Memorial Day 2010

Navel Gazing in the Month of May

I have noticed more and more that my mental activity is coming to resemble that of a classic absent-minded professor, except that I am neither absent-minded nor a professor. What I am is nearly completely disinterested in some things that in the past I at least gave some corner of my attention to. This happened once before when I was finishing my doctoral dissertation. In order to complete my Ph.D. back in the fall of '99, for about six weeks, I limited my non-writing activities to food, water, sleep, walks in the park and my cats.

Here a decade further on, writing again is the catalyst for my narrowing view of what passes for the world and news about it. In addition, however, there is the simple reality that I am older and care a whole lot less about what in our society passes for popular culture. I scrolled through the titles of new movie releases available to me on cable the other night and discovering I recognized the titles of 2 out of 104 films. The Hurt Locker and Avatar.

About two months ago I set my new (and first) DVR to record shows I thought I would want to watch. Over that period I have captured and attempted to watch maybe twenty or so different titles. Today, my venture into the world of DVR has been reduced to recording The Daily Show and Namaste Yoga.

OK, maybe I am inexorably becoming an old, ornery hermit. But the pleasure of focusing in depth on a topic and not having the effluvium of the world to distract you is compelling, even a bit addictive. Certainly nearly any endeavor which implies isolation or perceived anti-social behavior should be inspected periodically. I do have good friends here in the Bay Area and I was just in Las Vegas with some of my poker buddies and no he doeth not protest too mucheth. On the other hand, becoming a caricature of an archetype does seem fairly trivial.

Maybe a bit more Flamingoing around is in order.

Philosopical Pheedback

Earlier this month I asked you this question:

"Indicate some of the fundamental beliefs, concepts, philosophy of life or articles of faith which help carry you along, tide you over rough spots or guide you in the every day conduct of your life."

Today I want to give you a synopsis of the responses I received and perhaps add a few thoughts of my own. I deleted all names and email references from the emails and comments and then scrambled them. I didn't want any hint of: "Bob said that" or "Barry is a joker" to taint my reactions to your submissions. Here are some hi-lights with commentary.

I read your blog but have never communicated with you, we don't know each other in real life; your view on things makes me calmer about my life. You make me more thoughtful and more hopeful, even when you drift into what I assume was some earlier period of cynicism in your life. I think it is because you don't despair and you say things are basically right with the world. I need to hear that, which leads to my axiom: "Look for the good and listen for it too." I guess I should add: "and read for it too." Thanks.

I was a bit shocked by that response, but upon reflection -- calm is something I do. Oh, and thanks for the compliments, it fuels the blog fires. On the other side of the chasm, there were several offerings that contemplated the end:

Life Sucks and then you die.. I am really looking forward to that last part.

Life is just to die. Lou Reed

He not busy being born is busy dying. Bob Dylan

For death, I believe we are in a circle of life -- in a sense this is one life -- you don't go forward until you've learned the lessons you need to in this life.

There was also recognition that answers and paths are often elusive:

What does around comes around, so do the right thing; of course, figuring that out at times can be a challenge.

Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do. John XXIII

Lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip its been. Grateful Dead

Surrender to the flow but don't be confuse it with the inevitable flush.

There was a lot of hope put in ourselves.

At the end of the day you go home with yourself, you need to be good with yourself and your actions.

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children... to leave the world a better place... to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. Ralph Waldo Emerson

In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don't try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present. Tao Te Ching

I really like that quote from the Tao, even though I cannot bear personal witness to any of those precepts. I are a poor Taoist. However, there were several submissions that mirrored my feelings about life.

I no longer follow a religion, instead I try to live by a quote from my favorite movie: "Life moves pretty fast, if you don't stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it." Ferris Bueller

John Lennon offered a similar observation: "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

My favorite such comment, often found on lapel buttons: Enjoy life, this is not a dress rehearsal.

A buddhist view of life was offered from Thich Nhat Hanh: We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness. 

My favorite quote in that area comes from William James: Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all around it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there life potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.  

"To give freely of oneself and serve others" was offered by one reader. I like to have friends with knowledge and talents I do not have. I often say: Don't bother to learn that, I already know it; learn more about what you know that I don't. You don't have to be all that you can be, you can have friends to round out your philosophy, which is why I asked in the first place.

Finally, one of my favorite views on life, I have heard uttered by it's creator. The quote was submitted by two of you, so we jointly offer it was a motto for getting along in this life.

"Don't be a dick." Wil Wheaton

Louring Sky

Most days when I write from the apartment I am able to lift my head from the monitor and see the magnificent view I have of the San Francisco Bay. Often times I lament that I do not have a camera capable of capturing the variety of evening solar displays that play out through my glass wall. I could fill this blog three or four nights a week with the end-of-the-day panorama.

But I am not a real sunny weather guy, I like cool and moist. I find storms of all kinds both fascinating to watch and energizing to experience. As I have said before, my view of the Golden Gate narrows into the Bay gives me lots of vantage points for storms both big and small. I like the greys and the fast moving clouds. One evening last week there was a two hour sunset without the sun. Bank after bank of clouds pushed across the horizon only slightly backlit by a well obscured sun. The low clouds made me remember the term lowering sky and I wondered why it was pronounced with a soft "O" as in Tao or Mao instead of a hard "O" as it would appear to be.

A quick bit of research found the original spelling -- louring sky and the source of the pronunciation even when the term used more often these days is lowering sky. Next, I went on an internet search for a picture of such a sky and was disappointed by the offerings. I was going to abandon this post when I look up and saw the sky in the picture above. There was a perfect louring sky for this post right outside my window.

As I finish this in the early afternoon, the rain has moved in, drizzle really; but another glorious grey day.

Kontemporary Koan

I do believe I heard the first utterance of an original koan today.

"She doesn't go anywhere for the first time."

Please forward any previous utterances or references to this linguistic gem in any and all variations, just in case I am challenged by the OED or Guinness. The source of this emanation is someone I have learned to keep one ear turned towards at all times. Today in the midst of a completely original and fanciful story arose that luscious line.

Sure it tangentially references by own favorite koan:

"You can never step into the same stream twice."

I assume we have all been there for the birth of pithy and insightful turns of phrase, right off the top of my head I remember this doublespeak:

"Just because you believe it, doesn't mean it's true.
Just because it didn't happen doesn't mean it isn't true."

And I was second hand to the first overhearing of the teeny-bopper record store observation:

"Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings."

When I grow up I want to be a linguist.

Insomnia & Philosophy

Today marks the final installment in a three month series of New York Times Op-Ed pieces on insomnia. Back in February the Times launched this series they called All-Nighters:

What do you do when the world's asleep and you're awake? 
All-Nighters is an exploration of an ancient malady and modern fixation -- insomnia. With contributions from writers, scientists, artists and others, it will document the many ways we approach sleeplessness -- as a nuisance, a disease, a curse, and opportunity or even a gift.

There have been twenty-eight articles in all in the All-Nighters series, as someone who has not had a serious bout of insomnia is over thirty years, I found the full set to be a revealing take on the subject. Several of my friends who have frequent episodes of sleeplessness, did not find them as intriguing:

"Been there, done that too often. Reading about it doesn't help."

"I started reading the first few articles late at night when I couldn't sleep; so besides being tired and awake, I was also pissed off and annoyed at the efforts to chronicle insomnia by what were obviously late night dilettantes."

Just a few days ago the editors of The Opinionator section ("Exclusive Online Commentary from the Times") introduced another new feature -- The Stone, as in The Philosopher's Stone. The Stone is proposed to be "a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless."  The first article in The Stone was entitled: What Is a Philosopher?

While I intend to follow this new venture as it unfolds, I have two early (too early?) comments. First, this appears to be an open-ended discussion not limited as was the insomnia exploration. Giving NYTimes editors and writers free reign with a subject as vast as philosophy seems at least to be overly broad and subject to criminal expansiveness.

More critically, the pieces tend to be short; not blog-short but still depth is often sacrificed to brevity. As in the opening article: What Is a Philosopher? I dare say should you read that 1300 word piece, you will come away with many propositions but nary an answer to the question: what is a philosopher.

Still an interesting attempt by the NYTimes folks. I would point out again, this is online content and at least for now still free.

A Few of My Favorite Things

It would seem that "A Few of My Favorite Things" is a common blog thread. I had not encountered this blogging phenomenon until I went looking for an appropriate photo for this post. Googling AFoMFT produced thousands of exact blog matches. Switching to images, I felt Julie Andrew's on a hilltop did not strike the tone I was seeking. And I couldn't find a really good chocolate manatee. But enough of this overture, in the last three days I have experienced a trifecta of my favorite things.

Upon returning from Las Vegas I indulged myself in two nights of solitary sleep. I was editing a section of my latest book the other day and I see no reason to reinvent the perfect description, so I quote myself:

I was going to sleep until I woke and then slowly turn over and drift off again. Nowhere to go, nowhere to be, no one to bother with and no one to bother me. If there is a heaven, it has cold, crisp mornings and pile of goose down comforters.

The third morning I was already three pages into editing when I glanced at the chronometer to find it was not yet 8 AM. If you linger in bed every morning, it might just be considered sloth. Besides you can't really enjoy the exquisite pleasure of rolling over if you do it every single day. Surely tis the contrast between Carpe Diem and Carpe Supine that makes it so sublime.

Favorite Thing #2 involves books. I can walk from my place to both the Berkeley Public Library and three UC Berkeley collections. Despite the easy access of the internet, there are times when sitting down in front of several shelves of books on a particular topic is the best form of research. Titles and abstracts don't always cover all the tidbits that books contain. Yesterday, I had a particular topic in mind and spend a glorious three hours pawing through forty or so books and literally hundreds of spine titles to get clarity on just one tiny topic. Out of that session I will have a couple of articles by the end of the week leading perhaps to another writing gig. But job or no, the pleasure of the search and research is always there.

Favorite Thing #1 is sleep. Second FT is fodder for the cerebrum, well then number three has got to be.

Yes, of course, food!

Here are the ingredients of a near perfect graze.

A loaf a Acme Bakery olive bread. They use these green olives that somehow remain moist in the loaf without making the bread soggy. Plus there is a high ratio of firm outer crust to tender interior.

For toppings, well first a wedge of Cambozola cheese, if you don't know this variety, it is a blend of gorgonzola and camembert. I recommend removing the rind (which you can save to cut into soup) and then letting the cheese warm to room temperature. Very rich, almost to be used as a spread. Since there are times you want a slice of cheese, something with substance; I recommend supplementing with a second selection. I opted for a firm, strong, white cheddar.

Now in my younger days, I might have gone for a hard Genoa salami here but these days I shy away from nitrated meats and instead add the following:

Avocado, at precisely that moment of ripeness when the texture and flavor reminds one of liquid velvet. I do so remember how as kids we referred to these gems ripening on the kitchen window ledge as green slime. I am sure my mother was heart-broken when she didn't have to share with her horde of carnivores.

I have found a brand of sun-dried tomatoes that are stored not in olive oil but in a lighter combination of oil and balsamic vinegar. Same distributor has roasted red and yellow peppers in a brine. Accompanying beverage of your choice and enjoy.

By the way, on day two the same combinations minus the Cambozola (too soft) and the bread on the side, go perfectly tossed in some spring salad greens, add a few capers use the sun-dried tomato balsamic oil as dressing and you have more bliss for the palate.

I thought of titling this post: "Simple Pleasures" but I realized that Godiva cat probably cost ten bucks.

Link, Blog, Life Dump

Back in Berkeley and sorting thru the debris pile of notes from ten days in Vegas. Not every note becomes blog-worthy and others just are random ponderings on the nature of reality or something like it.

We ran into several living street statues on the Las Vegas Strip. You know those struggling actors/waiters who get into some kind of costume and then stand still. Always a bit puzzling for me but seen as evil by one of my traveling companions. He had the reaction that many of us have to clowns the first time we actually get the dark nature of those big footed pervs. What I liked the most about this conversation was his immediate off-the-cuff comment when several of us pointed out that we considered mimes much worse. "Street statues are the Bastard Stepchildren of Mimes." What a great phrase.


Whether Weather. We got lucky last week in Vegas, only one day was over ninety degrees. Global Cooling don't you know. I drove through several hours of 90+ on the way back Saturday but it was a pleasant 52 degrees when I arrived in the East Bay early in the evening. Today is a glorious foggy, rainy and sunless day, which is weather I truly enjoy. But tis late in the season for wetness here in Northern California, the summer dry season is usually upon us by now. What does all this mean? 

Well for one thing the reservoirs are filling up. Several of the water basins, including the monster Lake Shasta are above historical average for this date and we have yet to experience the bulk of the Sierra snowpack melt. Not that the lingering drought is over but this has been a good wet winter for California and at least for today -- it continues.


Free book download. The University of Chicago Press is offering a free download every month. These are academic books but they really are free. This has been going on for about a year and the titles are usually interesting and truly diverse. This month: Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America. You get the whole book and, of course, a pitch to download other offerings at quite reasonable prices. 


And finally today, there appears to be a hashish crisis in Egypt. It is unclear at present whether a government crackdown (perhaps not the best word choice) is responsible or just another product supply issue associated with the worldwide economic crisis. Here in California there is a similar problem with a crash in marijuana prices brought on my over supply from the Emerald Triangle and the medical marijuana initiatives. I got the marijuana story from NPR, which actually took a business perspective on the story and nearly decried the loss to the growers from this plummet in commodities pricing.

One Farmer's Disaster is Many Beetle's Revenge

Did you know that bug splatter on your car's windshield is a treasure trove of genomic biodiversity? Yes indeed, the DNA left behind in the bugs splattered on your car's window glass can be used to estimate the diversity of insects in the region.

I just got home from Las Vegas, which meant a spent quite a few hours in the 'fruit basket of California' or as it is more commonly known -- the San Joaquin Valley. They grow lots of grapes there, mostly for raisins and the majority of asparagus consumed in the U.S. come from there. Also lemons, mandarins, pistachios, lots of almonds plus other citrus and vegetables. In some sections, however, the water from the California Aqueduct has been rationed or even cutoff because of a continuing drought.

This means that you see a lot of signs like this:

I am not going to debate the water issues in the West today but I would like to point out that as recently as five years ago, you could drive the length of the Central Valley of California and not have a single bug splatter on your windshield. Today both times I stopped for gas I had to use a bit of the olde elbow grease to scrape scores of splats off the glass. There are several lessons here: first is the issue of broad spectrum insecticides and what just a minor decline in their use has done for the insect population.

Then there is the not so obvious matter of my transit today ending the existence of several hundred sentient creatures. I would expound on those matters but I had a nine hour drive and what I truly need is some time with my back flat on the floor, followed by ice cream.

Talk among yourselves.
splatter photo credit: John Chiembanchong

A Happy New Home

Just before arriving in Las Vegas last week and good friend who lives here emailed me and asked if I knew of the best place to adopt an adult cat. As long time readers know I used to volunteer at the Nevada SPCA No-Kill shelter in the cat condo wing. So today, my sixth day in Las Vegas was also my third visit to the shelter this week and Jace (pictured above) now has a new happy home with a spectacular view of City Center.

I must admit that I am sorely tempted to make one more visit and take this big, old grey guy back to Berkeley with me. He is a lot more lovable than he looks in this shot, reminds me of me.

There But For The Grace of Homer Go I . . .

I played a small poker tournament yesterday but this is not a poker story. This is a pondering morality tale with a poker backdrop.

It was a small tournament only two tables, Bill and I played. The young lady on my right was an OK player, her husband at the other end of the table was not. She wore too much perfume and over the course of the hour or two it took for her to bust out, I liked her less and less as her mood darkened and she complained about things irrelevant to the poker game. Some might call it: "just bitching". She went out 11th, so she bubbled the final table. Only the top two places were scheduled to be paid but when we got to four players (both Bill and I still in) the short stack player began to ask about a chop. The chipleader was not interested, so for about thirty minutes the stacks went up and down as the blinds went higher and higher. It became a shove-fest. I bubbled in 4th and the remaining three players chopped the cash.

But this is not a poker story. Last evening, I was down in the casino at Monte Carlo as I exited onto the Strip I saw several LVPD officers talking with the young lady and her husband who had played in the tournament. Out of curiosity I listened in.

It appears that after she busted out, she took her dark mood to another casino and playing what I believe was carribbean stud and won herself $40,000. She then decided to continue drinking heavily and to switch to playing craps, which apparently she did not understand well. While she was drinking, throwing dice, showing her tits and generally having a great time (did I mention she had ditched her husband?). Anyways at some point she had $5K of her $40K windfall on the craps table and the other $35,000 stuck in her purse in cash from where it was lifted by a crafty pick pocket. Hence, the police.

It took about five minutes of eavesdropping to get the gory details of her sad story, I believe I overheard rendition six or seven. All the while the husband kept chiming in with: "I don't know, she dumped me after she drank dinner. She still had all the money then."

So yesterday I bubbled a little poker tournament, all in all not a bad day . . . considering.

[my apologies for the poker jargon to my newer non-poker playing readership]

Just Las Vegas

I can't tell if I am jaded or if this is just a matter of coming to a "resort destination" where I once lived. I know Las Vegas. The glitz never really impressed me and since living here I know all the back ways, the 'ins & outs' of the city.

Granted I haven't seen the new City Center yet but I have been to the Black Bear Diner and the SPCA cat condos and I played a bit of low limit poker yesterday and really enjoyed dominating a table. My fellow travelers have arrived after a long day of Southwest delays, so group-think is in full swing. Tonight we do another friend's birthday celebration and tomorrow perhaps a poker tournament.

And then we search for something completely different. I have one idea in mind for the others, for me. . .  have I mentioned you can never go home again? Perhaps an opportunity for seeing with fresh eyes.

Addendum: To be fair. I had a long walk on the Strip last evening. Some observations - freedom of speech or not, the dozens of guys handing out cards for out call services should be banned, if only for the litter they create. City Center is a very cool site from across the Strip at night, on the other hand the city should fine the entire project for continuing to keep the west side of the Strip so screwed up well past any reasonable construction deadline. Go ahead and leave your overbuilt hotels unfinished but the public right of way needs to be open and navigable now. The Bellagio fountains remain a truly unique attraction even after so many years. The revamped Mirage volcano, not so much. And to the two hookers working the entry at the Mirage last night -- reconsider those haircuts and lose the chewing gum.

Leaving for Las Vegas

I will be off in a few hours for Las Vegas. Interesting to return to a place where I lived for three years but really had no significant connection other than work. While Las Vegas is not my kind of town, I don't have the aversion that many of my friends have to Glitter Gulch, Lost Wages, Sin City or whatever not quite appropriate labels non-residents have for Vegas. 

The trip is part-business/part-pleasure. Amy will be there for a financial conference and we have a couple of pending projects to discuss.  Several other poker buddies are in town already or will be passing through. In addition there is some writin' business to be attended to. Another book deal to mull over and some other potential assignments to be pondered and perhaps negotiated. 

Poker will also be on the agenda. I will hit the Venetian for some Omaha 8 and I imagine a tournament or two downtown at Binion's. Also, now that Debonair has moved his play to the MGM, I foresee several sessions near the lion habitat.

I am staying at the Monte Carlo for most of the trip, rates on the strip are definitely down and the latest really good deal was at Monte Carlo. Besides that puts me right next to the new City Center project. 

Somewhat pokerish updates to follow.

I have a question for you . . .

Today I am asking for some audience participation from my esteemed, eclectic and elegant readership. Please consider my request and take twelve seconds or twelve months to respond. For the bashful lurkers, instructions on how to publicly or privately offer your thoughts are given below.

In some recent readings, I came across a provocative question, which I have modified slightly for my purpose. Here it is:

"Indicate some of the fundamental beliefs, concepts, philosophy of life or articles of faith which help carry you along, tide you over rough spots or guide you in the every day conduct of your life."

I should like to pose that considerable inquiry to our little corner of the blogosphere. I certainly will respond, perhaps several times to the parameters of that question. I would ask that you do also. You are welcome to take the words and meaning of those italicized phrases in any manner you like. Send a snippet, offer a thesis, expound or quip. Just please don't be silent.

For the rather sizable number of my readers who would rather remain anonymous, there are several ways to respond without public linkage to your reality. First and the easiest, just click the word "comments" below the last line of this post and open your thoughts with "do not ID me." I moderate all comments to this blog before they are posted and I will detach your name from your comment on request. I may use your thoughts but I will shield your identity.

You can also choose the "anonymous" signature on a comment, that works as well, but in those cases even I will not know who sent the comment. Your choice: protected identity or true anonymity. I may save some of the comments for later posts, so if yours doesn't show up immediately, it will be because I am pondering your submission and will seek to respond or spin off some thoughts you have sparked.

Thank you in advance and may I ask again:

"Indicate some of the fundamental beliefs, concepts, philosophy of life or articles of faith which help carry you along, tide you over rough spots or guide you in the every day conduct of your life."
art credit: Chow Martin

May Day: Berkeley

May Day in Berkeley 2010 was a disappointment. Yes, there was the requisite amount of Arizona immigration bashing and leaflet handing out and random activist literature tables but this is the Worker's Day. Where were the socialists? Where were the downtrodden? The unions? The huddled masses were drinking mocha lattes.

The most prominent early morning promotion was for the "family friendly" May Day picnic and that was over in Dolores Park in San Francisco. This is not your parent's Berkeley. There is more concern these days about reversing the decades of traffic calming measures (that's blocked off neighborhood streets for those who have not experienced the radical traffic patterns of Berkeley). And lest we forget, we need to be ever watchful of asbestos ceilings and old lead paint.

Perhaps I was just having an olde leftie day and expected more from the former nexus of all things radical. Or maybe I was looking for the other meaning of May Day.