Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On tie clips

As some of you know, I have been imprisoned in a full-time job for most of this year. For the first time in nearly a decade I have had to dress up and put on a tie almost every day.

And while I dislike wearing ties intensely, I do get to bring out my small collection of one of mankind's most under-rated inventions: tie clips.

See, as much as I hate ties, I happen to love tie clips. They are mindbogglingly useful - they keep your tie from blowing around, from dipping in your food, from getting all wet when you wash your hands. When you're wearing a suit, the tie clip can keep your tie fixed at exactly the perfect rakish angle.

And they look nice (at least I think so. "Very Spencer Tracy," observed one movie-obsessed friend once. I am not sure if it was an approving comment or not). I have gold ones. Silver ones. Inlaid ones. They're cool.

But wearing a tie clip has begun to make me sad in a sort of existential way. And that is because a tie, to which a tie clip is a nifty accessory, is in itself perhaps the most useless accessory ever invented by mankind. It serves no practical purpose at all and is only marginally attractive, so it serves a limited decorative purpose.

Nobody really likes ties.

This has forced me to contemplate the place in the universe of the useful little tie clip - what does it mean to be the world's most useful addition to the world's least useful accessory ?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

15 album game

There's this game going around on Facebook - post the 15 albums that will "stay with you." The gimmick is to give yourself no more than 15 minutes and give your first reaction. Then you're supposed to tag 15 of your friends.

And I am just not going to do that 'cause I am a curmudgeon and I don't have to. It's in the Constitution, as I recall.

But the question is rather interesting. So I will post it on my Blog, which will automatically show up as a note on Facebook. But no tagging people.

So close enough.

And since it's my own damned blog and I can set the rules, I am adding some commentary too.

1. Abbey Road, Beatles - The first album I ever owned. The songwriting is gorgeous, the production is rich, and the engineering is nearly unbelievable given the era. Even as a 13 or 14 year old, I knew I was listening to something astounding.

2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd - this is a headtrip that will never get old, with some of the finest engineering and arrangement ever. My favorite songs have shifted over the years, but this remains a favorite I cannot shake.

3. Kina, Kina - an honest, emotional, and powerful rock album by a former R&B girl group singer, Kina Kosper. I was riveted from the opening notes of the first song.

4. Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads - a live album that captures a great band at the peak of their power. The movie made me a lifetime fan.

5. Exit ... Stage Left, Rush - again, a live album that captures a band at their absolute pinnacle of power. Rush speaks best to 15 year old boys. And I was 15 when this came out.

6. Life's Rich Pageant, REM. - A great band hits its stride. It touched on folk, rock, and art rock in exactly the right proportions.

7. Autobahn, Kraftwerk - just blew my mind. I was just getting into electronic music in 1984 and I could not believe a bunch of square German boys had done it all 10 years earlier.

8. The Groobees, The Groobees - a super tight large country combo wrapped around the clever songwriting of Susan Gibson. I was hooked from the opening lyric: "Spent half a tank of gas on this conversation; still hasn't got us anywhere."

9. The Flying Lizards, The Flying Lizards - I simply cannot explain this. It's on Youtube.

10. Almost Famous Soundtrack, various artists - a collection of classic 60s and 70s songs, none of which are my favorites, but which together speak to me about my youthful discovery of rock music.

11. Fly, The Dixie Chicks - some really clever songwriting and outstanding production make this mass market country at its finest. And it happens I was on a business trip in Austin when I was listening to it. Driving around the city at night listening to this was perfect in a way I cannot recreate.

12. Cabaret Movie Soundtrack, Various Artists - my parents loved this movie and played the soundtrack incessantly. I love it too. Joel Grey deserved his Oscar as the super-creepy emcee. The soundtrack is funny, sad, touching in turn.

13. The Cars, The Cars - It's like they were singing inside of my head. One of the finest headphones albums ever made.

14. I Often Dream of Trains, Robyn Hitchcock - it was like falling into a dream state to hear "Furry Green Atom Bowl" on the radio my first month of college. I went and got the album and was transported. I will never get tired of this album.

15. Legend, Bob Marley - OK, I am a middle class white boy who went to a preppy college in the late 80s. Sue me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Job I Never Had

In college, I took a job cleaning boilers in the university heating plant. The guy who hired me said I needed to wear steel-toed boots so my feet wouldn't get crushed by heavy equipment. He told me I needed to wear long sleeved shirts, even though it was about 110 degrees in the boiler, so if a steam pipe burst, it wouldn't burn my skin as badly. He told me he hoped I wasn't claustrophobic so I wouldn't panic in tight spaces.

I lost a lot of sleep about this job. So on the first day, I showed up early and sat on the front step and waited for my new boss. He arrived and I mumbled something about"I have to leave town." He looked at me intensely for a minute and I was sure he knew I was lying.

Then he smiled and shook his head knowingly and said "It' s about a girl, innit?"

I smiled as roguishly as I could manage and agreed with him. And took the hell off down the street.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A sign of the times

This from my older son's test folder.

You know, considering that all of the current fifth grade has grown up with nothing but digital cameras, this last question hardly seems fair.

And anyway, every professional photographer I have ever known would be high on my list to help me develop an alibi.

Potentially smart lad I have here, I would say.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Alarming warning

My son got a Transformer toy for his birthday and I happened to notice this odd warning label:

So as I understand it, unhappy toddlers are forbidden and we should beware of cuddly happy lions.

Got it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A funny thing happened...

This time three weeks ago, the family and I were on our way to the mountains of Colorado, happy to be leaving Philadelphia and the East Coast in our rear-view mirrors.

But somehow, that didn't work out so well. My wife and her boss had a sudden parting of the ways, so she piled in her new Jeep and headed back to Philly.

So this time two weeks ago, we were selling our house and trying to figure out where to go next. Virginia, maybe. North Carolina? California? Arizona? The horizon was wide open, but one thing was sure - we were leaving here.

And somehow that didn't work out either.

As I was rooting around for contacts and job leads, one of my favorite freelance clients decided to make me a full-time offer I couldn't refuse. Right here in Philadelphia. Starting next week, I'll be working for the Committee of Seventy, a political watchdog group here in town. My title hasn't been settled, but I'll be doing think-tankey kinds of things - research, writing, thinking - related to ethics and public policy. I'll finally get paid for doing exactly the sort of thing I used to do mostly free.

So here we are still in Philly. Our grand plan for the Next Big Adventure ended up meaning staying right at home. And I am not sorry about it - we have had a complicated relationship with Philadelphia, but somehow this just seems right, like discovering a new city from the comfort of our old house.

Funny how things happens.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Generic News Story #1

Something important happened recently, which caused us to assign one of our increasingly scarce staff reporters.

This event had several important implications, which we would put here.

"This is where to put a good quote from a witness, investigator, or participant," said Source #1.

This event had several other important details, such as who else was involved, why it happened, and an exact date and location, which we were unable to wedge into the first two paragraphs, 'cause who wants to read really long opening paragraphs anyway.

"This would be an excellent place for a second quote from some other witness, investigator, or participant," said Source #2. "Unless, of course, the editors say we're short on space, in which case this quote gets cut first."

This event was part of some larger pattern, such as the culmination of a long process, the start of a new process, the first time, the last time, or maybe it was just plain weird.

"This is where to put dispassionate, big picture analysis from some uninvolved expert, professor, consultant, or politician," said Uninvolved Expert #1. "If all else fails, interview some little-known reporter from a niche publication who follows this kind of stuff intensively and is just glad to get some mainstream exposure so his mother knows he has a real job."

But there are always people who disagree with whatever he says, no matter how arcane and uncontroversial the topic at hand might be.

"This is where to put someone - anyone at all - who even tangentially disagrees with your first Uninvolved Expert," said Uninvolved Expert #2. "This is what we call 'balance.'"

Here is where to note that Experts who know something about your event are either still investigating the matter or else declined to comment on the controversy.

At this point, it would be useful to introduce some witnesses or participants, if you haven't already.

"I saw the event, yes I did," Witness #1 said.

And now would be a great time to detail efforts by relevant officials to encourage, discourage, or study the event at hand, with an eye toward causing it to happen again, or not to happen again, or move to some other place in the future.

"This is my top priority until some other significant event occurs," Relevant Official #1 said.

So now it's time to go back to the actual event that we talked about in the first paragraph. Perhaps it is time to say when the involved persons will go on trial, or maybe how long they remained in the hospital, or when the Guinness Book of World Records plans to visit.

"This final quote has no chance of making it in print, although it is a really great quote that totally sums up the entire article," Source #1, 2, or 3 said, "because the copy editors tend to cut from the bottom without regard to how artful and elegant the writer has been in picking a kicker quote."


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Perfect Rock Songs

My friend Geoff has been posting videos on Facebook lately and he went on a Van Halen kick tonight, which reminded me of something - that Van Halen has what I consider the Perfect Rock Song. By this I don't mean the Best Rock Song, but the "perfect." And there is a difference. I never was a Van Halen fan until the summer of 2001, when I lived in California. I had just bought a BWM 323, which was by far the fastest and coolest car I had ever driven, and cost far more than I had any business paying. I had to take a business trip to Fresno for reasons that don't bear the repeating, and very late one summer night I found myself screaming up Highway 99 far in excess of the speed limit. It was hot and dry and I was the only car on the road - only slow-moving semis laden with fruit were in my way. And on the radio came Van Halen's Dance the Night Away. And I was transported. I had never given the song a second though, but at that moment I realized I was happy because it is the perfect rock song. It's shallow, but it's happy, smooth, sexy, and calls up all that's best about being 17 or 18, free, adventurous, and without a care in the world. The guitar is smooth and big and jangly. The beat is slow, regular and - well - perfect. I realized I could listen to that song and drive forever and never, ever, miss where I had come from and never care if I got where I was going.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Uh, yeah sure, Maybe.

Once long ago, I got a fortune from a fortune cookie that said "You are the Greatest Person in the World." And really, who could disagree with that? So I taped it over my desk at work.

Then about a year later, I got another fortune at the same restaurant that said "Your stupidity is your greatest problem." I was taken aback, of course, but it's hard to argue with that one either. So I taped it up right under the other one.

I thought they made a nice kind of balanced presentation.

The other day, the boys and I had Chinese food and we got this as a fortune:

This one was a bit harder to make sense of. So I am taking a wait-and-see position.

Say it with splotches

The more observant of my blog readers will notice a strange addition to my blog layout today - a weird little box that looks like a mutant crossword puzzle in the lower right corner.

I am told this is something called a QR code. It is kind of a custom bar code in which you can embed information to be decoded by your cell phone or other bit of smart gadgetry. Actually, I've known about this kind of thing for a long time - people were talking about early versions even back in the early '90s - but it never occurred to me to try it until today, when I read a piece by legendary journalism recruiter Joe Grimm, suggesting that sticking something like this on a business card or resume would be a nifty way to make potential employers think you're way cool and tech savvy.

Use a Two-Dimensional Bar Code to Brand Yourself as an Innovative Journalist

So I tinkered with the technology and, sure enough, it works.

The mysterious set of blotches on the blog will lead you to my website:


This is what it looks like:


In order to understand the code, you need a little piece of software for your cell phone, which connects with your built-in camera. There are lots of them out there, but the one I found that works with my Blackberry - and seemingly many other devices - is called NeoReader.

But the nifty thing is that you can encode damned near anything in these little doodads. Again, there are lots of sites that do this, but I am kind of fond of the one, called Kaywa.

For example, here is my email address:


But the really excellent part is that you can encode long blocks of text, making it possible to send secret messages to people. For example:


This is the first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address (though my Cell Phone had a hard time deciphering this much text).

Or this:


This will tell the viewer "You are a complete idiot."

The possibilities here are simply limitless.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sgt. Witch

Former Congressman Bob Barr (who turned out to be one of the funniest members of Congress in my time there) is concerned that the Air Force Academy is going a little too far in accommodating the religious needs of "pagans." He writes today in his Atlanta Journal Constitution blog:

The US Air Force, at no less a prestigious location than the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, has taken the notion of religious tolerance to a new level, in creating an outdoor worship area for pagans. The site, apparently sacred to pagans, consists of an inner and an outer circle of large stones. I’m sorry, but this truly is hilarious. Don’t get me wrong, if someone “has little or no religion and delights in sensual pleasures and material goods,” which is the definition of a “pagan,” then I say live and let live.

But I have to tell you, if I were in the Air Force and was being commanded by an officer who practices hedonism as a religion (another part of the definition of “pagan”), and who dances around a circle of stones in the woods carrying a lighted candle, I would be more than a little worried about following him into battle.

Funny thing is, this is not an entirely new idea. The immortal Jean Shepherd (whose wisdom about Beer I referenced earlier) had something to say about his days in the army, when he listed himself as a "druid." Here is a long segment from his Army routine from his radio show in 1967. The audio is a little choppy in spots, but if you have a few minutes, it is worth a listen, if only because he ranges far and wide as usual and has some tangential observations that hold true even today. The Druid bit is about 10 minutes in.

11/18/1967 Army-Druid

Shepherd reports that when he was inducted, the dog tag maker insisted that he declare a religion. Not being a religious guy, Shepherd said "druid."

I thought I was being funny, but he said 'OK, I've never seen that one.' Cachunk. And for 3 1/2 years I carried a dog tag with a D on it.

The only problem, he said, was that there were no official religious holidays for Druids. Other guys in his unit, a Signal Corps radar company, got Christmas or Passover off, but not Shepherd, who spend every holiday on KP duty as a result. At least until one day, when his commanding officer called him in.

'Shepherd,' he said, 'I understand you're a Druid.' I said Yes. 'Well, I read in a book that Druids are about to celebrate Great Oak Tree Day.' I said Yes - I'm glad you care ... it's a seven-day holiday, you know. And they celebrate it in New York. It's the only temple we've got in the U.S. It's in Central Park, right by the Ice Skating Rink, in a hole in the ground.

His story of how he thereafter became a Druid chaplain is priceless.

To this day, he says, "I'm the only registered Druid" in the Department of Defense records. "You ought to see the mail I get."

On every Nov. 17, I get phone calls. All day long at the station I get calls from one member or another of Company K ... They say will you please give me the sacrament over the phone?

Incidentally, if you make it past the long Army segment, there is a WOR newscast included that is fascinating to hear, including stories about the Vietnam War and a long segment on sports, including a score of the Baltimore Bullets game and news about O.J. Simpson's standout play in a USC football game that propelled them to the Rose Bowl.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Literary criticism at its finest

Wonkette on Richard Cohen's column today on the Administration's terrorism policy:

Why bother picking this apart? One criticism should suffice: many of the words that Richard typed here should not have been typed. He could strengthen his argument by deleting many of these words and replacing them with nothing. After he types his first draft, he should go back to the beginning, and delete the first word. Then the second word. The third word, fourth, etc. Eventually he will have deleted each individual word in his first draft, and no words will remain. Then he’ll have an argument!

Oh, God, how I wish I had written that paragraph.

Friday, January 29, 2010

This makes me so sad

Former Greene County Sheriff Willie Morris died yesterday, apparently a suicide. Willie is a figure that looms large in my life - he was the sheriff when I started my newspaper career and the first lawman I really got to know. There are a lot of people in the world described as Larger Than Life, but Willie really deserved the title.

He was a champion weight lifter - and as a result a huge man physically - with no real law enforcement experience when he ran for office in 1983. He had been a professional painter and a bar bouncer. He said he just got fed up with the crime and disorder under the old sheriff and figured he needed to do something to make the county a better place.

And he did. He clamped down hard on the gunplay that made little rural Greene County a hotspot of homicides - there were no killings between the time he took office and late 1993. He delighted in drug raids - Greene County is ideal marijuana territory and Willie loved bounding out across dirt roads to pounce on some hidden pot field. And he became famous for running speed traps and drunken driving checkpoints. Drinking and driving had once been a weekend pass time in Greene, but it turned into a very bad idea in his county.

Willie was far from perfect as sheriff, of course. Because he had no professional law enforcement background, he managed more by enthusiasm than by proper methods. He didn't seem to pay much attention to legal niceties and he had no time at all for the sheriffs in nearby counties, many of whom were former State Troopers. He thought they were stuffy and they thought he was a dangerous loose cannon. And he did have a bad, bad temper. He legendarily beat up his brother Clyde, who was just as strong and big-hearted as Willie but had a little trouble with the bottle and spent a fair bit of time on the wrong side of the Law (and as a result, on the wrong side of Willie).

There were a lot of people in Greene who thought Willie was corrupt or incompetent. I doubt that though - I certainly never saw any evidence to back up the corruption rumors and the crime stats certainly speak for themselves in terms of Willie's effectiveness, however unconventional (and perhaps even occasionally unconstitutional) his methods.

The guy I knew had a heart as big as his muscles. He was more than kind and understanding with me, a young, out of place, inexperienced reporter. He expected a lot from his men, but he was always willing to give them a second chance, sometimes too much of a second chance.

And he was brave and dedicated to Greene County. He took a shotgun blast to the face one day in 1991 while helping a woman leave her abusive husband. The doctors down at UVA hospital told me that the main reason he even survived was the thick ropes of muscle under his skin - that blast would have killed me, or most other humans. The doctors never were able to remove all the pellets - they were lodged too close to his spine to safely remove. I know Willie suffered horrible pain the rest of his life from that. I don't know if that had anything to do with his sad end, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Of all the things I'll remember about him, though, it is his hands. He had huge, gnarled, strong hands. When you shook hands with Willie, you knew it. He loved to look good in a crisp brown uniform, with his black belt polished to a fine shine. He'd stand there proudly with those big hands planted firmly on his holster and radio. That picture is as clear in my mind as the day I was there.

Like this:

This is a photo I took of Willie, probably on some drug raid, some time in mid-1990. He was absolutely in his prime, months before the shooting. It's a shock to realize he's about the same age here that I am now. And this is how he will always be fixed in my mind.

Here's a profile of him I wrote in 1990 as part of a big series trying to explain to everyone what their five main elected officials, known as Constitutional Officers, actually did for a living.

Those years I spent in Greene loom large in my life and my memory. And Willie was a big part of it. He's a big figure in some of my favorite journalism stories. That story about the day he was shot was technically complicated, for example, by the fact that all three main characters - the sheriff, the woman, and her husband the shooter - were named Morris. And to complicate matters, Willie was related to Mrs. Morris but not Mr. Morris. Try sorting that one out in print sometime.

Willie also uttered my favorite line about law enforcement. One day we were talking about some crime story I was writing and I asked him about something stupid the criminals had done that had given them away. He leaned across the desk and looked me closely in the eye and said, "When smart people begin committing crimes you and I are in big trouble."

I haven't seen or talked to Willie in maybe 15 years, but I think of him often. And now I'm going to miss him.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti, brought home

I enjoy reading The New Yorker - its a great magazine, well written, stupendously edited, often informative and thought provoking (though I do wish they'd get rid of Malcolm Gladwell and Anthony Lane, but that's just me).

But never, in all my decades of reading the magazine, has New Yorker brought me to tears. This is the single best piece I have ever read in the magazine:

Haiti, the Earthquake, and my family

Friday, January 22, 2010

Life in a cube farm

It's been many years since I actually worked in an office, but I was reminded this morning that there are certain patterns and habits that are common to all, particularly the strange rituals and obsessions that develop around the group lunch.

On a local discussion group, we were talking about the fate of the space formerly occupied by Susanna Foo, an excellent high-end Chinese restaurant that used to be an institution in Philadelphia. But Susanna Foo herself got tired of running the place and closed it down last year. Now the Mexican food chain Chipolte is eying the location, adding yet another semi-fast food Mexican lunch place to the already crowded niche in Center City Philly.

One poster observed that there must be a demand for such a place since there are so many of them already in the area and all seem crowded. "It's a pretty popular businessperson's lunch-hour," he said.

Another poster, known only as The Count, then responded with a story that simply crystallizes everything about life in a downtown office:

In my office, that would be an understatement.

There is a group of women in my office (20's, 30's) who declare a Qdoba Day about once a month or so.

It's insane.

The declaration usually begins with an email blast with "Qdoba!!!!!!Today!!!!!!" in the subject line.

Followed by, "We'll meet in the lobby at 12:15!!!! Don't be late!!!!!!" (Usually done in 64 font and multiple colors).

For the remainder of the morning the women will walk in and out of each other's offices and discuss what they are going to order, how much they love Qdoba, and whether they would rather have a Qdoba Burrito or 7 new pairs of Uggs.

No work gets done on Qdoba Day.

Around 11:45 begins the parade to the bathroom as the women go as a group to freshen up and re-apply make-up for Qdoba.

They will return from Qdoba around 2:00 and spend the rest of the day talking about how if Qdoba was a man they'd marry it.

It's amazing. No other lunch place anywhere in the city gets this type of reaction. Not Marathon, not Pietro's, not Oyster House, not Happy Rooster, not Shiroi Hana, not Good Dog.

In fact, if I offered them a choice between a free lunch at Parc and lunch at Qdoba I think they would take Qdoba.

I haven't enjoyed a life-in-the-office story so much in years.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A sense of adventure

My youngest son is a bit of a handful. He dashes at the world at top speed with his head down, ready to bust through whatever is in his way.

He's in First Grade this year and just beginning to have serious tests and homework. Earlier this week he said he had a spelling test.

"Oh, don't worry," he explained. "I don't study. I want the test to be harder."