Friday, August 31, 2007

Home Again!

Quote of the day:
"[Real cowboys] lead very drab, mostly repetitive, unexciting lives. But people seem to need to believe that they are simple, strong, and free, and not twisted, fascistic, and dumb, as many I've known have been."
--Larry McMurtry

Yesterday afternoon Merrie got the good news that she was being discharged from the hospital. We braced ourselves for the customary three-hour wait, but she was out in less than two. And her prescription was ready at the pharmacy!

She came home, visited the back yard, took a long shower, had dinner and installed herself in her La-Z-Boy with a cat or two.

Her challenge is to take life slowly. She’s not supposed to have any caffeine, so she will also have to adjust to life without coffee. That will be a big deal.

We’ll see what comes next. Right now, there is one very happy dog in our house. Sophie has her playmate back!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Room With a View

Quote of the day:
"I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof."
--John Adams, after his first night in the just-completed White House

In a semi-private hospital room, one bed gets to be closer to the window, the other closer to the door.

A small blessing is that Merrie has the bed with the view. And it’s a good view from the fifth floor. She can see all the way to the surrounding hills.

Last night she was sitting by the window watching the trolley come and go, and saw the lights gradually come on across the city.

It brings to mind a recent “New Yorker” story on light pollution. In it, a researcher said that Americans almost never watch it get dark anymore. Instead, lights go on all around us.

The human body is built for cycles of light and dark. In the winter we often hear reports about the importance of being exposed to light. But we never hear about the effects of not getting enough dark.

It’s sort of like silence, I guess. We see it simply as something missing rather than an entity in itself. Peace is the same. We see it as just absence of war.

All things considered, Merrie is doing ok. The doctors continue to track her blood factors and make medication adjustments.

She did have time and enthusiasm yesterday to review and choose tile designs for our kitchen. The doctor on rounds declined to participate in that decision.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

We're Back In

Quote of the day:
"Self-knowledge does not necessarily help a novelist. It helps a human being a great deal but novelists, as we know, are often appalling human beings."
--Peter Carey

After a day spent mostly in two emergency rooms, Merrie was admitted to the hospital last night. Her blood tests showed some possible liver problems, and the doctors want to know what happened yesterday morning. They’re not sure it’s related to heart failure.

Merrie said she was grateful for the chance to take a shower and sleep in her own bed at least for one night You can’t do either in the hospital.

Now the doctors will start the process of test-treat-and-watch. And for us (you guessed it) wait.

Long hospital stays wear you down in a number of ways. One is the constant deprivation of privacy. It is as if your space and even your life is not your own.

There are tactics Merrie uses to deal with it, but it still grinds on anyone’s sanity.

I gotta say that Merrie has a positive effect on just about every caregiver at the hospital. She’s fully engaged in her care and asks lots of questions. And she hasn’t lost her sense of humor (though she has every reason to), and the doctors and nurses seem to really appreciate it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Morning Surprise

We were having a leisurely morning at home. Merrie was unwinding from her hospital stay.

But life brings the unexpected.

She called to me that I needed to call 911. She was having heart-attack symptoms.

The paramedics were here in just a few minutes. Merrie was able to speak with them. They took her off to the hospital.

I went to the ER to wait. The receptionist said she wasn’t in the system yet. Fifteen minutes later, Merrie calls me and says she’s not at Kaiser but at Alvarado.

And she also says she’s feeling much better. What a relief.

A few hours and some tests in the Alvarado emergency room, then a ride to the Kaiser ER.

Then the wait to hear if she needs to be admitted. Again.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Best Part of Going to the Hospital

Quote of the day:
“I find it amazing that in this day and age, American women seem to resent smart American women in high positions.”
--Mohan Ram

A very long (5 hour) test for Merrie today, to check blood flow in and around her heart. And then a wait for results to see if she could be discharged.

At 6:30 she was very pleased to hear that she was being released. At 9:00 it actually happened. Then we waited a half hour for a prescription.

See what I mean? Waiting. It’s one of the prices we pay for our health-care system.

But the best part of being in the hospital is going home.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Time for A Breather

Quote of the day:
“The Orioles were ahead 3-0 so they put up a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.”
--David Letterman, commenting on the Texas Rangers’ 30-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles.

Lots of time today while waiting at the hospital. Time to sometimes contemplate things beyond health. Such as the ruckus Jen created when she was kicked off “Big Brother 8.” Boy was she nasty!

Merrie and I tuned in years ago to the very first episode of the first season of “Big Brother,” out of curiosity more than anything else. We got hooked on season one, but grew tired of it during season two.

We turned on the first episode of the new season to see how things had changed, and found ourselves hooked again.

Merrie compares watching the show to watching a slow-motion train wreck. It is silly and even a bit tawdry. But I find myself getting very interested that the game’s design involves participants using manipulation and deception in order to win.

What results is a display of some of the least-attractive qualities of human nature. Very instructive.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Slow August Weekend: Medical

Quote of the day:
“According to some commercials, driving an SUV means you support terrorists. The answer is the hybrid gas-electric car, which only supports terrorists when going uphill.”
--Jon Stewart

Merrie moved from zigging to zagging (previously known as seeing to sawing) today. Her kidney function began to be affected again by the diuretic drugs. So the doctor is easing back a bit. I guess it’s kind of like driving a performance car around a curve. Though not nearly as fun. At all.

Hospitals are just like the rest of the world in that they go quiet on weekends. Or at least quieter. While I might circle the parking lot for a few minutes on Friday waiting for a space, half the lot is open on Saturday.

Care at the hospital is continuous, of course, but it seems that most doctors’ schedules are concentrated on weekdays. So weekends are spent (you guessed it) waiting. Reading, worrying, waiting. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Friday, August 24, 2007


It seems that Merrie is on a seesaw. First she was seeing, then she was sawing, and now she is seeing again. The goal is to be at the balancing point.

Her last hospital visit was the result of problems that were side effects (as opposed to “front” or “back” effects) of two of the drugs she was taking. At that time the doctors eliminated one medication and changed another.

What has happened now is a reaction to that change. Because her original medications were changed or stopped, her original problem has begun to reappear.

So the goal is to find the right combination and dosage. Like the three bears. Not too hot. Not too cold. But just right.

More metaphors to come. Please stand by.

She will be in the hospital through the weekend, and is scheduled to have a heart-stress test on Monday. As if just being in the hospital is not stress enough.

All things considered, she’s feeling pretty good, and is keeping in touch with everything via her trusty iPhone.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Another Hospital Visit

Merrie was awake during the night with a cough, and this morning she was a bit short of breath. She went to the doctor, who then sent her to the emergency room.

She was not having a heart attack but had some of the symptoms she had back in February, so she was admitted to the hospital. It was not a simple or quick process. The basic activity of patients and their families when they’re in the hospital is waiting. Waiting and waiting and more waiting.

Waiting to see the doctor. Waiting to have the test the doctor ordered. Waiting for the test results. Waiting for the doctor to come by to talk about the results. Begin again.

Hurry up. Wait. Hurry up. Wait. Hours. Days.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

One Whole Year!

Today is the first anniversary of “Daily Observations”! I’m proud that it’s continued uninterrupted except for a “medical leave” in February.

Thanks for sharing this year with me! In celebration of the first year, here’s a thought about the future:

“Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret discipline. It is a refusal to let the creative act be dissolved away in immediate sense experience, and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.”
--Ruben Alves

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hoping For a Very Negative Campaign

Quote of the day:
“Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things.”
--Willa Cather

Truism of the day:
“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

I am sincerely wishing for the most negative presidential campaign in history next year.

Why would I want such a thing? Why would anyone with any sense want such a thing? Don’t answer that.

It’s been reported that Republican operatives can barely contain their glee at the prospect of Hillary Clinton being the Democratic nominee. You just know that there has already been a lot of work developing negative campaign strategies using all the same old missteps from Clinton’s past.

And I am certain that if she is the nominee there will be nonstop slams, mud, rumors and innuendo such as the world has never seen. The 2004 Swift Boat Veterans nonsense will be just a mild rehearsal for what will come.

Hillary says she is prepared, and I believe her. She has said that she has learned that when an opponent hits you, the way to respond is by decking him (and it will be a him--a white him).

That sounds nasty, but it is the appropriate and needed response. Here’s why. First, reams of blackness exist in the past of every potential Republican opponent, and most of it is not widely known. It needs to be clearly communicated--make that hammered, again and again and again and again. And again.

Second and more important is this. Maybe this campaign can be so viciously nasty, obnoxious, stinking, low-hitting, unfair and foul that we will all get so sick of it that we will insist that it never happen again.

I can always dream.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why Someone is Not Liked

Quote of the day:
“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
--Thomas Mann

This will be a very short post. It deals with the reasons most people give for not liking Hillary Clinton.

Those reasons are very short. Here they are:

Interviewer: “Why don’t you like Hillary Clinton?”

Voter: “I don’t know. I just don’t like her.”

Interviewer: “Can you be a little more specific?”

Voter: “I don’t trust her.”

Interviewer: “Why?”

Voter: “I don’t know. I just don’t like her.”

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Got Mortgage?

Quote of the day:
“I think God’s going to come down and pull civilization over for speeding.”
--Steven Wright

The other day I heard an “expert” say that we are having the worst credit crisis since the Great Depression. That may be true by some specific measure, but I haven’t seen any bread lines yet.

As usual, there is lots of analysis, speculation and prognostication about the mortgage-lending industry, interest rates and real-estate prices. There seems to be a lot more attention to lenders with serious problems than to the unfortunate and often tragic effects on individual lives.

At the center of all this is a basic business judgment--when a lender takes more risk, it expects more reward. That’s not necessarily a problem, except for two things:

1. There has been inadequate preparation for, or even acknowledgment of, the risks being taken when lenders extend credit to customers who usually are considered uncreditworthy. The attitude seems to have been that real-estate was going to continue to appreciate with no end in sight.

It’s the same thing some folks assumed about the stock market in the late 1990s. The mantra became “the usual rules do not apply.” The primary rule that does not apply was stated this way by Frank Capiello, a panelist years ago on “Wall Street Week”: “Trees don’t grow to the sky.”

We’ve all heard the words indicating that, indeed, trees do grow to the sky: “you can’t go wrong with real estate”; “real estate is the best investment”; “real estate always goes up.”

2. I believe anyone who is responsible and is at least close to having the means should have the opportunity to own a home. It’s not a bad thing when lenders take the risk of extending credit to people who are “close” but not quite “there” with their income or credit histories.

The problem is the sometimes-exorbitant price that lenders charge for extending this credit. Usually it is buried in high fees that are added to the mortgage amount, or in the ultimate rate or other terms of the loan. These terms may not come into play until 2, 3 or 5 years after documents are signed.

Of course, there are many people who simply cannot afford to buy a home, and should not be encouraged to do so. But those who are sincere, responsible and “close” should be helped, not soaked.

Many mortgage lenders did really try to help. But many did not. And that’s the problem.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Still More on Leadership

Quote of the day:
“Among politicians and businessmen, ‘pragmatism’ is the current term for ‘to hell with our children.’”
--Edward Abbey

U.S. News has published a list of ten “Steps to Becoming a Great Leader.” Yesterday I suggested that the very highest priority is an almost-obsessive attention to the first step:

“Envision yourself as a leader in your own image. Assess yourself and mold your leadership style to emphasize your strengths….”

The next part of it reads “...then plan to outsource or delegate the rest.” Again, this is true for both organizations and individuals. Life will be richer and your organization much stronger if you have people close to you whose strengths are different from your strengths.

When one person’s strengths complement another’s, a very productive synergy develops. This is true in both work and personal situations.

The second step is “Hire cleverly. Nothing is more important.” I wouldn’t use the word “cleverly,” because it connotes manipulation or deception. My word would be “wisely.”

The real truth is is in the second sentence: “Nothing is more important.” These days, hiring and supervision are often delegated way down the organizational chart. Often the people hiring and interviewing are not very experienced, and mistakes happen.

The most-common mistake I’ve seen is too-close a focus on pure resume qualifications. People are chosen because they have a bit more training, experience or education than the next person. The total person, job fit and personality are minimized.

Yet over and over again it has been shown that the factor most contributing to performance problems is not lack of proper knowledge, training or experience. It is rather personal qualities, like the ability to get along with a wide variety of people.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Leadership Part Two

Quote of the day:
“Instant gratification is not fast enough.”
--Suzanne Vega

An interesting list has just appeared in “U.S. News.” It’s called “Steps to Becoming a Great Leader.”

It’s an excellent list--at least the beginning of it is. For some reason there are ten steps. Maybe whoever wrote it had to have a round number. Having so many “steps” weakens the list, because it distracts and detracts from the vital importance of the very first step:

“1. Envision yourself as a leader in your own image. Assess yourself and mold your leadership style to emphasize your strengths….”

I’m stopping in the middle of this first step because it’s critical. It’s so critical that you might do everything else on the list but still be miserable and fail because you gave this short shrift.

Assess yourself. Be honest with yourself. Then focus on your strengths (NOT your weaknesses), and find ways of leading from your strengths. This is true for organizations as well as individuals.

The thing is, it usually doesn’t happen this way. For example, it is very common for churches to fret about something missing in their programs. Often it is a youth program or outreach to young adults and families.

Typically the church had some success with one of these programs at some point in the past (maybe far in the past), and has made many failed attempts to bring back the former glory. There is great concern because “all successful churches must do these things well.”

But amid all the fretting, meetings, and planning related to addressing the church’s weaknesses, the church’s strengths (and all churches have at least one) are just there, with little appreciation or special attention. They may even languish.

Imagine what might happen if all the work devoted to doing something the organization is not good at was instead focused on what it is good at. The church would have the potential to be really outstanding in a specific way, and would gradually become known for that.

The key part of this first step is understanding, accepting and embracing the reality that you or your organization simply is not good at some things. And that’s why you don’t have the heart for them at the moment.

This is OK, and the result of fully accepting it is a clear direction toward your authentic passion and strength. Which will ultimately result in the appearance of additional passions and strengths.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Future is in My Pocket

Quote of the day:
"I don't want to make money, I just want to be wonderful."
--Marilyn Monroe

Quote of the day no. 2:
“This is the next step in not accepting poor design any longer.”
--David Myers, executive chef of Food Arts Group in Los Angeles, talking about the Apple iPhone.

Merrie and I have been using iPhones for about two months now. I gotta say, it is one fun and convenient device.

The main criticism of the iPhone has been that, outside of wi-fi areas, internet speed is very slow on AT&T’s Edge network. For Merrie and me, this has not been a huge problem. We are still able to get information and news when we need it, including using the maps gadget in the car to look up where we’re going and the traffic on the way.

The intuitive and ergonomic design of the iPhone is excellent. It is amazingly easy--and fun--to use. The day has arrived when, in a single, attractive and easy-to-use device, I can carry in my pocket the internet, my favorite TV and radio shows, four days worth of music, the internet, e-mail and a telephone.

In coming years, refinements will come--more speed and capacity, customizability, much longer battery life. But the device of the future is here now. And, I say again, it’s convenient, helpful and fun.

Having the iPhone does not make our lives more “gadgety” or full of technological complications. In fact, because it combines so many functions and is so incredibly easy to use, it actually makes our lives simpler, richer and more fun.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Quote of the day:
“The language of American politics increasingly resembles an Orwellian monologue.”
--Christopher Lasch

The statement about management that sticks with me more than any other came from the titan of all management experts, Peter Drucker. It goes something like this:

“Management consists mostly of finding creative ways to make it more difficult for people to do their jobs.”

This came to mind as I thought about the current focus of the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Just like many church bodies across the U.S., our conference has fretted for years about loss of membership. And that fretting hit a fever pitch in the last year as it became clear that the rate of loss was accelerating.

In all the study and research about what to do to reverse this decline, the one need that came up much more often than any other was a need for leadership training--for ministers, staff and lay people.

It’s terrific that the conference has come to consensus on this. It’s terrific when the conference comes to consensus on anything.

I’m a little concerned that a possible consequence of the leadership focus will be to impose standardized “tactics” or plans for success. While it is possible for such tactics and plans to make a difference, any change will not stick unless there is fundamental, basic change in our openness to, and understanding and expectation of, success.

The standard, repeating pattern in churches and other organizations is for hope to be placed in some new technique (or, worse, some new buzzword). Some church leaders become very excited and, as a result, some other church members get excited.

But the excitement gradually dissipates as it becomes clear that nothing is really changing. And so all the videos and Powerpoints and leader’s guides are filed away and forgotten.

The reason that nothing changes is because nothing has changed. The change needs to be at the beginning of the process, not a result at the end. And the change needs to be at the most-basic and fundamental level.

One suggested change: to fully appreciate and lavish attention and resources on the places where the church is already growing (translated “leading”).

For example, if a church has an exciting and well-attended youth program, provide significant additional resources and support (money and/or people) to encourage the growth to continue. If a church has a successful hands-on mission program, send resources to help it continue to grow and expand.

The only way the church will grow is when we can accept, embrace and support how it is already growing.

The dirty little secret is that many churches simply want to stay small or shrink. They don’t put it that way. But that is where their hearts are. It is understandable and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

But it is unfortunate if we have become unable to accept, celebrate, nurture and support authentic and real growth, wherever it may be happening in our communities.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

It's Hot Almost Everywhere But Here

Quote of the day:
“We believed in forgiveness, and we believed in knowing exactly what we were forgiving people for.”
--Garrison Keillor

Much of the country is very hot right now. Southern California is not exempt.

Normally, there is a significant variation between temperatures at the beach and inland, with the thermometer going up with each additional half mile or so. Also, there are differences as elevation rises and falls.

This is why a place like Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley can be one of the hottest places in the country (as it was several times last year). Even though it’s just several miles from the ocean, any cooling breeze is blocked by surrounding mountains.

This year, it seems like all these differences are accentuated. In Cambria this week it actually is cool at the coast--temps reached the high sixties with a stiff, cold northwestern wind in the afternoons.

Inland a couple miles it is ten degrees warmer with a gentle breeze. In Templeton and Paso Robles--20 miles to the east--the high temperature is in the 90s.

What all this means is that, whatever our weather reputation and whatever San Diego or Los Angeles temperature is reported, most of us in Southern California are basking/roasting in the high 80s or low 90s.

Not only that, but we’ve been seeing more humidity than usual. Don’t talk to me about dry heat. In addition to being annoying, it’s not always true.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ventura Highway

Quote of the day:
"I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find."
--Ian Fleming, talking about how he came up with the name “James Bond.”

The picture was taken today on the California coast south of Santa Barbara. It was surprising how few people were on the beach, on an idyllic 70-degree August day.

There were about 20 surfers in the water, and the waves were fairly small but coming regularly. A children’s camp was meeting just down the beach. Other than that, there were just a few people (and two dogs, including ours) in any direction.

When Sophie sees any body of water, a voice inside her says, “Oh, boy--run and splash!” And that’s what she does. Without asking if we brought along a towel. Which we didn’t. Oh, well. There’s always air drying.

This is some of the most-beautiful and most-viewed coastline on the world. Hundreds of people see it daily as they motor up or down highway 101. Many of them say, “I’ve seen this somewhere before.” This particular area has been the setting for dozens of TV and movie scenes over many years.

Over all those years, this stretch of coast has changed very little. It’s almost as if it’s frozen in time.

That’s somehow reassuring.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What Do You Take When You Travel?

Quote of the day:
"There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing the truth."
--Marie Curie

It’s interesting what people take with them on vacation. As with so many other things about humans, we are slightly irrational about it.

Some folks takes lots of clothes, so as to not be seen in the same outfit twice by people they are only going to see once. Also, washing machine technology may not have reached the region where they’re going.

Others take lots of shoes, not knowing the terrain they may find themselves in. Or, they just really like shoes.

Some people take favorite foods, being unsure about the ready availability of these foods at their destination.

Others take a big stack of books that they see themselves finally having time to read. And there will be time, if the vacation is 3 or 4 months long.

Others bring a bag full of gadgets--cellphone, laptop, PDA, Blackberry, iPod, and about a dozen vital accessories. Disconnecting is just too big a risk for them. In fact, maybe they shouldn't even go.

Merrie and I are mildly guilty of the last one. But I have a bigger issue.

When I go on vacation I take a stereo. Not a boom-box or a pair of powered computer speakers, but a full-on hi-fi. Actually, it’s just three pieces--my two favorite small speakers and a tube power amp. We plug one of our laptops or iPhones into it and listen to downloaded music.

I don’t do this if our goal for the trip is sightseeing or doing a lot of driving. And I don’t bring the stereo along if we’re flying somewhere (at least not yet). But most of our vacations are for “being” not “doing.”

Color me crazy. If you haven’t already. I even thought of myself that way the first time I did it. But it is so enriching listening to music in a relaxed setting. It’s fun, and we hear things we haven’t heard before in music we thought was familiar to us.

A side benefit is that I get to amuse, baffle or annoy two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.


First, I amuse, baffle or annoy those for whom computer speakers or boom-boxes are plenty good enough thank you very much and why would I want to sit around listening to music on vacation when I can do that at home whenever I want anyway and besides I have 990 places left of the 1,000 I need to visit before I die and I don’t have time for music.

Second, I amuse, baffle or annoy audiophiles, whose faces tighten and limbs begin to tremble at the outrageous thought of listening to downloaded music on a good stereo system.

Life is good.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Backyard Families

Quote of the day:
"We love those who know the worst of us and don't turn their faces away."
--Walker Percy

We seem to have three new families in our backyard.

For the last few weeks a “teenage” hawk has been attempting to stake out territory just below our home in the canyon. We have heard his cries from early in the morning until the wee hours of the night.

He regularly swoops between our house and our neighbor’s. I’ve never seen him catch anything, but I know there is plenty for him to catch.

The neighborhood crows regularly try to chase him off. But he hangs in there. He’s likely a red-tail, and a neighbor down the street spotted a high-up nest which may have been his home.

I have seen skunks in our yard from time to time, and I saw a whole family cross our street a couple months ago. I haven’t seen any recently, but I sure have smelled them. A skunk is spraying three or four times a week, and it’s close to our house. So there may be a family of them close by.

Another animal I see only occasionally is coyotes, down in our canyon. But over the last several weeks, we have often heard them just a few yards from our house. (Yes, our cats stay indoors.)

Sometimes we hear them in the afternoon, more often at dusk, and sometimes in the middle of the night, piercing the silence.

The other night at about 8 o’clock there was a loud and distinct family conversation going on. We heard a mother’s barking and the high-pitched howling of pups. Maybe they were learning table manners.

From all this, you might think we live out in the country somewhere. But we’re in the city of San Diego, close to San Diego State University.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Catharsis of Moving

Poem of the day:
"Advice to Myself" by Louise Erdrich

Leave the dishes.

Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator

and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.

Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.

Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.

Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.

Don't even sew on a button.

Let the wind have its way, then the earth

that invades as dust and then the dead

foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.

Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.

Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles

or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry

who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.

Except one word to another. Or a thought.

Pursue the authentic-decide first

what is authentic,

then go after it with all your heart.

Your heart, that place

you don't even think of cleaning out.

That closet stuffed with savage mementos.

Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth

or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner

again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,

or weep over anything at all that breaks.

Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons 

in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life

and talk to the dead

who drift in though the screened windows, who collect

patiently on the tops of food jars and books.

Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything

except what destroys

the insulation between yourself and your experience

or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters

this ruse you call necessity.

(From “Original Fire: Selected and New Poems.” © Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.)

We are in the middle of a one-half move. Work is beginning very soon to replace the kitchen in our modest mid-50s California rancher.

It was a hard decision. Merrie and I both prefer older stuff, and the cabinets and tile counters had loads of character. Unfortunately, they had also endured 50 years of hard use and were about worn out.

We considered rehabbing but the costs were surprisingly high. We also wanted to remove a wall, not just in response to the real-estate mantra of “open feeling” but to provide a full view of the canyon in back of the house.

And so in a few days the kitchen will be gutted and a wall taken down. The work requires that we vacate the kitchen, dining room and our TV room which is adjacent to the kitchen. In essence we have to move out of half our house.

Right now we are packing boxes and rearranging furniture for the months-long journey into new kitchenhood. There are lots of boxes and dozens of decisions about where to put things and what to keep out. And what to throw out.

My pattern when packing and moving is to pack first and throw away at the other end. I know this wastes energy and makes little sense to most people.

But I guess I realized early on that the time to make difficult decisions about what stays and what goes (translated “priorities”) is not during the stress of packing. So usually I have the throw-away and give-away boxes nearby when I unpack at the other end.

I seem to have a clearer, more-relaxed sense of priorities at the end of moves than at the beginning--maybe because I’ve lived without the packed stuff for a while.

That’s the benefit of moving. It’s a discovery of what I can live without, and what I like to have around me.

When that discovery is done, the real catharsis begins. Get the Salvation Army on the phone!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Californians, Pay Attention to June!

Quote of the day:
“We live counterfeit lives in order to resemble the idea we first had of ourselves.”
--Andre Gide

There will be three election days next year in California--in February, June and November. While the state has voted to move its Presidential primary to February, the rest of the June ballot remains intact. In that election, there will be some local races and some initiatives.

One of the June initiatives proposes a radical change in how California elects the president. Right now, all the state’s electors are assigned to the candidate getting the most votes statewide.

The proposal is for two of the electors to be assigned according to statewide results and for the rest to be assigned according to results in each district. There are 53 Congressional districts in California.

The Electoral College is a remnant of the Parliamentary system. The U.S. Constitution establishes the number of electors from each state (the number of Representatives plus Senators) but leaves how to choose the electors to the individual states.

Since the 2000 election there has been renewed interest in moving toward popular election of the president. At first look, this California proposal seems to do that.

But I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. Here are some things to think about.

There are only two other states who assign electors by district, and they’re both small (Maine and South Carolina, I believe). Neither state has ever split its electors.

If we move to elect by district, it doesn’t really move us any closer to direct popular election of the President. Instead it creates 53 small states, each with 710,000 people and their assigned elector (plus a 2% stake in each statewide elector).

Unless other large states also moved to elect by district, there would be an imbalance of power created. The minority party in California would gain seats. The minority party in Florida or Texas would not.

There would also be an imbalance of power with other small states. For example, Wyoming has three electors for 515,000 people. That’s 172,000 per elector. Each California district would have one elector for 680,000 people.

Unless district election is adopted nationally, I don’t see how it benefits California. Am I missing something?

It does, of course, benefit the Republican Presidential candidate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Giuliani is Not Who He Seems

Quote of the day:
“It will be generally found that those who sneer habitually at human nature are among its worst and least pleasant examples.”
--Charles Dickens

Statistic of the Day:
Estimated percentage of personal computers worldwide that have been hijacked and are currently sending spam without their owner’s knowledge: 11%
--Forbes, July 25, 2007 (Hint: disconnect from the web, clear your cache, run anti-virus software)

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Nearly every major accomplishment [Rudy] Giuliani points to today either had already been achieved or was well on the way to being achieved by the time he became mayor.”
--Kevin Baker in the August “Harper’s”

Rudy Giuliani currently is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Our well-imprinted view of him is based on three things.

First, he was extraordinarily eloquent as a government spokesman just after the destruction of the World Trade Center. In those days, we so desperately needed someone to put our sorrow, fear and anger into words--and he did that with great skill.

Second, in the years since 9/11, he has popped up in the media from time to time with comments about being “tough on terrorism.”

Third, there is a vague line that has been repeated often by commentators during the campaign that, when he was mayor, he “turned New York City around.” The facts don’t support this.

For example, it was Mayor David Dinkins who signed into law a tax surcharge that enabled the hiring of six thousand additional police officers. As a result, during Dinkins’ term the murder and robbery rates fell by 14%, burglary fell by 18% and auto theft fell by 24%. According to Kevin Baker, “the city’s crime rate dropped in all seven FBI major-felony categories for the first time in nearly 40 years.”

This is how things were heading when Giuliani took over as mayor. Yet he claims, and we still believe, that he alone is responsible for “cleaning up” New York City.

When 9/11 happened, Giuliani’s Office of Emergency Management completely failed to coordinate rescue efforts between the police and fire departments. There was not even an effective system for the fire department to communicate with itself.

That deficiency had been known since the 1993 World Trade Center attack, and led to hundreds of firefighters being cut off in the towers. There was no way to tell them the buildings were in danger of collapse.

Giuliani was on-site during the disaster and knew of the communications problem, but made no attempt to keep the firefighters informed. Later, he told the 9/11 Commission that the firefighters had refused orders to evacuate, according to “New York Times” reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

Among the many people he worked with as mayor, Giuliani has a reputation as a bully--arrogant, egotistical, authoritarian, and very prickly in the face of criticism. In his mayoral campaigns, he had no qualms about distorting the records of, and even destroying the reputations of, those he disagreed with.

Baker also says this:
“The worst excesses of the Bush regime have stemmed directly from its leader’s character--that is, its rampant cronyism; its arrogance and egotism; its peremptory, bullying tone and methods; its refusal to brook criticism from within or without; its frightening authoritarian impulses; its need to create enemies as a means of governing; its impulsiveness and naivete; its outright contempt for the law; and its truly staggering ability to substitute its own versions of what it wishes the world to be for any recognition of objective reality.

“Judging from his record in gaining and holding power, there is no reason to believe that Rudolph Giuliani’s presidency would be substantially different.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

"Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man"

Quote of the day:
“If you can look out your window and see neighbors with lower incomes, you’ll be happier. People are very keen to move into the elite neighborhoods. They don’t realize that they won’t be as happy as they expect. That’s the curse of being human.”
--Andrew Oswald, economics professor at Warwick University in England

As program director of my college radio station I got on-the-job training in what kind of music to play at different times of day. In the morning we had to be especially careful. One thing we wouldn’t play was depressing music.

Leonard Cohen fit very neatly into that category. When one is struggling to wake up in time for an eight o’clock class after a very late night, one is not motivated by hearing someone sing about the ever-present blackening abyss of lonely tortured souls.

I got interested in Cohen when I saw Robert Altman’s excellent “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” which very effectively used his music. Not only did I buy a copy of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” for myself, I also bought one for the teacher’s assistant of my newspaper editing class. He said he had really liked the movie, and I figured I needed to bribe him because I had blown the last layout.

“Songs of Leonard Cohen” remains one of my favorite albums ever. I gradually came to appreciate that Cohen’s music was not so much “depressing” as searching and poignant.

He is an extraordinary poet and songwriter. In the film “Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man,” Bono says that Cohen is a very rare talent, and I agree with that.

The film is excellent, and you’ll enjoy it whether or not you know Cohen’s work. It brings together a current interview with Cohen (who’s now 74) with current performances of his songs by Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Linda Thompson, Beth Orton and others.

The performances are very good in their own right. Hearing them juxtaposed with Cohen’s reflections on his creative life and world view is compelling indeed. I found myself further and further involved the longer I watched.

If you rent the DVD, be sure to watch the special features. There is a stunning performance by Teddy Thompson.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Titles With Colons: How Annoying Can You Get?

Quote of the day:
“I never forget a face, but in your case, I'll make an exception."
--Groucho Marx

Search facts of the day:
A Google search for “I’d like a middle seat” brings no results,
while “I’d like to die in a plane crash” does.
A Google search for “armpit hair topiary” brings no results,
while “nose hair topiary” does.
--Gene Weingarten, “The Washington Post,” August 5, 2007

I have a question. What is with this trend of putting colons in book titles? Sometimes it seems that every nonfiction book published has a colon. Do we think there is no meaning in our titles if they do not contain colons? Do we feel such a burning need to elaborate on a title that we must add a colon followed by a descriptive clause?

Not only are they everywhere you look when you walk in the bookstore, but listen to these ten colon-ensconced books coming soon:

“Lose Weight in Three Weeks: A Foolproof Way to Shed Pounds While Scarfing Carbs”

“Hard Truths: What Your Mother is Not Telling You About Your Father”

“Hemispheric Imbalance: The New Science of Nerdishness”

“Wads of Cash: Five Spiritual Strategies To Lose It Fast”

“Boiling Hot Coffee: Don’t Get It On Yourself”

“Making a Million in Real Estate: 8 Keys To Admitting You’ve Really Screwed Up”

“Government: Everything You Fear is True, But Too Bad”

“Beyond Badness: A Life Spent Sitting in a Birdbath”

“My Goodness: That Is a Large Growth”

“This Title Does Not Have a Colon: Oops, I Made a Mistake”

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Fox Street Journal

Quote of the day:
“In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reason or principles contain it or stand against it.”
--Jane Smiley

There’s been lots of hemmin’ and hawwin’ about Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation purchasing Dow Jones, the parent of “The Wall Street Journal.” I think the hemmin’ makes sense, but the hawwin’ I’m not so sure about.

The great thing about Murdoch is that he takes a very long-term view. He is willing to lose money on an enterprise as it grows, changes, or establishes itself--even if that takes many years.

He also has a record of understanding the news and communications business. When he started the Fox network back in the 1980s, the assumption was that three networks was plenty. What happened was that he rode the trend away from general-audience programming on the networks toward specialized audiences. Fox has always aimed at younger viewers.

He seems to understand the nascent universal power of the web. He has purchased MySpace, and is very interested in growing Dow Jones’ excellent and profitable websites.

The understandable fear is that Murdoch will Fox-ify “The Wall Street Journal,” one of the world’s premier newspapers, and “Barron’s,” the nation’s best investment weekly. Many staff at the papers are worried that the papers will be glitzed or cheapened.

I was a journalism major in college, and I remember being required to subscribe to Dow Jones’ “The National Observer” for one of my classes. It was a very impressive weekly with top-notch writing and incisive in-depth pieces. I continued to subscribe after my class ended. Unfortunately, “The Observer” was not profitable and ceased publication in the late 1970s.

Later I came to understand that top-notch writing and incisive in-depth reporting also characterized the “Journal” and “Barron’s.” If either of these things are compromised, the papers will lose me as a reader.

Murdoch has said he respects the reputation and trust that both papers have built, and he knows it’s bad business to in any way jeopardize it. At the same time, he has also commented that he “doesn’t have time” to read the three long stories featured each day on the “Journal’s” front page, and that he may shorten them.

That concerns me, because there are already precious few places where such high-quality journalism is available.

I don’t think we’ll see any major changes in the “Wall Street Journal” or “Barron’s.” What is certain, however, is that Rupert Murdoch’s influence will be increasingly apparent, and will be embedded for generations to come. It pays to know a great deal about him.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


Quote of the day:
“I’m the kind of writer that people think other people are reading.”
--V.V. Naipaul

The movie “Zodiac” is a popular rental right now, and it’s easy to understand why.

It’s sort of a true-crime thriller, but not exactly. While there is some mystery and suspense about who the serial killer is, the film is much richer than just that.

“Zodiac” is a carefully-woven story involving several police agencies, a reporter, a cartoonist and some strange characters. I found myself getting very involved in how the investigation was being done. The feel is a little like “Law and Order,” but much deeper and without the punctuation between scenes.

There are lots of excellent actors, including Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal playing the leads. Robert Downey Jr. plays a great boozer, and Anthony Edwards is back from the ER. You may not recognize him.

I guarantee you’ll be creeped out by John Carroll Lynch, who is exceptional. You may remember him from “Fargo.” He played the decoy-painting husband of Frances McDormand.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Infrastructure, Yes. Paying For It, No.

Quote of the day:
“One is old and a child at the same time. One wonders what happened to the years in between.”
--Ingmar Bergman, from his film Fanny and Alexander

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Bridges in America should not fall down.”
--U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters

Last night I was tuning between the newscasts on ABC and CBS. They each had exactly the same top three stories. The third was a Mattel toy recall, and the first two were the same length and were written so similarly as to be interchangeable.

The first dealt with the tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The second story was about the mantra of the moment, “America’s Crumbling Infrastructure.” There should be a clause added to this mantra. Let’s use the acronym “ACIGUTI.”

“America’s Crumbling Infrastructure, Get Used To It.”

Little will change unless we’re willing to pay to change it. That means higher taxes, reordering priorities or both.

We show spectacularly little inclination to reorder priorities. Especially when it concerns the incredibly immense and breathlessly bloated defense budget, in spite of which we still can’t get sufficient armor to our troops. Have you looked at that budget recently? It has grown rapidly in recent years. If you’re very concerned about where your taxes are going, it’s worth your time to look at it, or read about it.

And how about higher taxes? Here in San Diego, raising taxes is considered the moral equivalent of strangling your grandmother. Nationally, that attitude has grown over the last several years.

What we’re left with is this: We can watch the stories of human drama in Minneapolis and feel sorry and sad. We can consternate and say “How could people let this happen?” But those people were merely doing what all of us have told them to do: maintain the infrastructure with available resources (translation: no money).

Sadness, sorrow, anger, self-righteousness. They all make us feel better today. But they change nothing.

That’s why I say today, “ACIGUTI.”

Thursday, August 2, 2007

We're Home!

“That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
--Willa Cather

Well, it seems Merrie’s kidneys (and most everything else) are back to normal and so she was discharged this afternoon.

It seems that this all was caused by a combination of unintended drug effects and dehydration. Her medication has been adjusted.

And we’re all relieved that she’s home and sleeping--an activity that’s a problem in the hospital.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hospital Day 2

We thought Merrie might be able to come home today. It looks like it’s going to be at least one more day. She’s having extensive tests to ensure that her kidneys are functioning properly.

The nephrologist has been both very attentive and very clear in his explanations of what’s going on. We’re thankful for that. There’s also a very nice nursing intern from Grossmont College who has been very helpful.

Merrie’s feeling better than yesterday, and her key blood tests have returned to normal. We are so grateful for that.

Sophie becomes quiet and subdued when Merrie isn’t around. She’s been sniffing Merrie’s books and her chair. We went out to her favorite place yesterday: Fiesta Island. It’s a wild and free place for dogs and people on Mission Bay in San Diego.

Usually, Merrie and I try to walk around the center of the island. But every once in a while Sophie can’t resist the urge to tear down to the beach and do a wide arc in the water.

She seems proud of herself when she comes back. A very proud, wet dog. A towel is a permanent accoutrement in back of Merrie’s Scion.