Friday, September 28, 2007

House of Corruption

AFTER A FRANTIC WEEK, I'm looking forward to a very slow weekend. I have nothing in particular booked, although in the literal sense of that word, I do have a book at the local library waiting for me, as well as some money, and an overdue book, that I owe them. Should've returned the book earlier once I (a) realized it wasn't suited to my current baseline mood and (b) got sucked into the other book I borrowed at the same time as I got this one, which incidentally has me thiiiiiiis close to punching holes in my drywall.

I don't write about what I'm reading as much as I ought to. It would be good to look back at the end of a year and see exactly what reading material I digested over the course of 12 months. A few weeks ago, I reread Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer's autobiography. I had found a used hardback of this — an epic peek through the eyes of Hitler's chief architect and Minister of Armaments into the banality and bombast of Nazi Germany — years ago at the last used-book shop in this area. I miss that little literary nook. In the last days of its life, I scored a Mafia exacta, grabbing Wiseguy (which found movie fame as Goodfellas) and Donnie Brasco. That shopping expedition inspired the following words in a 100 Words entry from around that time:
There’s always a spot of guilt about shopping at a store going out of business. Especially when it’s the first and last time you will patronize it. You wander among the discount tags, forcing detachment. Lonely creaks from the hardwood floor, must wafting from denuded shelves, books freed from their imprisoning neighbors, You know the shopkeeper is watching you, trying to curve his face into a helpful smile as he did in better times, perhaps wishing you had been a regular. Don’t draw attention to the discounts when you check out. He’s been through enough. Celebrate, instead, in the car.
Now most of my book diet comes from the library, and — taking me back to the perforated drywall — I am now reading House of Bush, House of Saud, by Craig Unger. I've known about this book since it came out, and I even borrowed it shortly after I first heard about it on Dave Emory's conspiracy radio program on WFMU. I never got around to it at the time, but recently it came back to the front of my mind (possibly to enjoy the empty space), so I snagged it.

I may write it up more fully here when I'm done, but the basic point is that the close relationship between the two families has compromised America's objectivity in dealing with the Middle East, in particular in detecting, tracking, and prosecuting terrorists and those who fund them. It also highlights the deceptively plugged-in, Establishment reality behind the bumbling, crotchety one-termer we know as the Elder George (H. W.) Bush. Additionally, the book has detailed the intimate dealings between the Saudi royal family and the construction empire of the bin Laden clan, which was valued highly enough to receive a commission to refurbish the hallowed sites of Mecca and Medina.

There's also a chapter on how the Saudis invested in the Carlyle Group, the massive private-equity firm and access-rental entity for industry to tap former governmental figures on how best to sell to the Federal Government. Bushes 41 and 43 both served on its board, and both the House of Saud and Saudi Binladen Group invested with it.

I'm only halfway through this book, and already I want to move to New Zealand. Is there a thriving American expat community there? Would I even want to hang out with a clutch of my former kin? The last place I need to go is a bar or coffee shop where all I hear is bitching about the place I've left. I can see myself going very native, very quickly. Ah, but there's that whole leaving the Bill of Rights behind, and of course there's the question of what I could possibly offer the fine natives of that remote land by way of talent. It's not like 1920s Paris, when Americans could just swan about from salon to zinc bar, plunging into neurasthenic paroxysms at the thought of the Great War. The Kiwis will expect me to work.

And with the Rings films long done, they ain't hiring orcs.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Brief Smile About my Workplace

I'D LIKE TO SHARE one aspect of my current job that brings me a tiny bit of terror but a larger amount of satisfaction.

A few times thus far, coworkers and managers have asked me to do things — interview a source, extensively rewrite a nonprofessionally written article, update the magazine's website, even edit video — in a manner that, compared to the way my previous company's management would've asked, struck me as far more professional.

I'm not sure I can express how exactly it was different. The closest I can come is to say that I felt like a long-established member of the organization, rather than a dumping ground for tasks that did not interest a higher-up or were seen as more cheaply done by someone in house, regardless of their actual experience with the tasks.

Now, I don't know fully how to do everything they've asked me to do. (The video-editing possibility, which came today, falls more into the "no idea" category.) That's where the slight edge of terror comes in. But I haven't let it stop me. I have requested aid, or assistance in finding it, but I haven't allowed the gulf between my current and future ability to carry out the task paralyze me. And they've provided said aid without any apparent loss of respect. Very encouraging.

A lot of people raise a stink about their jobs, for a wide and subjective range of reasons, and I can tell you, my workplace isn't perfect. In the respect I've just described, however, it exceeds my expectations, and I want this blog to record it, in case those expectations change, or if I simply have a moment of narcissistic solipsism in which a crappy day or week clouds the big picture.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Six Thousand Words, One Hundred per Day

OF ALL THINGS, MY carpal tunnel syndrome was flaring up this week. I had a 3-week stretch at the outset of my new job when a new ergonomic keyboard was "on order." In practice, it took some shoe leather to verify that the IT department hadn't received the order, which at least served to point out the uselessness of the person in my office tasked with workstation ergo-issues.

The upshot is that I gave my wrists some time off to recover. Hell, I even missed the anniversary of my blog, which dwells on the Orwellian-named Patriot Day. (For this Boston College graduate, Patriot Day — or rather, Patriot's Day — is the third Monday in April, on which folks in Massachusetts and Maine get the day off and BC students get to cheer those Boston Marathoners challenging Heartbreak Hill.) I actually achieved a major milestone at work, which I will detail in my 3-month mark post. It required a lot of typing and mousing and whatnot, which is why I was feeling a touch worn around the hand-joints. Typing further later that night had less than the usual attraction. Still, the cure for that is a tight, meaningful post, if only to register my own existence in the screaming void of the Internet.

Small ≠ lacking in content. A whopping three-pernt-five years ago, I participated for 2 months in the 100 Words website challenge. The awesome Amy introduced me to this site. The goal: Write exactly 100 words a day for a month. Next month, repeat. My Lenten writing exercise took inspiration from its method. For a long time, it was down due to some sort of crash, and then due to retooling. It is back up now; although I thought my entries were lost, it seems to be reading logins now, so I won't have to resort to Google to read an archive of the two months' worth of entries I'd logged.

I took a look yesterday at the 6,000 words I wrote during that span. Many were quite good. I found the exercise challenging, not as much for confining myself to 100 words per, but for coming up with a topic each day. More than a few times I took inspiration from a tool I'd purchased nearly a decade ago, The Observation Deck, a stack of 50 cards, each bearing an inspirational action to spark writing, plus a book explaining each card and some alternative interpretations. In the manner of a stressed student, some of the entries were written after a quick shuffle and pull of a card, then a sprint through MS Word, at 11:30 p.m. before the day changed and I recorded a skip. But I hit each day, more than a year before taking up the similar challenge of a blog.

I believe constraints aren't all bad when it comes to creativity. Gary Larson mentioned in one of his collections that an artist once opined to him that his choice of format — that same daily box each day — taught him more about his form than formal art training might have. Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird of the importance of short assignments. She keeps a 1-inch-square picture frame at her desk, which reminds her that by narrowing one's view of a writing task — by looking through such a small window — even huge assignments become single paragraphs, even single sentences, and lose their ability to daunt. The very title of her book refers to the advice her father gave her brother, who, when panicking in the face of a massive written report on birds, was advised just to take it "bird by bird."

I get satisfaction out of seeing the interface between a creative person's inspiration and the limits of the form he or she has chosen. Larson's panels were a window into a lot of warped perspectives, but he had the challenge of balancing the rendering of the characters, and the technical demands of the form (readability, dialogue, an extremely limited color palette), and — most important — whether anybody would get the joke. Oh, yes, and he had to do that six times a week. Yes, he eventually branched out to the Sunday strips, much larger and in color. Still, when one walked through the halls of my college's academic offices, it was the little daily Far Sides one saw more often on the professors' doors.

Between whatever was going through my head in the still-frozen early months of 2004, and occasional whacks on the side of said head from the Observation Deck, I wrote a diverse selection of complete pieces. Most feel comfortable in their own skin, in the constraint imposed on their length. I feel this is worth remembering, because I now write at work with definite word counts and column lengths in mind, very practical limits — I can even write directly in the Quark document if I want to ensure a perfect fit.

Some folks lose sight of the perfect level of audience commitment for a work. I viewed a short subject at the 2003 CineVagas film festival, a meditation on the vampire from Nosferatu if he gave up his Transylvanian dominion for a mundane life in a Los Angeles suburb. It was witty, sad, and probably about 15 minutes long. During the Q&A, the producer aired his speculation about remaking it at feature length. I immediately said, "No, don't make it longer. It is perfect the way it is." (This, in public, in front of a bunch of strangers, from me, who makes Marianas Trench starfish look social.) Four years later, we have the cavemen from the recent GEICO ads starring in a television series. Even controlling for my natural bias against most of the shit Hollywood produces, I suspect this series will have viewers pining for the perfectly sized 15-second bites we got of these guys in the ads. To quote Krusty the Clown when he was mired in the depths of an interminable and unfunny SNL-style bit, "Uhhhhh . . . this sketch goes on for twelve minutes."

I think there's a balance to be struck between my 500 daily words during Lent and the picture frame of 100 words back in '04. Carpal tunnel be damned. I was doing something very right back then.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Dems Back Away Quietly From MI, FL

A SURPRISING STATEMENT OF unity among most Democratic rivals, and defiance from one of the states that evoked it, start my occasional log of the 2008 presidential election this week.

Dem frontrunners Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, joining with previous signers Bill Richardson, Christopher Dodd, and Joe Biden, have pledged not to campaign in Florida, Michigan, and any other state that tries to shift its primary date ahead of traditional primary springboards Iowa and New Hampshire. They can fundraise, but mass rallies and whirlwind tours across the Sunshine and Wolverine States are, for the moment, no longer on the schedule.

Where this gets interesting is that Michigan has made official their threatened shift of the primary to January 15, sanctions from both national committees be damned.

Naturally, the Democratic pledge frees up a ton of cash for other, more closely contested states where Democratic candidates feel they might gain more by campaigning in person, or to get a solid start in Iowa or New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has issued a diktat that all states currently or considering holding primaries before February 5 will lose half of their delegates, including key members like the state chair and the national committee-drone. Any state moving its primary after the RNC's call to convention goes out loses 90% of its delegates. On the other hand, the RNC is not penalizing the Nine for campaigning in these verboten states. So they may range unopposed by live candidates across Florida and Michigan while the Democrats pick at each other like irritated crows on a power line.

Some folks get HBO just for certain shows. Would I be too out of line getting basic cable between December and the Wednesday after Election Day 2008, or whenever the recounts end? I might need to see this knife fight in clear coaxial glory.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Rambling(s) About the Home Base

UNLIKE MANY OF MY fellow Tri-Staters, I tend to spend Memorial and Labor Days close to home. Furthest I usually go is to a friend's house for a cookout, or perhaps the local malls if a household need coincides with a sale. This stems from my loathing of stand-still traffic.

I am a veteran of yearly childhood trips with my parents to the Jersey Shore and countless weekend transits across the George Washington Bridge to visit my grandparents. I've therefore done my time sitting in bumper-to-bumper shore and Yankees traffic. I could paint from memory a portait of the white knuckles of my father, wrapped around a steering wheel. All that might vary would be the backdrop: the ominous rise of the Driscoll Bridge, abandoned tenements as viewed from the Cross Bronx Expressway, or one of the many tollbooth bottlenecks along the Garden State Parkway. Perhaps a whiff of exhaust to lend a realistic air.

I broke my rule once. I took Friday before Labor Day off to go to Foxwoods. Even hitting the road at 2:00 p.m. wasn't early enough to prevent me from becoming embedded in a matrix of slow-moving vehicles. Running narratives on the overhanging LED road signs told of delays through all urban chokepoints of the Connecticut Turnpike. A dedicated degenerate can make the Foxwoods Run at dawn in just 2 hours with no Imperial entanglements. Not so that Friday. It was damn near six when I rolled onto the Happy Punting Grounds. For the record, I lost. To quote the immortal Rodney Dangerfield, "I shoulda stayed at home and played with myself!"

Now, no more. Out to Rockaway along 80 for a BBQ, sure. Down to Hoboken to harass the mighty Billhouse in his riverside fastness, absolutely, especially now that Bergen County will run weekend trains. Other than that, these long weekends tend to be self-directed. Good targets for raising a mighty mass of pasta sauce or chili with the aid of the kitchen spirits (or failing that, the spirits in the liquor cabinet).

Yesterday came to a rolling start . . . a slow one. The usual poker game went off on Wednesday instead of Thursday, because the host had plans to participate in his office fantasy football draft on Thursday. With a short table looming, I joined in to get the minimum number of players for a decent game. (Playing hold'em with six or fewer people is a discipline in and of itself and not to everyone's liking.) The evening ran long, something I hadn't done routinely since being unemployed. I stumbled through Thursday in a daze, with Friday being little better. So Saturday I paid the piper.

I crept out of bed much later than planned. Although I got over to the gym and put in 40 good minutes on the aerobic machines, I hadn't been there since Wednesday morning, and I could feel the sluggish muscles protesting even then my planned return in the afternoon to lift. After a couple of hours at home reading in the sweet Saturday sun, I was inclined to agree. My engine was clicking on empty, possibly because of the lack of exercise in the previous two days, and the poor nutrition I pursued on Thursday in my semiconscious state.

By late afternoon, I felt ready for a nap. Uncharacteristic. Typically when I feel like this, I ought to just go to sleep and just call the rest of the day a wash. In past cases like this, I have slept for 14 hours straight. I spend most attempts at napping for the usual hour or half-hour trying to fall asleep. When I "wake up" from these naps, I usually feel worse: fatigued, frustrated, and washed out, like an overbleached T-shirt. I felt I was paying the piper on the late Wednesday and crummy nutrition since then, so I tried it out.

This experience was no different. I roused myself an hour later from fitful fading in and out, and shuffled out of the bedroom, moving like a hypoglycemic septuagenarian, feeling stupid for having backed myself into this corner on such a gorgeous day. Yeah, I had been outside for a good stretch, but I felt like I hadn't done anything. This from someone who fences off what vacation and personal time he gets from the encroachment of work with miserly fervor. Now I felt even more tired than before the nap . . . with a gnawing hunger and a touch of a caffeine headache to boot.

Fuck this, I thought, it's time to get out of this furniture-filled mausoleum. So I showered again, dressed, and boomed over to the Blue Moon Mexican joint a couple of towns north. I briefly considered Friendly's, but thought the impact of grease and sugar on my depleted carcass would just take me from one worn-out feeling to another when the fat and glucose highs crapped out. The Mex grub at Blue Moon is fairly healthful as that cuisine goes. Well, except for their Buffalo wings, but I had no intention of demolishing a plate of those that afternoon. Maybe well into the football season, as I did during one Jets game, stripping wing after wing from the end of the deserted bar one December as the big screen depicted Herman Edwards suffering one of his last defeats in green and white. But not now.

One chicken quesadilla and two Diet Cokes later, I felt like Popeye after clearcutting a spinach field. Simple enough solution to the problem, eh? I felt peppy enough to cut over to 9W and head south to the Edgewater Whole Foods.

So that's how Saturday went. The lessons concern both food and evening divertiments. For one, I feel the Thursday poker nights can no longer go much past midnight for me anymore. On the weekends, sure; in fact, plans are afoot for an evening of hold'em tonight. But I have all of Monday to recover. Not so Thursday, or Wednesday as was the case last week. Maybe I'm taking on a feline cast to my sleep habits. Tacking an extra hour or so on might be the thing. As for poker night, I can try cutting it off "early." After about 1:00, unless I'm up big and juiced on adrenaline, I'm basically treading water, and there's no way my judgment is as sharp. This affects driving as well as poker, surely with more dire consequences for an error; and the need to stop for Dunkin Donuts on the way home does me no physical favors. If the need for an extended binge presents itself, as winter approaches the weekend rates on AC motels and even some of the casino hotels will drop; I can shack up, sleep off the late night, and motor home with a clear head and an empty road.

And of course that brings me to food. My dining habits were too heavy with simple carbs and deli food on Thursday and Friday to allow a decent recovery either from the workout or the late night. I've had great success with all meals but dinner in the past several weeks. I bring lunch and snacks like fruit, healthful nuts, or homemade protein "bars" to work, so my dose is fairly evenly titrated. Once I get home, unless I've got chili or something like that cued up, my discipline wanders . . . in many cases to some of the instant and less beneficial choices at the Trader Joe's next door. That place is a trove of inexpensive nutrition, but there's still a fair amount of crap, and I can't rely on that unless I want the work I do at the gym during the morning to be undone at night. Preparing some easily reheated protein-based food ahead of time, plus fresh veggies, or even a second complex-carb-based breakfast or an omelet if I haven't gone the egg route that day yet, is a better way to go.

So those are the two course corrections I have set for the fall as it washes across the area in a pageant of color and crisp nights. For the rest of today, I believe another stretch of peaceful reading and WFMU listening on my complex lawn is in order, then a run over to the gym for a session of twisting and lifting and such. When football season returns for true, my Sunday afternoon watch-and-cycle routine will as well, so time to get some two-a-days of my own in. From there, dinner with the family, possibly followed by a round of hold'em after sundown, when the gambling vampires ride free. As for Monday, I shall celebrate that Labor Day with enlightened self-interest . . . but close to home.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Traditional End of Summer

I CAN SMELL AUTUMN returning, wafting through my parking lot under a moonlit sky, the scent of smoke from a trattoria in town reminding me of the fireplaces that will glow with life in a short span of weeks.

I can see its return, crisp and maroon, in the piles of Japanese maple leaves accreting around my parking space, and in the orange tips of the trees that line the eastern edge of my company's property, trees catching the first flames of fall.

I can see the lights of upper Manhattan burning across the Hudson from Edgewater, unhindered by shimmering heat or noxious humidity. Birthplace of the Beats, you lie in plain view and soon will be wreathed in cool nights to go with your cool bop prosody.

I await you, autumn. I await rebirth into you.