Monthly Archives: April 2009

Book: Pick-up

pickup.jpgThis book seemed so-so right up until the last two sentences, when it blew me away.

“Pick-up,” by Charles Willeford, was published in 1955. I have a Black Lizard edition. 

The book revolves around Harry, a hard-luck loser of sorts who bounces around aimlessly, and of the troubled gal he befriends and romances. We see him in all kinds of contexts–in bars, with friends, with criminals, with the police, at work, with the gal’s mother, in jail–some of everything. Nothing much really happens. There is no mystery to be solved. We just see Harry interacting with a lot of different people in a lot of different situations.

Frankly, it sporadically bored me. As I turned the last page, I was already thinking about the next book I would start. Then I got to the last couple lines:

I left the shelter of the awning and walked up the hill in the rain.
Just a tall, lonely Negro.
Walking in the rain.

Until that point, I didn’t realize Harry was black. Willeford gave no clues. So throughout the book, I had pictured a white guy interacting with people in all of these situations. And since it’s written in first-person, from Harry’s point of view, I thought I was seeing everything through a white man’s eyes.

But after learning that he was black, it changed the whole book. Now I had to insert a black man into all of those interactions in 1950s Los Angeles. And that made it a whole different story. I found myself retracing the various scenes of the book, replacing my white guy with a black guy. And I realized how brilliant the book was.

Imagine the extra impact this would have had when it was published in 1955. (Sorry I ruined the ending, but I figured this isn’t a book you would ever come across.)

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What to Make of Obama’s Trip

David Sanger, one of the best reporters out there, wrote an overview of President Obama’s recent overseas trip. It’s neither positive nor negative–just a fair look at what he did and didn’t accomplish, and how much of a “grand strategy” we’re beginning to see (and he warns against looking for a grand strategy, especially so soon). He quotes one Obama adviser as saying, “This trip was more about reattaching all the cars on the train and convincing the other leaders that we’re no longer headed for derailment.”

He also writes, “Tellingly, Mr. Obama talked about taking on terrorists but not tyrants. Al Qaeda had to be destroyed, he said, but Iran, North Korea and Cuba would all be engaged. Gone was Mr. Bush’s signature line that ‘freedom is on the march’ or the insistence that democracy was a God-given right.” So some foreign policy themes may be emerging.

I’ve also been hearing about Sanger’s book “The Inheritance,” which looks at the foreign policy world that Obama inherited from the Bush administration. People like Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer, and Michael Beschloss laud the book. It evidently gives all kinds of inside dope that hasn’t yet made the light of day, with some stories that sound like they come from a Le Carre novel. I may need to get this one.

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Go to the Source

Rudy Giuliani was on Morning Joe, criticizing President Obama for not talking tough with Iran. I thought his messages have set a good tone (but what do I know?), and that seems to be what most people think. But Rudy, of course, knows better.gaddafi.jpeg

Years ago, when Muamar Gaddafi of Libya was in the news regularly, you would see his name spelled all kinds of ways. His name contains sounds that lack any exact English equivalent (the initial sound is like a throaty k, like the German pronunciation of Bach, and the middle sound is similar to the English th, but with the tongue pulled back further behind the teeth). So, how to spell it? News sources used all kinds of variations, such as:

  • Gaddafi
  • Khaddafi
  • Gadhafi
  • Qaddhafi
  • Qaddafi
  • Kaddafi
  • Qadaffi
  • Kazzafi
  • Qathafi
  • al-Quadhafi
  • Quathafi
  • Gheddafi
  • Khadafy
  • Qudhafi

That’s the short list. So Americans, entrenched in their vacuum, debated back and forth on the proper pronunciation. Then someone asked, “How does the Libyan press, when publishing in English, spell his name?” Well, they aren’t in accord, either.

  • Libyan Embassy in Washington DC: Col/Muammar Elkaddfi
  • Libya Online: Muammar Al-Qathafi  
  • Libyan American Chamber of Commerce: Muammar Gadafi 

Then the Big Man himself settled it. Turns out said Big Man responded to a letter from some American second-graders, and he signed his name this way: Moammar El-Gadhafi. I would say that’s somewhat definitive. Though if you check Wikipedia, you’ll find that they insist on al-Gaddafi. Whatever.

My point, in a tediously roundabout way, is: how do Arabs feel about Barack Obama’s approach? Forget Rudy–he’s not the target audience (nor is anyone in America the target audience). Nor are any of the professional pundits infesting TV news. How do Obama’s messages come across to Arabs?

queennoor.jpegQueen Noor of Jordan, one of the classiest persons on the planet, came on Morning Joe after Rudy. She was asked about the same issue. Her response: it is not diplomacy to talk with aggression and confrontation. That, she said, does not work. She thought Obama’s speeches, from the inauguration on, have struck the right tone.

This is one of the problems with American news: we just have a bunch of pundits (usually WASPs) sitting around spouting semi-informed or totally uninformed opinions (but faking it well). They go from show to show discussing the Topic of the Day, as if they are authorities on everything. They aren’t. And we shouldn’t take their pronouncements so seriously.

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More of the Same

On the way home from work yesterday, I switched the radio to WOWO, and these are the first words I heard: “Obama is just a sack of manure.” That may not be an exact quote, but it’s close. 

I, of course, had stumbled onto the Rush Limbaugh World of Hate show. I listened for a few more minutes as he ranted on about Barack Obama, hateful stuff. I imagine this is what he does for hours on end, day after day. Spewing hatred for all things Obama. A few minutes of Garbage In is all I could take.

Rush likes to throw out stories that “you won’t hear this from the liberal mainstream media.” Fox does that, too. I occasionally look up things like this. There’s bountiful info available, and a discriminating mind (that would be me) can sort through what is and isn’t credible. Often, the reason the “liberal mainstream media” doesn’t report these gossipy tidbits is because they are unverified, unverifiable, or just plain boloney. 

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Michael Jordan and Audie Murphy

On the way to work, I listened on ESPN to yesterday’s press conference announcing the nominees for the NBA Hall of Fame. Michael Jordan seemed none to anxious for it, joking about putting his uniform back on and heading out onto the court. Going into the Hall of Fame, to him, meant officially admitting, “I’m done. I don’t have it anymore.”

Mike&Mike mused about what it must be like to have been the best in the world at something, but not the best anymore. A writer, painter, sculptor, composer can remain the best until he dies. But not an athlete. Can anything fill the void once filled with extreme adrenaline rushes, glory, and triumph?

audiemurphy.jpgFor some reason, I thought of Audie Murphy, America’s most famous soldier of World War 2. I read a superb article about him years ago in Esquire. Murphy enlisted at age 16, weighing 110 pounds and standing 5’5″. The Army tried to turn him into a cook, but he insisted on combat.

You see, Murphy was a natural warrior. He fought in numerous campaigns from Sicily to Italy to France, and won every medal available to an American soldier, some of them several times. Many men rise to the occasion in combat, but not many are natural warriors. 

After the war, Murphy received national acclaim for his heroics, and became a movie star, making 44 movies. But in the article, written during those Hollywood years, he talked about the emptiness, the dullness, of his post-war life. Nothing, for him, could match the adrenaline rush of combat, with every sense heightened, your life on the line, reaching your limit and still pushing forward, being wounded (three times!) yet battling on. He was the best; he was made for battle. To fill the void, Murphy turned to alcohol. He finally died in a plane crash in 1971. 

Michael Jordan seems to be doing just fine in filling the void. And yet, I’m sure he looks back over his playing career and thinks, “I was made for Game Seven, made for the last-second shot. Nothing I’ve done since, or will ever do, can equal that.”

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A Belated Thanks to H-P

Last Monday night, while watching “24,” I received a call from a guy, speaking with an Indian accent, who claimed to work for Hewlett-Packard. He said they were checking on a computer purchased in my name. He asked me if I had a credit card ending in a certain four digits, and I told him I did. He read my billing address. It was correct.

But I was really really suspicious. Would he just continue asking me to verify information? 

I told him I needed to check on some information, and would call him back. Could he give me his number? He did. As our conversation concluded, I sensed some frustration in his voice. 

Then I called Discover and reported the matter. They looked up our charges, and the last five charges were not ours. About $2000 worth. Two were for computers, probably laptops (since they were under $1000)–one from HP, one from Toshiba. Someone opened a Yahoo! Wallet account (which a Discover security woman said was probably a test to see if the card number worked). There were two other purchases–five, altogether.

Discover shut down our account, transferred all account activity (minus the five fraudulent charges) to a new account, and sent us new cards, which arrived Saturday. So we’re back in business. 

As for that HP guy who called? I know why he sounded frustrated. He thought I didn’t believe him. And I didn’t. But if he hadn’t called, we wouldn’t have caught the fraud that early, and many more charges would undoubtedly have been made. Because whoever had our credit card info (and we have no idea how they got it), they were in a spending spree.

Note to HP: for jobs like that, don’t use someone with a foreign accent.

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Books: Three by Robert Parker

parker_3books.jpgDuring the past week I finished three Robert Parker novels. I can make pretty quick work of his books. They’re short, fast-paced, and interesting.

I started with the first Jesse Stone novel. Parker started this series in 1997 about a former LA homicide cop who becomes police chief of Paradise, Mass. I’d read all of them–except for the very first one, Night Passage. Not sure how that happened. Anyway, I finally got caught up (though a new Jesse Stone novel just emerged in paperback). Unlike his other series, Parker writes the Jesse Stone novels in third person. 

Next came Spare Change, about private investigator Sunny Randall. Parker started this series in 1999, and there are six books so far. I’ve read them all. 

Finally, I read Now and Then, the latest Spenser novel. It did a lot of harking back to a book from 20 years ago, when gal-pal Susan married a baddy and required rescuing.

The three series share a number of characters–good, standup cops and noble cons–who started out in Spenser stories. Stone’s captain in LA was Cronjager, whom I’m sure surfaces in several Spenser books. State cop Healy and shooter Vinnie Morris make appearances. In Spare Change, we encounter Martin Quirk, Belson, Healy, and a few other persons we Parker fans already know well. 

Jesse Stone played a big role in Back Story, a Spenser novel from 2003. And the previous Sunny Randall book featured she and Stone solving a crime together, when they aren’t, uh, getting it on. So there’s plenty of cross-pollination, and it makes the books more interesting. Parker has created a lot of fascinating characters. Might as well get more mileage out of them.

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Of Comfort Denied

I’m developing a tradition for my work-free Friday morning: going to a coffeeshop and reading. Nothing revolutionary. And yet, satisfying. I must avoid caffeine, but one large carmel macchiotto or chai a week, supplemented with a cream cheese Danish (which Starbucks returned to its menu, after being exiled during several years of organic elitism), is okay. 

But you also need a soft, thickly-padded chair. Something to sink into while you read. Starbucks has just two such chairs, both clustered together, and they’re always occupied. Last week, two ladies spent the morning chatting meaninglessly in those chairs. I sat on a hard chair at a table, waiting for them to leave, but they refused my persistent ESP signals. Today, two men did the same thing. I ate and drank and read “Crowdsourcing” on a hardwood chair which, I’m sure, violates the Geneva Conventions of coffeeshops.

Several weeks ago, seeing those chairs occupied, I simply moved down the street to a different coffeeshop. Shoulda done that today. Will do it next week. I must, must have a nicely padded chair. It’s a requisite part of the total Friday morning experience I seek, but which has been denied me yeah these past several weeks.

And thus continues the saga of my hardscrabble life infested with deprivation and injustice.

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Good for Mitt Romney

romney.jpgPeople like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter have no credibility with me, because you’ll never hear them say anything positive about Democrats. No matter what Democrats do, it’s wrong. And if something does go right, it did so in spite of them.

That’s just not how the world works. Democrats do good things, and Republicans do good things. And both do stupid things. There are good motives, and bad motives, on both sides. When someone can acknowledge that, they have credibility in my eyes. (That would be you, Joe Scarborough, Pat Buchanan, David Gregory, Bill Bennett, David Gergen, and even James Carville and–this pains me–Karl Rove.) When they can’t admit anything positive about The Evil Opposition, I write them off as hopelessly partisan. As cemented in a Cowboys and Indians mentality, Good Guys and Bad Guys. As seeing the world in black and white, and unable to recognize grays.

So I appreciate what Mitt Romney said the other night at a GOP fundraiser. After criticizing Obama’s budget, he said, “”I also think it’s important for us to nod to the president when he’s right. He will not always be wrong, and he’s done some things I agree with.”

He will not always be wrong. Did you hear that, Sean and Rush?

For standing up to the auto industry, Romney said, “I hope he continues to be tough and shows some backbone, because that industry is not going to make it unless we have real backbone and get those guys to fundamentally restructure all of their obligations.”

And of Geithner, “I think he’s finally getting close to the right answer.”

Hearing stuff like this, I really don’t think Romney would say, “I hope the President fails.”

Different subject: Notre Dame came under fire recently for inviting Obama to speak at Commencement, since it’s a Catholic school and Obama is pro-choice. I voted for Obama, knowing this was an area in which I disagreed with him. I’m glad the pro-life crowd is creating a ruckus here, just as a good reminder to Obama.

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Twitter Rejuvenated

LoungScreenshot.pngTwitter has been getting lots of press lately.

I opened a Twitter account in October 2007, and put it on my blog, so that my tweets would appear in the sidebar, and so that I could feel with-it. It’s still there, and I am marginally with-it. 

But I was rapidly losing interest in Twitter, with my tweets fewer and farther between. I used a widget to post, so I didn’t need to go to the actual Twitter site. But it still felt like too much effort.

Then, last December, I discovered Ping.fm, which enabled me to post directly from my iChat window, which is always open anyway. And not only post to Twitter, but to Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and elsewhere at the same time. Very, very simple. 

But even then, I felt alone. I wasn’t following anybody, like a real Twitterer should. It was just me, uttering 140-character proclamations into cyberspace. But during the past week, two things happened that rejuvenated my interest in Twitter.

  • I began experimenting with some other Twitter clients. One of them, Lounge, is wonderful. 
  • I began discovering friends and acquaintances who Twitter, and began actually following people’s Tweets. 26 people so far (and looking for more). 

Lounge is a great way to follow people. I keep the window open all the time, next to my iChat window, and new tweets appear as people submit them. 

So now, I’m using Twitter the way it’s supposed to be used–as a highly efficient time-waster with a user-friendly interface perfectly designed to continually distract me from what I should be doing.

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