City Hall Red


I was working up in Marin County yesterday (for a home-furnishings catalog that will remain nameless) and got a ride to San Francisco so I could catch BART to Berkeley. Walking to the Civic Center station, the new moon hung in the west; to the east, City Hall was lit red. My first thought, San Francisco being the self-consciously romantic place it is, was that the lights were set up for Valentine’s Day. But it’s more likely the special lighting is part of the Chinese New Year celebration (which began with that new moon). I’ve never seen City Hall lit like this before.

Man at Work

Or maybe I should say “man ‘at work.’ ” Just a note to the immense (and immensely faithful) ITC (Infospigot: The Chronicles) readership that I’ve been away from the blog in recent days because well, I’ve actually been off earning money by the sweat of my wordsmithing. The first person who can tell me what I mean by all that (use lots of parentheses) will get an all-expenses-paid breakfast burrito from the fast-food emporium of your choice. More soon. Maybe even tonight.

Building the Pyramids

A few years ago I wrote a story about an online pyramid scheme that operated as a fantasy stock market. Without going into how it was supposed to work, one of the things that fascinated me was the willingness of so many people I found to be rational and articulate to send money to a faceless entity in the Caribbean with the expectation that they would get a big return. Many explained their readiness to send thousands of dollars into the ether by pointing to the real securities markets in the United States, where the technology/Net bubble was expanding fast. “Take a look at that,” they’d say. “That’s the real Ponzi scheme.”

Soon enough, real securities regulators busted the fantasy stock market and most of the people involved lost all or almost all of the money they’d entrusted to the operators. The real stock market unraveled, too, drawing the attention of the same regulators, and many people who’d jumped in during the bubble lost all or almost all of the money they’d entrusted to what securities laws and the business pages would have identified as “legitimate companies.”

I didn’t buy the simple, cynical line that there was no difference between one world and the other. Real companies actually created goods and services to generate revenue, for instance. (OK, except for Enron.) All the obvious differences aside, though, I was uncomfortable observing how similar the behavior of the phony market and real market looked, how much the world of “legitimate” finance seemed to justify the suspicion some of the pyramid scheme players voiced.

Because I can feel a long, convoluted essay coming on and I really need to go to bed, let’s jump-cut to today. The New York Times has an excellent story on what’s happening with early retirees who have had their pensions “realigned” and health-care benefits cut:

“For Americans heading into retirement, the contrast to the previous generation is stark. The typical household headed by a 47- to 64-year-old is poorer today, in constant dollars, than a similar household was in 1983. The main reason is the disappearance of the traditional pension, according to Edward N. Wolff, a New York University economist who analyzed Federal Reserve wealth data.

Still, it’s not a tale of Dickensian woe — none of the people the Times talks to are being put out on the street, and we all still live in this amazingly prosperous land that has the power to decide to blow $200 billion or $300 billion on projects like arresting Saddam Hussein and installing a group of Shiite fundamentalists in his place.

Still, it’s a story of betrayal; of people who have worked in good faith for companies that have decided that they can’t afford to honor the commitments they made — breaking faith with former workers won’t hit the bottom line, I guess, unless the workers sue and win. You wonder about the deeper price, though, in shredding the already frayed trust people have in our whole enterprise — the American corporate one — and making it look like little more than a Ponzi scheme.

’24’: Totally Sensitive

During tonight’s broadcast of “24,” Fox ran a short public-service announcement from Kiefer Sutherland. The message, in essence: ” ’24’ depicts a group of really evil Muslims. But you, Mr. and Mrs. American Television Connoisseur and your extended families, should bear in mind that not all Muslims are bad people. Please keep that in mind as you  watch me, as agent Jack Bauer, kick some evil Muslim butt.”

In case you need a translation, that’s America being real sensitive to minority sensibilities. Actually, it should be noted that on tonight’s episode, Kiefer/Jack didn’t confront any evil Muslims directly. But just wait. Their hour of reckoning approaches.

Even more significantly, it should also be noted that Tony Almeida’s  Chicago Cubs mug made another appearance on tonight’s show — the first time it has been seen since the first season of “24,” I believe. Unlike its first supporting role, when it likely contained a brewed hot caffeinated beverage, the Cubs mug tonight served as receptacle for a brewed cold alcoholic beverage. Yeah, the actor who plays Tony (Carlos Bernard, aka Carlos Bernard Papierski) is a Chicago-area native who apparently advertises his roots with his Cubs mug. From which he now drinks beer from.

(January 15, 2006 update: Tony and the mug are back — check out the details — for the new season.)

Our Past for Sale, Again


My sister Ann sent me (and my brothers and dad) an email today that she had gotten from a friend she grew up with. The message said, "Is this your former home?" and included a link. The link (which includes the picture above) goes to a real-estate listing for a "contemporary, raised ranch" home near the town of Crete (about 30 miles or so south of Chicago); it’s got four bedrooms, two baths, a hot tub, two-car garage with an upstairs studio, a wraparound porch, and an acre lot in the woods. Ann’s friend is right — it’s the house my mom and dad had built in 1965-66 (we moved in June 10, 1966) after we had lived in Park Forest, just a mile away, from 1956 on. The hot tub, wraparound porch, and garage have all been installed since our time.

The first thing I looked for in the listing was the asking price: $300,000. Not much by San Francisco Bay Area standards or compared to what similar places are going for in the New York area or Chicago’s northern and western suburbs, but a lot by the standards of the ’60s. Mom and Dad had the house built for something like $35,000; I remember hearing them talk about the lot, which now has undeveloped public land on two sides and is relatively secluded on the other two, and I think they bought it for $10,000 from a family we knew, the Fitzgeralds, who lived a couple blocks from us in Park Forest. The sale listing reduces the house to a series of dimensions. Strange to see, knowing what went on in some of those rooms (which have been inhabited by others for a long time and have a completely new set of experiences and memories imprinted on them). I noticed the listing has the building date wrong, putting it at 1970.

Just out of curiosity, I searched for the property address on Google and got a single hit (with the picture below). It was an online listing for the house last August. The asking price then, six months ago, was $219,900. The jump in price made me curious: Is a new owner trying to flip the property for a big profit? Or, unlikely as it seems, had the old owners put it back on the market for a higher price? An agent’s phone number was included in the old listing, a guy apparently working out of Park Forest. I called. It turned he’s the husband of the house’s last owner, the one who put it on the market last year. He said it sold for a little under their asking price.

When I told him the house was listed again and the current price, he said, "No way that house sells for $300,000." So it looks like the quick-profit scenario is what’s actually going on. I think this is the third or fourth time the house has been up for sale since my parents sold in early 1986 (for a fraction of last year’s sale price) to move back into the city.

I have to say the old owners had the right idea, picturing the house during the summer, when everything in the woods is intensely green. The current listing’s snowy landscape doesn’t look nearly so inviting.


I Dichotimize

Some matters of pressing importance:

Patriots-Eagles: Eagles. Dad points out that the Eagles’ quarterback, Donovan McNabb, went to Mount Carmel High School — the team is nicknamed “The Caravan” — with which my mom’s family has a long association. That’s enough for me. Go Eagles.

Sunni-Shiite: Tossup. You got to like the Shiites’ numbers. But the Sunnis know how to put the hurt on infidel and co-religionist alike, especially with their patented triangle offense. This one could go into OT.

Social Security (old)-Social Security (new): Old, for the moment, because at least we know what it is and what the problems with it are. Bush’s “new” deal has got the stink of Enron to it — a hustle that will make a few people rich

Schwarzenegger (actor)-Schwarzenegger (politician): He sucked as an actor, but I liked him better then because you could walk out of the movie theater or turn off the TV and be done with him.

To be continued … or not.

Arnold, Our Arnold

Most excellent Arnold line from late-night CBS TV comedy guy Craig Ferguson:

“The U.S. Mint has released a new California state quarter. On one side is Governor Schwarzenegger’s head and on the other side is the rest of his head.”

(Thanks, Lydell.)

Pleats for Fun and Profit

I’ve written news stories, editorials, op-ed columns, magazine features, TV news segments, obituaries, educational copy for a financial services firm, poems (yes, a few), journals, more blog entries and emails than the world needs and too few letters when I should have, personal essays, something approaching a short story, checks, job applications, resumes, letters of reference, explanations of firings, layoff speeches, and likely many things it’s good I don’t remember.

But there’s always something new. For instance, writing about draperies, fans, desks, and storage lockers for a retail catalog that will remain nameless. About the “polished artistry” of a curtain’s inverted pleats. About the “thrilling textile art” that is Belgian linen. About “the multifaceted refinement” of a beveled-glass mirror made in China.

If nothing else (but there is something else — money), the writing’s instructive. You actually need to find a story in every product. If you grew up in the “Seinfeld”/J. Peterman era, naturally you think of the absurd tales invented around items like 10-gallon hats or duster coats. Sitting at a desk, looking at bad black-and-white pictures of drapes made of Thai silk and wondering what little slice of reality and fantasy might make a readable short paragraph that would lead someone to think of buying, I was reminded of my dad’s career at Spiegel’s.

It was a mail-order house that grew from a family dry-goods business founded in the 1860s. Dad used to be one of the guys responsible for merchandise control, as I understood it, which essentially meant keeping track of everything Spiegel’s bought and sold. So that meant having a line on all the goods the buyers were contracting for in current and future catalogs and everything that the company shipped out to customers. It was a big operation, at one time rivaling Sears and Montgomery Wards when those places were retailing giants.

The Spiegel’s catalog was a fixture in our house every season. I’d pore over it when it Dad brought it home. I had no interest in a lot of the stuff — the clothing, for instance, which mostly seemed pretty square. But mostly I was taken with a muted sense of amazement at all the different kinds of things in the book. The tools and shoes and sports equipment and camping gear and tires and automotive supplies. I think there was even a whole car you could buy. What a job to write all the copy for all that merchandise.

One year, we got Dad a birthday present out of the catalog: gaucho boots. I’m pretty sure the catalog actually described them as “Brazilian gaucho boots.” Made in Brazil, used in Argentina, I guess. There was a gimmick: The boots had a pleat above the ankle to afford flexibility. A boon to all hard-riding gauchos. The item in the catalog — probably written by the Spiegel’s shoe buyer at the time, a guy Dad often talked about named Sig Mach (correct me on the spelling or any other details, Dad, if I got them wrong) — really sold me. The way I remember it, I wouldn’t be satisfied until we got those boots. We ordered. They came. They were black leather pull-ons that came about halfway up the calf. They had little leather tassels that I didn’t remember being prominent in the catalog picture. I think Dad actually liked them. Or at least he was a good sport. I remember him wearing them a few times, anyway.

Back to today. Writing about the wonders of a retro government-style metal desk, priced at close to $2,000, makes you think about the sort of catalog stories you’d really like to write.

“Exclusive to us, these no-nonsense hardwood cudgels were hand-turned on trusty steam-driven lathes by faceless factory drones deep in North Korea — a testament to beloved leader Kim Jong-Il. Sold in sets of two; buy more for family fun!”

Happy Groundhog, Happy Jim

If there were any groundhogs in these parts, they’d be able to see their shadows today, whatever that portends in this Mediterranean climate of ours.

Meantime, it’s James Joyce’s birthday (1882, in Dublin). By way of The Writer’s Almanac, a couple of quotes:

To a publisher who objected to the vulgarity of some of his writing in “Dubliners”:

“It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization [sic] in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

A life observation:

“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.”

Winter’s Harsh Reality

Midwinter has set in with all its typical grim ferocity here in the Berkeley flatlands: sunny, clear, breezy, 74 degrees (down to 65 now, an hour-plus after sunset).