‘Birthday, Walt

It’s Walt Whitman‘s birthday. Born on Long Island, citizen of New York and Brooklyn, people’s poet, war poet, entombed in Camden, N.J. Someday when we’re back east and doing one of our trips up or down the Delaware River (Washington Crossing, Frenchtown, Water Gap), we’ll visit that cemetery. For now, just these few lines, a birthday remembrance.

Memorial Day …

… Is almost over. I whiled away part of the patriotic three-day weekend watching some of the Turner Classic Movies “all war flicks, all the time” marathon. Saw almost all of “A Bridge Too Far,” which is extraordinary for its overuse of big-name actors and big-time pyrotechnics in the service of perhaps the last romantic World War II feature. Saw parts of “M*A*S*H,” which has aged amazingly well. Saw parts of “Patton,” which seems ludicrous to me now. Beyond my personal political leanings, I think the war-themed movies just look different in the post-“Saving Private Ryan”/”Band of Brothers” era, when there’s been an effort to bring something like combat verity into the movies and television.

For a film about such a famously hard-nosed character, “Patton” comes off as little more than a romantic caricature in which one great man spends a couple hours strutting around in front of a bunch of cardboard cutouts. That’s the way it looks now. Then — it came out the same year as “M*A*S*H,” 1970 — it was enormously popular and a big winner at the 1971 Oscars. It’s hard to say why looking at it now, though of course the period is suggestive: Vietnam was unpopular but not yet recorded in the “not-won” column, and the movie features a hero who built a reputation for driving tanks through any opposition, damn subtlety or consequences. “M*A*S*H” spoke a lot more directly to the anti-war audience then, and because of its grim humor, frankness about the business at a combat hospital, and Robert Altman’s handling of a great ensemble of actors, it still seems fresh.

That leaves “A Bridge Too Far,” which is almost embarrassing to watch. The stock upbeat theme music. The star-studded cast. The stiff upper lip in the face of insuperable odds. The impassive, smugly superior Nazis (this time with a reason to be smug and superior). The nobility of defeat and massive casualties. It’s good that Hollywood has almost quit making this movie, or this kind of movie (from the trailers, Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers Once,” looks like an attempt to give Vietnam the same heroic treatment).

But it makes you wonder, a little, how Iraq will be turned into a big-screen treat. (The best clue: Go rent “Three Kings.” More pleasingly flashy entertainment, less reality — but we’re OK with that.)

Mileage Scoreboard: 05.28.05

Posting from our friends Larry and Ursula’s place in Fair Oaks, California, after a long evening, a very fine dinner Larry cooked for all of us, and another long ride: It’s about 93 miles up here by car from Berkeley. It’s longer by bike, and longer still the way I do it: about 130 miles. Not the hardest ride — lots of flat, and a good wind most of the day. But the thing is, even if it’s flat and tail-windy, you’ve still got to ride the distance. More about the ride tomorrow. We’re going to clear out of here soon (somehow, it’s become 11:30 p.m.) and drive back to Berkeley.

RIP, Oliver Wendell Douglas

The most amazing thing about watching the DVD of the first season of “Green Acres” last year was to discover that Eddie Albert, who in 1969 began playing the big shot New York attorney who relocates to Someplace Rural, USA, was still alive and in his late ’90s; and not only that, but that he’d been working into the middle of the last decade, when he was pushing 90.

Now comes news that he has died — age 99 — in the Los Angeles area. Not sure how well “Green Acres” translates to today’s audience, but watching the first-season episodes last year, the humor still looked bent and slightly subversive to me. Sort of an odd thing to have as your major life achievement, for sure, but then the obits say the show made Albert (who was born Edward Albert Heimberger) wealthy, and that he turned around and used his money for environmental and social causes. Not a bad legacy.

Employment Notes

In an unexpected turn of events, I’ve just been hired for a public-affairs position at the University of California’s law school, Boalt Hall. What’s unexpected is that two weeks ago, I didn’t even know this job was out there. But taking a look at the university’s job listings the Saturday before last, I noticed an opening for a senior writer doing media relations and development (fund-raising) work at Boalt. I posted my resume online and heard back pretty much immediately. A couple of interviews and several reference calls later, I got the job. I’m both excited and a little amazed; not that I was hired, because I’m not a complete bum; but because it happened so fast. Anyway, it’s going to be an intellectually challenging experience — the school’s dean, Christopher Edley Jr., is a recent Harvard transplant who has big plans on every front (expanding the school, for instance, hiring more faculty, and launching initiatives like the new Berkeley Civil Rights Project (a cousin of the project he started at Harvard in 1996). It ought to be pretty interesting to be close to the middle of all that. I start next Wednesday, and I’m going to walk to work.

Unfocused Group

I got a call last week asking whether I’d submit to a brief interview to see whether I was qualified for some focus group or other. I said yes, replied to a some questions about my age and health, then got invited to participate in a group that had something to do with flu vaccine.

The group met tonight in downtown Oakland. Eight guys between 50 and 64 years old, all with some sort of chronic health issue that put us at higher risk for complications if we get the flu (mine is asthma; someone else in the group mentioned they had diabetes, which is also a risk factor).

One guy drew everyone’s attention when he came into the research office before the group met. He was wearing what looked like pajama bottoms — or maybe they were some sort of high-fashion lounge pants — and slippers. The guy — let’s call him Larry — began to listen to his cellphone messages with the speaker volume turned all the way up and couldn’t figure how to make it stop. He kind of laughed about it. Innocuous stuff.

Then we went into the room where the group would be observed from behind a two-way mirror. The first thing Larry says to the moderator after she explained we’d be observed and videorecorded is, “Is it OK if I sit on the floor?” The moderator reluctantly went along with that, even though it meant it would be a little harder for everyone else to talk to him. Then she asked us all to introduce ourselves and say what sorts of things we like to do. Larry was first and said he likes to travel and go to the theater. In fact, he said he’d just been to New York and saw a fabulous play on Broadway that’s certain to win a bunch of Tonys. “What’s the name of the play?” the moderator asked. Larry struggled for a while and couldn’t come up with the title, then said it was about a priest abusing a child (looking that much up suggests it’s John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which has gotten great reviews).

Then the rest of us spoke, then started to discuss influenza. Hardly a peep out of Larry, who was still sitting on the floor. About 15 minutes into the proceedings, the door to the room opened and one of the research firm’s staff members said, “Larry, would you step out here please?” Larry said something like, “What?” in an alarmed kind of way, and she repeated her request. He stood up and walked out. It looked like he had an erection (yes, I looked). There were raised voices out in the hall for a couple of minutes, and a few minutes later, another staff member came in and gathered his belongings. What was remarkable, and added to the impression that Larry had been sitting on the floor, you know, entertaining himself, was the fact the moderator ignored his departure completely. Didn’t bat an eye. Just kept up with the flu talk.

For that gratuitous slice of life, and for spending a couple hours critiquing a few Centers for Disease Control “get your flu shots” posters, we each got 75 bucks. Wonder if Larry got his.

My Anonymous Gifts to the Universe


When I’m not procrastinating, interviewing for jobs, asking past bosses and colleagues for references, watching TV, riding my bike, writing clever furniture descriptions for a furniture catalogue that will remain nameless, mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, prioritizing creditors, and whatnot (under which heading blogging comes) — when I’m not doing any of those things, I can usually be found losing an expensive pair of sunglasses.

Just this morning, I regarded a pair of Oakley cycling glasses that I wore on a walk up to the University of California and back. I thought with pride how I’d had them nearly two years — an uncommonly long association between me and a pair of shades. Somehow, while I’ve lost pair after pair of similarly pricey specs — Ray-Bans by the seeming bushelful; and last year, particularly troublesome, a pair of clear-lensed Rudy Project glasses that I bought especially for riding at night, a pair that vanished without leaving even a vaporous thought about when, where or how they might have gone astray — those Oakleys have stayed defiantly in my possession.

"I guess I’m just extra-careful about them," I thought to myself in a satisfied way as I walked home.. Me and my Oakleys — I wore them across France (i.e., to hell) and back during my epic accomplishment of 2003. We’re pals for life.

A couple hours later, I was on BART, headed to the furniture catalogue place in far-off Marin County. I fell asleep on the train and hurried off the car at the first San Francisco stop with my bike and backpack. It wasn’t until I’d climbed three flights of stairs to the exit gate, then another long flight up to the glare of Market Street that I reached for my sunglasses. Gone. Just gone. I might have dropped them — but no, I would have noticed that or, more likely, stepped on them and broken them. Someone might have lifted them while I was on the train — but daring ne’er-do-wells would probably be on the lookout for something more valuable, like my false teeth. I decided maybe I had left them at home, but I couldn’t find them when I returned from furniture catalogue land.

No, I think what actually happened is that I laid them down on the train seat beside me, nodded off, then just got up and walked away from them in my semi-wakeful state. So, unless they turn up beneath a pile of paper here at the Infospigot & Co. domicile, I think I’ve donated those glasses to someone who has no way of knowing what a nice little memento of blood, sweat and cycling fatigue they have. Wear them well. And whatever you do, don’t lose them.

[Pictured above: Me, the PBP Oakleys, a Bridgestone RB-1, and wind-tossed Lake Michigan. Highland Park, Illinois; September 2004.]

Making America Safe — for ’24’

Another season of doltish, action-packed fun is over. America’s soap-operatically inclined counterterrorism force managed to hunt down its generic Muslim nemesis (turned out he was linked to a hot and totally un-hejabbed American hitwoman who was practically right out of an “Austin Powers” fantasy), foil a nuclear cruise missile strike on Los Angeles, and, after all that was done, fake the hero’s death so that he could escape … well, never mind. The final episode with Jack Bauer — Kiefer Sutherland to his dad — heading for Mexico to avoid the consequences of his no-holds-barred approach to defending our way of life.

The important thing is that it’s clear that there will be another season of bad writing, bad acting, and incredibly strained political, military, and romantic scenarios. All that’s certain is that there’s only one man in the America of ’24’ who can get anything done right — and the last we saw of him, he was walking into the sunrise in an L.A. train yard.

In Bicycle Land

Long bike rides are an exercise in sensory overload. There’s so much to take in over the course of a day. The landscape, of course. Socializing with other riders. Monitoring the way you’re feeling, gauging your effort, measuring what you’re putting out now against how much work you have ahead. Watching everything that happens on the road, knowing that a momentary lapse of attention, an unseen crinkle in the pavement, an unremarkable pebble, could interrupt your ride or end it if you’re unlucky. Keeping an eye on other riders when you’re riding in a pack, taking pains to make sure you ride steadily and predictably while watching everyone else to make sure they’re doing the same. It’s hard to believe how absorbing the sight of a rear wheel spinning 12 inches in front of your front wheel can be until you’ve spent an hour or two or three watching one while trying to stay aware of the road ahead and what other riders are doing; it’s active, rolling meditation.

Beyond the pure physical effort, the factor I identify most with cycling is landscape. I think more than any other reason, that’s why I’m motivated to get on my bike and go. Just thinking about yesterday, when I rode the Davis Double Century, the sight memories all by themselves are overwhelming. A golden eagle. A hundred-foot high dike of lava. Creeks and streams running hard and full. But instead of trying to paint the whole day, just one brief impression: Rolling back toward Davis across the westernmost stretch of the Sacramento Valley an hour or so before sunset, passing acre after acre of newly flooded rice paddies near Interstate 505. The day had been warm, the Valley is just above sea level, and there it felt humid as midsummer in the Midwest. The sky was flawless, the not-quite-full moon well up over the long eastern horizon. The wind was down, and the paddy water held perfect casts of every detail of the world around and the heavens above. In the distance: egrets, night herons, terns, working the edges of the inundated fields; me and all the others rolling past, opening and closing circles, feeling for perfect rhythm.