured me, referencing the World War II concentration camp.

Over 6 billion "toadburgers" sold!
We passed a McDonalds. “You know what I call what they serve there? Toadburgers!”

And you didn’t want to get him started on society in general. Ellison thought we lived in a nation run by the military industrial complex at the behest of a narcoticized electorate who couldn't tell reality from unreality; that the religious were Puritan fools who were missing out on the free love he embraced (he's now been married 5 times); that all gods were human inventions who eventually die and are replaced by new ones; that TV, as pointed out in the intro to his story collection, Strange Wine, was "soul deadening, dehumanizing, soporific in a poisonous way;" that George Orwell's 1984 had already arrived; and now we had the kind of president we deserved, a third tier Hollywood actor! and so on.

But here comes the paradox. Was this "walking boil" a horrible person? Did he hate everyone including me? No way. He was charming, even kind. He generously helped me with the interview when from his point of view what I wrote about him would hardly matter as others had already profiled him hundreds of times. The next day he went to the bookstore, bought my novel, and he asked me sign it. He said, "You're doing good, kid. You were in The New Yorker. They'll never publish me." Then he promised to send me some of his books. Which he did a few weeks later, inscribing one of them this way.

Note: I've smudged out my name since it's besides the point.

State of the Angry Nation
I think there’s always plenty of anger to go around. Using one of those lazy essayist’s statistically insignificant pieces of datums called a "Google search," I find these result totals for the following key words:

angry:                   102 million
angry politics:        41.5  million

But it should also be noted that the Internet reveals another cross-section of humanity’s heart.

love:                      1 billion 770 million
happy                       569 million

Harlan Ellison is 76 now and he’s still writing. I read a testimony by someone who stood in line at a book signing and when he told Ellison, “I want to be a writer,” Ellison shook him by the shoulders, crying, “Don’t do it! Become a plumber instead. I’m serious. You’ll starve.” Then Ellison slapped the man. The man went away stunned. The man hit me! But he went back later to show Ellison he’d bought a book on DIY plumbing. Ellison roared with laughter, hugged the guy, and immediately wanted to send him some signed copies of rare editions of his books. Harlan is, as I saw for myself years ago, both lion and lamb.

Which is the point: If you're going to be angry, the lamb seems to me to be necessary. Otherwise how will you avoid biting everyone's head off and soon even your own? Without the lamb, self immolation becomes a real danger. For that reason, all angry persons might want to pull back from their flame-throwing mode from time to time. Like Harlan Ellison whose bark is somewhat worse than his bite. But howl he must if he's to have any hope of getting our attention. May this ageless maestro keep on pulling the words out of the carriage of his crusty typewriter. Last time I checked the toadburgers still need a lot of improving. - V.W.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Rip Van Winkle's Dog Descendant Found

Everything I need to know about sleeping
I learned from my dog...
Lately, I've been learning lessons in being laid-back and at ease no matter what is going on. My teacher is a dog.

Here follows, in brief, the true story of the 21st Century's current holder of the competitively judged, and much coveted, Rip Van Winkle Noble Nature in the Realm of Somnolence Prize. Said prize is awarded to honor outstanding achievements in snoozing and just plain being mellow.

Future Great One in Exile
See that handsome mug in the above photo ? For over a year no one wanted him.

He lived at a place called Rescue the Animals where he was treated kindly and spared the euthanizing propensities of the city pound. Yet the puppy that came from who-knows-where remained ignored. He stayed and stayed. He grew and he grew, but no one would adopt him.

Visitors to RTA always gravitated toward the bouncy, stereotypically cute dogs or the mutts that gave a strong hint of some breed. But what was this one? The staff at RTA had decided. The dog had a wonderful personality and wanted nothing more than to be petted. He wasn't the world's ugliest dog, yet there were aesthetic challenges that would never be overcome.

So they named him Bullwinkle. Which in our eyes was the cherry on the topping. This made him perfect.

- He never barked, which was a bit strange, but then we grew used to it and wow, a quiet dog!
- When he saw people his tail always began to wag like a crazed metronome
- After an early shock from an electrical cord, he didn't chew stuff up
- He turned out to be so submissive you could pick him up in your arms, turn him on his back and he just lay there
- The late 50s early 60s chestnut, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, was already our favorite cartoon show

A New Home
Bullwinkle came to us much like his cartoon namesake, Bullwinkle the moose. Bullwinkle the dog is homely, kindly, innocent about the evils in this world, and heroic without trying to be. The ultimate anti-hero.

Even though he's a dog, Bee-Dub's actually much smarter than the venerable moose, much of whose humor was occasioned by how the dense contents of what lay between his antlers led him to always bumble. Our Bullwinkle doesn't bumble. He sleeps.

And he sleeps. And he sleeps. No one makes it look easier.

As I try to remain Van Winkled (metaphorically asleep to the greater activity of the world) for the next nine months or so, I look to Bullwinkle for evidence that I can make it.

Laboratory studies show that the average dog or cat sleeps 13 hours a day. Bullwinkle manages 15 at a minimum and most of the time it's probably more like a world-class 18 hours a day.

Bullwinkle aka "Bee-Dub" in his campaign mode.
While he's awake he uses his energy mostly to let us know that he's interested in eating or going for a walk or being petted. For some dogs one might use the verb "lobby" to describe how they fuss or rub up against you or whine to let you know what they want. Bullwinkle requires a more powerful word.

Bullwinkle campaigns.

Like a general or a politician, he comes at us with all his forces, especially if he's campaigning for food. He's a multimedia animal whose attention-getting tricks include salivating, running around in circles, tail wagging, extending a paw. Perhaps because he does not have a "bark!" setting he's all the more animated and much more like Rocket J. Squirrel than Bullwinkle the moose at such moments. He's patient, too.

"Look," we'll say at three o'clock. "Bee-Wub's campaigning for dinner." He still has 90 minutes to go. Does he give up when we ignore him and go back to what we were doing? Hardly. Like Harold Stassen, who ran for president nine times, Bee-Wub stays on the campaign trail.

Once Bullwinkle gets what he wants, however, he exchanges his "Bull" for a "Van." Prepare to take notes. You're about to witness the work of a master.

9 a.m.: Satisfyingly fed and played with Bee-Dub wants to go outside and sack out in his little red wagon.

11 a.m.: There's nothing like a change of locale to encourage further sweet dreams. Bee-Dub switches to his canvas folding chair.

1 p.m.: Even those with fur coats can be sun lovers and work on their Coppertone tans. Besides, the grass looks awfully soft.

Mid-afternoon: How about a change-up? Bee-Dub wants to come inside. Still worshipping ol' Sol he nails down a patch of golden delight on the carpet in the master bedroom.

9 p.m.: It's been a hard day! After being walked around the neighborhood, Bee-Dub dens up on his blanket by the dining room table. He'll be there until the family rises and shines the following morning.

Thrilling Conclusion
The original Rip Van Winkle in the story by Washington Irving was ceaselessly faulted by his wife for being lazy and never tending to work that needed to be done around the home place. She essentially drove Rip out of the house and made possible the great adventure in napping that would make him one of the most famous of all American literary characters.

I am not an advocate of napping one's way to fame or fortune. The way I see it, life is the equivalent of a dance and all the opportunities are there and looking for a partner to go out onto the floor and start moving to the music. How can I sleep through that? A reality in the flesh is much better than one confined strictly to my dreams.

On the other hand, there are some dances that I might be better off sitting out. I can grab a little nap on the sideline while others get involved in the fray. Once the dust settles I can decide if there's anything worth standing up for and taking by the hand and partnering with.

I suppose I'm saying it's not always necessary to do that American thing of valuing action above all else. If something in my life happens that is the equivalent of the dog noticing a stranger at the door or reacting to the phone ringing or a truck rumbling past, I don't have to automatically jump up and start barking at them. It might be good to reflect first. Then I can take a considered course of action. I might even decide it's time perchance to sleep. Because, as Bullwinkle knows, there's always tomorrow. - V.W.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So Sorry You're Sorry, My Dears

I’m trying to solve a major mystery. Why are so many women around here apologizing?

It’s been going on for years, I now realize, but only lately have I become aware. Perhaps because being Van Winkled means I’m not looking at the covers of People, US, O, and other entertainment and celebrity round-ups in the checkout line I find my thoughts lingering upon other aspects of ye olde supermarket.

Such as what happens back in the aisles whenever I move my steel cart along, flinging odds and ends into it.

I’ll pass a woman, with lots of room to spare, and she’ll look up, notice me rolling or walking past and say, softly, “Oh. Excuse me," or "Sorry."

Excuse you? Sorry? For what?

This even happens outside in the parking lot. The woman in question notices me, belatedly, passing a few feet leeward or starboard of her person.

“Oh. Sorry.”

I should observe that the people who ought to apologize never do. I'm thinking of the seniors who don’t seem to have any idea of what they’re doing except it must be done slo-ow-ly. Usually it’s a mating pair, with the male septuagenarian standing around to supposedly help, but he’s doing nothing but taking up space in the canned vegetable aisle and looking discomfited like a bird that forgot to fly south for the winter or like his wife definitely ought not buy him more pork and beans.

Then there are the other bothersome sorts.

They're talking loudly on cell phones in front of sliding glass doors or their cars are blocking the traffic flow in the parking lot while they keep it in Park, fuss around inside.

From them you'll win the lottery before you get an apology.

Which brings me back to the women in the grocery store (or Wal-Mart or wherever). Apologizing to me as if they've just run over and amputated my left foot. What's up with them?

Theory No. 1
This part of the U.S.A. features wide open spaces. If one leaves the borders of our city he/she will drive two hours in any direction before reaching the next metropolitan area of note. In between lie fields and the occasional town of a few thousand. When the sun sets it looks like it's sinking over a vast ocean, not a settled landscape.

I think it’s possible that being surrounded with so much open land gives our residents a larger sense of what is called  “personal space.”

Personal space is the name social psychologists have applied to the sense a person has of invisible boundaries around their individual body that separates it from the bodies of others. Any penetration of these boundaries may cause anxiety.

My personal space is bigger than your personal space!

When gauging the personal space of people in this part of the nation, it could be instructive to consider how they transport themselves. It’s not unusual to see the women driving pickups and SUVs. I don’t mean “cute” versions of such; I mean fearsome, roadblock busting F-350s, Rams, Titans, Tahoes, Navigators, and Expeditions. The women perch up high in the driver's seat, steering the veritable Conestoga wagons of our age. I also should mention Sierras, Silverados, and Yukons, the very names of which are intended to evoke wide open, unsettled spaces where a human is nearly as rare as a snowflake in the desert.

If one feels the need to surround oneself with such a large total cubic footage of metal and glass enclosure just to go down the road with a couple of kids in the back seat on the way to snagging some french fries and the drycleaning, this could be revelatory as far as declaring the driver's spacious sense of necessary space.

So is it any wonder that when they believe they’ve inadvertently intruded, oh, my gosh, within five feet of my personal space, an apology is tendered?

Theory No.2
This thought is a bit more sinister.

I live south of the Mason-Dixon line and a certain form of politeness is as set into the social fabric as a crease in a pair of pants. I'm thinking this might be another reason why multiple times a week in public settings I am receiving apologies when no offense istaken.

But beyond simple, commendable politeness, I think there may be something to fact that, as I've mentioned, those who apologize are always women; they're never men.  

Could it be the women are communicating a subtext to me as I make a six-inch course correction right-ward to get past where they are hovering in front of the Special K?

So who is this magazine for?
The women, while hardly ugly, are never noticeably made in the super model mode nor do they stand out because they dress with some kind of snap! or bejeweled sparkle. They appear to be among the meek and less noticed in a society that worships assertiveness and glamour. This is why I find myself guessing that I might not be the only person or entity they apologize to in a given day.

Their strong sense that they ought to accommodate even total strangers could reflect that they’re used to being trodden over. Perhaps by men. This thought is not pleasant to me. Especially when I see the women with children in tow. As I view the matter, they shouldn’t be deferring to me. It should be the other way around.

As those women battle the grocery aisles and their kids who have sticky hands and a gimme look in their eyes, we men should spread out coats on the floor and usher them past with all due honor. By necessity, not necessarily choice, some women have become 9-5 hunters, off-hours and weekend gatherers, and full-time mother nurturers all rolled into one. Little wonder they often look harried and like it’s been a long time since they’ve had the kind of life headlined on the Cosmo at the checkout stand. Bubble bath and lacy teddy? Are you kidding?

Looking Down the Wide Open Road
I’ve been thinking that I ought to stop being surprised by these retail apologies. Instead, knowing that such is going to occur, it’s entirely appropriate that I have a prepared response.

She (looking around vaguely, then noticing me going by…):
Oh! Sorry.

Me (smiling, stopping to acknowledge her):
Thank you for being so polite. That’s so rare these days.

She (staring at me): […?]


She (looking around vaguely, then noticing me going by…):
Oh! Sorry.

Me (stopping, startled, then regaining control):
Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s an awfully big planet, but I don't actually need that much of it at one time.

She (staring at me): […?]


She (looking around vaguely, then noticing me going by…):
Oh! Sorry.

Me (stopping long enough to get the metaphorical burden off my chest):
Sorry? Oh no, I'm the one who's sorry. That I interrupted your shopping and your busy life. Please don't worry even one second about me. You are a most worthy human being. Try to remember that and not be sorry for a single other thing for the rest of this day!

She (backing up and knocking over an entire end display of Triscuits): […?!!]

I don’t know. It's probably better to let people be people. I think I'll just keep my mouth shut. – V.W.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Van Winkle Goes Wild

Well, I made it this far. I have crossed the big "3-0-0 days to go" signpost, as you can see from the counter on the right.

At this point I have to report that honestly this project is becoming harder every day. I'm starting to have two to three second lapses when I allow myself to read a headline here or there.This is bad because it just makes me want to know more.

The latest instance happened when the newspaper was lying open on the kitchen counter and my eyes fell upon...
I swear I only read the headline!
I thought, "You know, it wouldn't really hurt to read Will's column to get a very brief summary of how the mid-term elections went. And then he'll go on to predict what will happen in the wake of the elections and that's not really news, it's just speculation."

I started building a case for George Will. He's not so much an ideologically-driven conservative as just a very skeptical thinker whose worldview centers upon the belief that almost anything humans attempt to do they will muck up; therefore, they should be discouraged from organizing and attempting grandiose reforms or projects, especially when it comes to that large entity we call "government."

And I've always appreciated that Will has a formidable vocabulary and knows his history and when it comes down to it the only thing he really believes offers redemptive value for humanity is baseball.

So I should check out what George Will has to say...

No way. I can't!

But I already did, or at least I had read three words, and now I couldn't get them out of my head. The transformative election. The political landscape had changed while I was "asleep." My own speculation was ready to start up like a rusty machine thrown into gear and and dying to clank back into action.

Further Symptoms of Personal Regression

The other sign that I'm not handling my news deprivation well is that I try to quiz people in a sneaky fashion in order to peck at a pathetic news crumb here or there.

The other night my wife and son came to the dinner table beaming because they had seen quote unquote "one of the best pieces that has ever been broadcast on the evening news." It was on CBS, they said and it was almost like a mini-documentary. It was at least twice as long as the usual evening news segment.

They were wondering if they could at least tell me what it was about because most of it was centered on the past, i.e., history. Then they remembered there was one current event aspect to it. They whispered to each other. Tell him or not? Conference conclusion: Not.

I went nuts! Tell me, tell me!

They refused. Likewise I couldn't pry any information loose when our son began talking about a TV commercial for something that he said might be "a game changer."

"What is it?" I demanded. "A piece of new technology? Improved laundry detergent? You should at least tell me the category. I mean, game changer is not a word to be thrown around lightly."

"Sorry, Dad."

Sorry indeed. This is when a fantasy occurred to me.

Van Winkle Goes Wild

I get myself a mask and a cape and...I become the News Peeper.

In the early morning, before the sun rises, I go out onto the lawns and slip newspapers out of plastic sleeves and read them. Then I put them back so no one knows.

During the day I'm passing by offices and leaning in doorways to see if I can overhear a radio or TV or YouTube video playing.

At dinnertime I'm edging along the neighbors' flowerbeds until I find an open window through which I can glimpse...the evening news!

Later that night I'm seen standing outside the cineplex, reading all the film titles and looking at the movie posters, jotting down information.

My sickness is such that I won't admit to myself what I'm doing. I'm cheating on my project. I might as well go all the way and turn on the TV at home, read my own newspaper, surf the Internet all I wish.

Instead, I creep, I peep. If you see me out there, someone please get me some professional help. But please don't unmask me. I don't want the neighbors to know... - V.W.