Make that seven

Another way I’m like Ken: in today’s blog post he writes, “I find that I think in movie quotes about 45% of the time.”

Huh. Just 45%? Maybe Ken is Bob lite! After all, I was the founding movie-quotes editor of the Internet Movie Database.

Quoting dialogue from movies and TV shows has been a cherished way of life for me since age 10, when it occurred to me to place my tape recorder in front of the TV and grab the audio from an episode of Happy Days.

(It was the one where Herb Edelman plays a house burglar. He breaks into the Cunningham house but is foiled by Fonzie, who correctly guesses he’s not armed thanks to this bit of “prison poetry”: “He who steals with a gun in his hand / Gets ten years to life in the can.” Jesus, do I really still remember that???)

After that I taped and memorized The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and a Robert Klein stand-up comedy special on HBO, but that was just preparation for the day I smuggled a tape recorder into a movie theater to grab the audio from Star Wars. I memorized every word, every sound effect, every note of music. For years afterward, where other kids would sing their favorite radio hits, I would recite scenes from Star Wars. (And I must say: being so intimately acquainted with the audio of that film gave me an appreciation for just what an accomplishment it was. The visual effects today are dated, but the audio created for Star Wars has never been equalled — which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense coming from the director of the sonically innovative predecessors THX-1138 and American Graffiti.)

As time went by it became clear that I had an aptitude for remembering quotable dialogue verbatim — that is, without the usual minor lapses in word choice and ordering that usually afflict movie quoters — even without the benefit of tape recorders. I expanded my movie-viewing horizons and amassed a collection of favorite quotes. Eventually I offered to contribute them to the maintainers of the nascent “rec.arts.movies movie database” on Usenet. The quality and quantity of my submissions (and my corrections to quotes they already had) landed me an invitation to join the team — a team that later became the Internet Movie Database company and later still got bought by

(…to be continued…)

Arrr gevalt!

In honor of both International Talk Like a Pirate Day and Rosh Hashanah, this amazing item via Boing Boing:

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean
A forthcoming, untitled book by historian Ed Kritzler argues that many of the “Spanish” pirates of the Caribbean were in fact Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews who took to the seas to flee/avenge the Inquisition. […]

I’ve just finished volume two, “The Confusion,” of Neal Stephenson’s staggering, scholarly, swashbuckling historical romance, The Baroque Cycle. I highly recommend it so far, and I fully expect to recommend it even more highly when I’ve finished the third and final volume, “The System of the World.” More to the point, though, is that volume two features a character exactly like the one described in the Boing Boing post above — a Jewish pirate named Moseh de la Cruz, marauding across most of the globe (though not the Caribbean) in the 17th century with “Half-Cocked” Jack Shaftoe.

Drink up, me hearties, l’chayim!

The circle is now complete

Once, in high school, I was seized by the need to know the lyrics to the Underdog song. This was before Google, before the World Wide Web, before public “lyrics” databases, before even TV Toons. I had been a big Underdog fan as a kid, but by seventh grade the theme song had all but disappeared from my memory. It took persistent questioning of basically every person I saw before I found someone who could sing it to me, and then of course it all came rushing back.

Over the years I have often felt the need to revisit something from my childhood, from vintage toys to long-lost friends. With the advent of ubiquitous Internet access and eBay, etc., this became easier and easier over time.

In the past several days I have written a lot about my elementary school friends Jon, David, and Sarah. David accompanied me to high school and I’ve kept in touch with him on and off, but Jon and Sarah more or less fell off the face of the earth — until last week, when my occasional googling suddenly turned up some unwelcome but definitive news about Jon. Sarah was a harder problem; her last name was a very common one, and finding her was like finding a needle in a haystack. And yet yesterday, David found Sarah online without any apparent effort! We’re now back in touch with each other after about a quarter century. “Why now?” Sarah asked me in e-mail.

I’ve been thinking about it, and I believe I have now managed to track down everything that used to be important to me — every obscure pop-culture memory, every hard-to-find candy treat, every depiction of what my old neighborhood was like long ago, and now every close friend. I have fully mined my past.

Nothing left but the future now, I guess. And just in time for the big 4-0. Onward!

Nouns of the noun

There were so many little parallels between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pirates of the Caribbean that I was mildly astonished to find no websites about them in a casual search just now. (Not as astonished as I might have been.) Someone’s got to document them, and it looks like it’s got to be me.

If you haven’t seen either of these movies, stop reading now. Spoilers ahead.

  • First (and least) there are the titles of the movies, which are both: [plural noun] of the [singular noun phrase]. (Technically, the full title of Pirates is Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, but we can overlook that.)
  • The central artifacts of both films are made of gold, are hidden in a stone chest in a secret cavern, and bring supernatural misfortune on those who abuse them.
  • Raiders and Pirates both have a small, intelligent monkey working for the bad guys. Neither monkey survives to the end of the film.
  • Both movies revolve around a gold medallion with extraordinary properties, and:
    • The heroine wears it around her neck;
    • In one scene where she fingers the medallion thoughtfully, a candle flame gutters; and
    • The medallion is rescued from a burning structure.
  • The heroine outdrinks someone (though in Pirates she’s just pretending to drink).
  • While a captive, the heroine dines in private with the villain, and:
    • He gives her a new dress for the occasion;
    • She grudgingly puts it on;
    • She wolfs down food greedily; and
    • She threatens him with a table knife.
  • The hero and the heroine are stranded by the villain in a location totally cut off from civilization with virtually no hope of escape.
  • Surrounded by skeletons, the heroine screams in fright.
  • On being reunited with an old flame, both movies’ heroes are greeted with a slap in the face. (OK, in the case of Raiders, a right hook to the jaw.)
  • Johnny Depp’s entrance even resembles Harrison Ford’s, vaguely: photographed first from behind, then in an extreme closeup of the eyes. Shortly thereafter, both heroes regard the corpses of their predecessors respectfully.

Finally, at the end of both movies, the central artifact is abandoned by the protagonists, reconcealed, and waiting to cause new mayhem upon its next accidental discovery.

How many of these parallels do you suppose were deliberate?

Greatest hits: Thailand scam

[Reproduced and edited from e-mail.]

In 2001, Andrea and I went to Thailand, our last travel hurrah before starting a family. While we were in Bangkok, we were roped into the famous Thai “gem scam.” The funny thing is that we had been warned repeatedly about this scam and others, both by friends who’d been to Thailand and by the Lonely Planet guidebook, which we read faithfully before arriving. It described the exact scam, but we still didn’t recognize it when it happened.

We arrived in Bangkok late at night and went right to sleep. The next morning we opened our guidebook and decided to take a walking tour in the vicinity of the Grand Palace and Wát Pho. From our fancy, sheltered Western-style business hotel we rode the water taxi up the Chao Phraya to the correct stop, got off the boat, and stepped into the streets of the most foreign and exotic place we’d ever been. We oriented ourselves and found a bank where I exchanged some currency. Then, trying to decide in which direction to start off, a friendly Thai gentleman with excellent English offered us help. We were mindful of the “don’t let anyone change your plans” rule, but that was no reason to be impolite; we struck up a conversation together. When we mentioned that we planned to see Wát Pho, he gestured to it across the street and said, “It’s closed until 2pm today,” saying something about a monthly Buddhist observance. Sure enough, the gates were closed and chained. “But there is much else to do until then,” he offered, and said his friend the tuk-tuk driver would take us to several sites for the next few hours for only 40 baht, waiting for us at each stop. Circling points of interest on our map, the gentleman suggested we see the Golden Mount, Wát Traimit, and one or two other things before returning to Wát Pho, by which time it will have reopened. “You should also see the Export Center,” he said, “where they sell gems and other goods at a huge discount. It’s not where the tourists go, it’s where the pros go, and furthermore today is the last day of an annual nationwide two-week sale.” The Export Center was conveniently located between two of the attractions on the map.

We were wary at first but the friendly gentleman was persistent and finally we agreed to his plan. Off we went in the tuk-tuk into Bangkok traffic — a harrowing, smelly, exhilarating thrill-ride! We loved each of the attractions we saw.

At Wát Saket, we ran into another friendly Thai gentleman who welcomed us to his country and offered to give us some of the history of the wát, which is where he did his monastic training many years ago, and where his family has an affiliation. For the next twenty minutes or so he was our tour guide, giving us the history of Thai Buddhism, interpreting the temple’s murals, explaining proper respectful behavior, and so on. (The image at left was taken by him.) As we were taking our leave to go back to the tuk-tuk driver, he asked what our plans were for the rest of the day. We mentioned the remaining stops on our tuk-tuk ride, and when we said Export Center, he seemed surprised. “How did you know about that? That’s not a place that tourists usually go.” Then he told us how lucky we were to know about that, because of this sale that’s going on and because of the excellent prospects for buying good gems at cheap Thai prices and selling them back in the U.S. at enough of a profit to pay for our whole vacation. “Look for this symbol,” he said, showing us a majestic spread-winged bird on his Thai Airlines business card, “it denotes government-approved gemsellers. And ask for stones with triple-A ratings.”

We thanked him and continued on our way. When we came to the Export Center, we were surprised to see that it wasn’t the bustling center of commerce that its name suggests. It was a little storefront down a side street with no customers. Inside, we got bottled water and some much-needed air conditioning, and a high-pressure sales pitch, during which the salesman showed a certificate bearing the spread-winged bird and mentioned “triple-A rating” several times. Fortunately our sales resistance was high. Meanwhile, we wandered into an adjacent tailor shop and had some beautiful silk clothing tailored!

We finished our tuk-tuk drive, having returned to Wát Pho and made friends with our driver, who struggled with English while we struggled with Thai. That’s when we discovered that the gates to Wát Pho are always chained closed on that side of the street. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until much later, back at the hotel, that it slowly dawned on me that the whole thing was exactly the gem scam that I’d been repeatedly warned about: the friendly Thai gentleman; the bogus claim of a closed tourist attraction; the dramatically underpriced tuk-tuk ride; the friendly stranger who happens to confirm the first gentleman’s information; the one-day-only sale; the promise of big profits from carrying Thai gems back to the U.S. I’d read all those details in the Lonely Planet guides twice in the previous week!

They say forewarned is forearmed, but it wasn’t this time. Reading this now, it’s probably hard to imagine how we could have been fooled and still consider ourselves reasonably intelligent people. Chalk it up to the bewilderment of being in such a strange place for the first time, and the light touch of a good con artist, who can make you feel as if everything was your idea in the first place. (Note how it was we who mentioned the Export Center to the second con man, not the other way around.) A good con artist can sometimes even leave you completely unaware that you were fleeced at all.

Fortunately, most cons rely on greed, to which I’m pleased to say we did not succumb. And in the meantime, we got a much more thorough introduction to Bangkok than we otherwise would have; an informative guided tour of a Buddhist temple; a very welcome air-conditioning break; a tailored silk suit for me, which I’d always wanted but could never afford at Western prices, and a tailored silk dress for Andrea; and all for a dollar paid to the tuk-tuk driver. So who conned whom?

After sending the above story to some friends who had been to Thailand a few years earlier (and who had warned us about scams), I learned that they’d fallen for the same scam when they were there! Many details from their experience were identical to ours. I wrote some more about the experience in a reply to them, which follows.

I wonder why the claim of employment by Thai Airlines seems to be part of the scam. Is it simply that it’s one of the few respectable Thai businesses that westerners are likely to have heard of? Or is it to back up the claim of frequent trips abroad to sell Thai gems at a profit?

Our guy claimed to be a pilot with Thai Airlines, and showed us his business card, which said his name was Somchai. I said, “Oh, I’m also a pilot.” Later he mentioned having family members in Jamaica, Queens, who pay for their visits to Thailand by transporting and selling gems. I said, “Hey, I’m from Queens!”

Now, if I’m a con man, and my patter includes having a somewhat exotic profession and family members in a city on the other side of the world, and my mark says “me too” to both of those claims, I’d be sweating bullets! But Somchai kept his cool.

On our last day in Bangkok, we had only a couple of hours to see the Grand Palace and Jim Thompson’s House, both of which we’d skipped on the first leg of our trip. We found a cab driver to take us both places (at breakneck speed — there was lots of traffic and very little time before those attractions closed) and then back to the hotel. During the ride, we became friendly with the driver, as we did with nearly everyone we met in Thailand. On the way back to the hotel, he asked our permission to stop at his “sponsor,” a gem store where he gets a coupon for free gasoline whenever he brings in tourists. (I imagine he also gets a commission for any sales that result.)

This helped us to understand the gem scam a little better. Of course we agreed. We were under no obligation except to spend ten minutes or so in the store, and the driver was both friendly and up-front about the kickback scheme. After having experienced the scam firsthand, we appreciated his candor. And unlike the “Export Center,” this sponsor was a real hub of commerce. It was a giant retail store taking up much of a block on a main street, with customers streaming in and out and lines of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers outside waiting for their passengers. A line of pretty Thai hostesses greeted us at the entrance. As we approached, the one on the end peeled off and escorted us inside to a counter where we got complimentary soft drinks. There, a matronly lady with perfect English took us on a tour of the jewellers’ lab, where a few dozen men labored meticulously shaping settings, polishing stones, and so on. In the next room were rows and rows and rows of display cases full of obviously-much-higher-quality jewelry than at the “Export Center.” Scrolling LED displays prominently placed throughout the store proudly boasted, “ISO 9001 Certified.”

They didn’t have any platinum settings. If they had, I just might have sprung for the sapphire ring Andrea’d been bugging me for.

I have a book recommendation for you: The Big Con, by David Maurer. It’s from 1940 or so and is a legendary classic among documentary books about real live con games. You’ll recognize that most of the plot of The Sting, plus some character names, come from this book. (If you haven’t seen The Sting, see it before reading the book!)

That I read this book only a few months ago and still didn’t recognize the scam while it was happening boggles my mind. I understand a little better the truism that I read elsewhere once: con men, apparently, are the easiest marks.

Pillsbury Dough Bob

At the beginning of 2005 I weighed 180 pounds. I was determined to shed twenty of those pounds in time for my birthday in October. And I did!

The red line in this graph was my daily goal and the green line was my actual weight, which I measured faithfully under identical conditions each day. By the end, not only was I getting compliments on my improved appearance, but my occasional asthma and reflux problems had disappeared and my clothes fit better.

I did it by eating much more sensibly (n.b. not “dieting”) and by committing myself to riding my bike a few times a week. In fact, via this modest common-sense program I got lean and strong enough by September to make a decent showing in the “Great SF Bike Ride” preceding the San Francisco Grand Prix bicycle race.

Of course I celebrated with some birthday cake — not just on my birthday, but on each of the several days that followed, as there was plenty left over. Halloween followed soon thereafter, and I wasn’t about to let my kids eat all that candy themselves, now was I? Naturally I stuffed myself on Thanksgiving, and then it was the Christmas season with cakes, cookies, and candy everywhere.

My discipline was destroyed. By March I was back up to 170. By yesterday I was back up to 180. I look and feel terrible. My pants are too tight. My asthma and reflux are back. Today I had to run to catch a train and all but collapsed in a gasping heap after two blocks, watching the train disappear into the distance.

So today begins a new campaign: to reach 150 by my birthday in 2007. You can follow the progress in the graph at the bottom of the sidebar on the front page of this blog.

A friend to many, a hero to all

After writing my previous blog post I tried to find traces of my childhood friend Jon online. I’d tried once before and the pickings were slim, but I thought it would be fun to get back in touch with him. It had probably been twenty years since our last contact. Not long ago I reconnected with many high school friends and had enjoyed it more than I’d expected, and so it was with determination that I sought to reforge this old bond.

I found the same few scraps online that I’d found in my prior try a few years ago: a line item in a genealogy database that might have been him; the masthead of a college humor newspaper that was almost certainly him; one or two other citations that probably were not him. Then I found the page that brought me up short: his obituary.

ROPPOLO-Jonathan. January 12, 1966 — May 14, 2002. Beloved son of Steve and Sondra, loving brother and brother-in-law of Peter and Barbara, cherished uncle, nephew and cousin. A friend to many, a hero to all. Burial held at Pinelawn Cemetery on May 16, 2002.

I should not have been surprised. Jon struggled with kidney disease for as long as we were friends in elementary school and beyond, with disastrous results for his growth and, more than likely, his general health. When I first learned of his illness in third grade, and his need to disappear after school three times a week for dialysis treatments, it was, in typical self-centered kid fashion, an annoyance for me — my best friend, unavailable after school more often than not! For Jon’s part, if he ever felt differently about it — if he ever despaired or wallowed in self-pity — I certainly never knew about it. But his bravery about it was the least of the ways in which Jon was a hero to me.

In some ways, I mark second grade — the year I met Jon — as the beginning of the long trip that made me the person I am today. Everything before that was preparation. The kids I hung out with were just playmates. Jon was the first person whose friendship changed me, my personality developing in response to the challenges posed and the standards set by his.

Jon was smart and funny far beyond his years, that was plainly evident to me even at age seven. When I’d “play” Emergency! or The Six Million Dollar Man with other kids, the action consisted mostly of running and jumping and fighting and so on. But with Jon the action was more cerebral — plotting some Mission: Impossible-style deception, for instance, or figuring out how to safely escape a disabled helicopter plummeting from the sky. (Solution: by stripping naked and tying our clothes into makeshift parachutes.)

Grownups found him smart and funny. With him, I was out of my depth. He was schooled in B. Kliban, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, George Carlin, Cheech and Chong, Abbott and Costello. Fortunately I was an eager and responsive audience and student, which explains why he hung around with me. In future friendships I always gravitated toward those with whose wit and wisdom I could just barely keep up, but Jon was the first who forged my habit of surrounding myself with my betters, a habit that I believe has made me better than I might have been.

A few Jon anecdotes stick out in my mind:

  • Soon after he and his family moved from their apartment down the block to their own house (just a few blocks away), one afternoon I was visiting when Jon suggested we try his Ouija board. (As usual, Jon was way ahead of me. I had never heard of Ouija boards and he had to explain them to me.) For extra atmosphere we took it up to his attic, which was loaded with cartons from the recent move. We proceeded to contact the spirit of a caveman from the dawn of human history. Expressing great skepticism, Jon and I insisted that he prove, somehow, that he was real, and we gave him to the count of three to do it. Exactly on 3, a pile of boxes in the far corner of the attic toppled over.

    We raced down the attic stairs like they weren’t even there, down to the first floor, out the front door and across the street before staring back at Jon’s house in terror and awe.
  • Jon’s dad was in the advertising business, thus connected to the entertainment industry. In the fall of 1977 he scored a five-minute super-8 reel of footage from Star Wars! The footage was silent and in black-and-white, but in those pre-VCR days and in the full flush of brand-new Star Wars fandom (and desperate for a fix), this was huge. Two scenes were included: Luke talking to Ben Kenobi in Kenobi’s hut; and the escape-from-the-Death-Star sequence, including the TIE fighter attack on the Millennium Falcon.

    We watched the reel again and again and again. Since it was silent, we supplied our own running commentary. Every time Luke objected to Ben that he can’t accompany him to Alderaan, we made fun of his whining. Every time Han Solo told Luke, “Come on, buddy, we’re not out of this yet,” we narrated, “Han goes up…” as Han Solo climbed the ladder to his laser cannon turret, “…and Luke goes down” as Luke descended to his.
    Imagine my amazement when, decades later and without prompting, my own kids provided the identical narration for that scene when watching Star Wars on DVD.
  • Once, for no reason I can fathom today, I insisted to Jon that I was an undercover government cyborg. He called bullshit on me, of course, but rather than own up to this bizarre fabrication, I dug in my heels and did my best to convince him that I was telling the truth. Obviously my best wasn’t very good, because Jon was nowhere near fooled. When Jon’s mom got wind of this, she gave me a stern lecture about fibbing that has stayed with me ever since.

In sixth grade, a handful of students from my school were invited to take the citywide Hunter College High School entrance exam. I passed, and so did my two best friends: Jon and David. David and I pleaded with Jon to join us in attending Hunter, but Jon chose to stay local (perhaps for health reasons). After that we inevitably drifted apart. I’d get a scrap of news about him from time to time, and during college I ran into him once or twice when visiting the old neighborhood, but that’s all.

Part of Jon lives on through me. At a time in my life when most kids were focused on things, he introduced me to the world of ideas. He led me around it for a while until I felt comfortable. I’ve never left. According to his obituary, he died a “cherished uncle.” I know that means some lucky nieces or nephews had their horizons broadened too, and that Jon’s legacy is assured.

The way things work out

During the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, my family made a trek to the Catskills for the summer to rent a bungalow, as we’d done every summer since I was 4. As usual, we brought only as much as we could cram into the car in addition to the four of us. My sister and I were obliged to leave many beloved toys behind. I also left behind my new best friend, Jon, whose family stayed in the city for the summer.

I resolved to write Jon a letter from Monticello. But of course that good intention fell by the wayside as I got reacquainted with summer friends and day camp started. There were woods to explore, new pinball games in the “casino,” and clusters of Japanese beetles to crunch disgustingly underfoot. Now and then I’d renew my promise to write to Jon, but I never followed up.

About halfway through the summer I hit on the idea of tape-recording a voice message to Jon instead of writing to him. I persuaded my dad to bring my tape recorder to the country on his next trip from the city. (All the dads went to New York for the week to work, and came back on the weekends. All the moms stayed in the bungalows all summer and played mah jongg with each other. Life was exactly as depicted in the movie A Walk On the Moon, except I don’t remember any moms being as sexy as Diane Lane.)

Sunday night I sent a newly recorded tape back to New York with my dad, full of reports for Jon from the country, expressions of how much I missed him, reminders of our various silly in-jokes, and plans for what we’d do in the fall when we were reunited. My dad obligingly delivered the tape to Jon’s family some time during the week. I was rewarded the following week with a tape of my own from Jon, sounding delighted and bringing me up to date on his summer.

Years later I learned that it was during my absence early that summer that Jon was diagnosed with kidney disease and condemned to a lifetime of lengthy dialysis treatments multiple times per week. His parents were crushed, and Jon was so depressed that they feared more for his state of mind than his kidneys. Just when things seemed darkest, my long-procrastinated missive to Jon arrived. Just like that, Jon snapped out of his funk and resumed being a normal eight-year-old. To me the timing of the tape was an accident. To his mom it was literally a miracle.

Fast-forward three decades or so. I routinely exchange pleasantries with a checkout clerk named Lora at my local supermarket. We ask after each other’s families, she watches my kids grow up, etc. On one visit she mentions that she used to be a flight attendant — furloughed after 9/11, natch — and hopes to be one again. I think to myself that I should give her my copy of Plane Crazy, a musical comedy about flight attendants in the 1960’s. Via Boing Boing I learned of the musical and joined the mailing list of its creator, Suzy Conn; that’s how I scored a free DVD of a performance of the show.

Weeks go by. Either I forget to bring my DVD to the supermarket when I shop, or Lora isn’t on duty when I’m there. Finally a few days ago she, I, and the disc are all in the same place at the same time, and I present it to her. Her gratitude is out of proportion to my gesture — until I learn that her elderly mother had died only a few days earlier and she was in need of something to cheer her up. Any earlier or later and the gift would not have done nearly as much good.

Funny how these things work out. The universe gives you what you need, even through such unreliable agents as I.

The fifth anniversary of 9/12

Notice how, unlike every other website in the world, I had nothing about the 9/11 anniversary yesterday? That was by design. I always like to be different.

Now, though, a few words about 9/11. The first thing I remember from that day was Andrea holding out the phone to me, saying, “It’s Steve.” I’d slept in, and he called to talk to Andrea about some work-related thing. To me he said (knowing I’m from New York), “I hope you didn’t know anyone in the World Trade Center.”

I couldn’t parse his statement. At that moment, in my mind, which was still foggy from sleep, the Twin Towers still stood. “Didn’t know anyone in the World Trade Center when?”

Steve must have been surprised that I hadn’t heard the news. (Neither had Andrea, for that matter.) “The World Trade Center is gone.”

This made as little sense to me as his first statement. “Gone? What do you mean?”

“The Twin Towers collapsed. They’re gone.”

Nothing could be clearer than what he was telling me, but I still asked him to clarify two or three more times. Not until a minute later, when I turned on the news and saw smoke plumes where the Twin Towers had stood, did I really understand what Steve had been saying.

Andrea was pregnant with our first son. I told Andrea the news, slightly fearful of the effect it could have on the pregnancy. (None, thankfully.) Then of course we were obsessed all day with finding out more, like everyone else in the world.

It’s only five years later but it’s already hard to summon up exactly the feelings of dread and suspicion that descended everywhere at that time. That very night, walking Alex along a side street in Mill Valley, I saw a man sitting in a parked car in the dark. A terrorist! A few weeks later I had to drive to Santa Clara for a job interview and I took the long way (around the San Francisco Bay) rather than cross the obvious-terrorist-target Golden Gate Bridge.

American flags sprung up everywhere. I told Andrea I wanted to hang one outside of our window to show solidarity with our fellow citizens, but I never did because even in the earliest days, the flag was transforming from a symbol of national unity to one of creepy jingoism.

After the Supreme Court decision that had handed the presidency to Bush, public discourse on the subject of that bizarre election and its bizarre conclusion had shut down completely. To me and Andrea and others who viewed it as a high crime against our beloved democracy, it was a maddening time. Only in the few weeks immediately preceding 9/11 did that freeze begin to thaw. A couple of books on the subject, one by Alan Dershowitz and one by Vincent Bugliosi, had appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. We’d even gone to hear Bugliosi speak in Oakland just a day or two earlier. Of course 9/11 obliterated the national discussion of Election 2000.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (when the death toll was still unclear and the exact workings of the Bush west wing were not yet known) I wrote the following. (Rereading it now, it’s depressing to be reminded that my sense of outrage was already exhausted five years ago. Just as I’ve learned about physical exhaustion from having first one child and then two, no matter how exhausted you think you are, there will be a time in the future when you’ll look back and say, “That was nothing!”)

It’s George W. Bush’s world. We just vote in it.
Just when it looked like George Bush would finally learn that political actions have consequences, he showed us again that the normal rules don’t apply to him

Bill Clinton should have been a hard act to follow. A Rhodes scholar and a professor of Constitutional law who pulled himself up from poverty and abuse to lead his country and the world through the most prosperous period in human history, his Vice President nevertheless couldn’t use his boss’s accomplishments to advance his own campaign for fear of being tarnished by the public’s distaste for Clinton’s personal weaknesses.

Instead, we got a lazy son of privilege who can’t find a grammatical sentence with two hands and a flashlight; who partied on drugs and women ’til he was embarrassingly old, deserted his military post, ran a healthy business into the ground, boasted about his mediocre school grades and about napping through his term as Texas governor, wiped out a record budget surplus at a single stroke, and alienated our international friends — and he’s enjoying the highest presidential approval ratings ever recorded.

A whole lot of Americans have been in a permanent state of astonishment regarding Bush’s residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Our jaws only dropped further when Bush audaciously populated his administration with hardliners and old Reagan-era cronies, rather than exhibiting the humility and conciliation called for by an incredibly close election (which, numerically, he lost).

Before September 11th, things were starting to look pretty good to Bush-bashers. Polls showed Bush’s mishandling of the economy was coming home to roost. Democrats were beginning to dictate the agenda. Bush’s beloved boondoggle, the missile shield, looked like it wouldn’t even survive one round of budget negotiations. Discouraged Republicans in Congress were announcing their retirement. A tasty scandal was brewing around Vice President Cheney and the possibility of oil-industry influence-peddling. Books taking the GOP and the Supreme Court to task for their roles in the aftermath of Election 2000 were bestsellers, and there were faint stirrings about Supreme Court impeachment investigations.

It looked like there was justice after all. We never doubted (some of us began to say with satisfaction) that someone so monstrously underqualified for the most powerful office in the world would reveal the depth of his ineptitude sooner or later, or that there’d be a hefty political price to pay for taking the solemn role of President of the United States so lightly, as if it were an extracurricular activity he could use on his college application.

And then terrorists attacked America, and it became George Bush’s world again. In the midst of the shock and the grief of September 11th, there was still one other sentiment on the lips of almost everyone I talked to: “…and this is the man we have to lead us through this?” Even as reviled mayor Rudolph Giuliani emerged as the man showing Bush and the world what leadership in a crisis is all about; even as Bush, in his few photo-op appearances, uttered barely a single unscripted word (except perhaps for “There’s a poster out West, it says ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’” — followed by an almost-audible round of exasperated forehead-slapping in the west wing); even amidst widespread unease about the massive retaliation Bush initially promised, the country lined up dutifully behind its president.

Which is as it should be, I suppose. Demolished buildings, 7,000 dead Americans, and murderous fanatics still at large, is serious — a lot more serious than whether the President has to backpedal on his promise not to touch Social Security funds. This is no time to be undermining the strength of the Oval Office.

And yet… my exhausted sense of outrage is crying feebly, “He’s doing it again.” He’s escaping judgment. He’s escaping even the discussion of judgment. Reagan may have been the Teflon president, to whom no accusation could stick; but Bush has gone him one better: like Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in The Matrix, nothing even touches him in the first place. History will probably forget that Bush ran the economy into the ground; it’ll record that a coordinated terrorist attack plunged the country into recession. No one’s interested now in asking Dick Cheney the tough questions about his energy policy — even though, if suspicions about oil executives dictating policy are true, it’s a gigantic abuse of the public trust. The Supreme Court didn’t murder 7,000 people in Bush v. Gore, but their figurative violence against the Constitution was comparable — and now it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever be made to answer for it.

What luck for Bush. And it may just be that sheer luck is what we need in a leader right now. That, and a certain reckless faith in the ability to coast through adversity. But unless he sheds some of his magical protective aura on the rest of us, I worry that we’ll start dropping bombs at the direction of a man who never learned that actions have consequences.

Three kinds of meat

Lunch today is a container with a little bit each of sweet-and-sour meatballs, shredded pork in tomato sauce, and sausage-and-vegetables from the hot-food bar at Mollie Stone’s. Just thought I’d mention that.

It’s a far cry from where I was in the mid-90’s, when I toyed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian. That began when my doctor advised eating less red meat, and around the same time Andrea berated me for ordering veal at a restaurant, citing the plight of veal calves. This led to a discussion of the strange hypocrisy of some people who avoid eating charismatic animals like cute little lambs but do eat animals with less personal charm, such as chickens. I wanted a more scientific way to cut out red meat (including veal, for Andrea’s sake) that didn’t remove all meat from my diet. I finally settled on a taxonomic “class” as the dividing line: mammals. Eating mammals bad; eating non-mammals OK.

I stuck to this for the better part of a year, and now look how far back I’ve slid.