Weight, weight, don’t tell me

Losing weight is hard.

I weigh myself first thing each morning. Occasionally I am pleased by what the scale says, and then I exclaim, “Yes!” (whispered, so as not to wake anyone else up) and do a victory fist-pump (feebly, since I haven’t had any coffee yet). But much more often I am not pleased, and then I talk back to the scale, casting aspersions on its ancestry, entreating it to perform anatomical impossibilities, and the like.

As of today I am 117 days into my weight-loss program, which is 29.1% of the way from when I started to the goal of my next birthday. Unfortunately my weight is lagging about ten days behind at 26.7% of the way from start-weight to goal-weight.

Still, considering the holidays just passed — dietarily disastrous as expected — and the fact that I still have not begun any meaningful amount of exercise, I guess it’s not too bad. I have a good strategy for catching up when I’m starting to fall behind: skip dinner. Getting on my bike when the weather turns nice again (actually it’s been unseasonably pleasant so far, but I plan my activities as if it’s a normal Northern California winter) will be an even better strategy.

A travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham

First thing in the morning yesterday, on the advice of her doctor, my mom reported to the emergency room at New York Hospital Queens. (Under its old name, “Booth Memorial Hospital,” it’s where she gave birth to me and my sister, Suzanne. I wonder how Booth would feel about its new name, whoever he was.) She was promptly evaluated and admitted to treat an infection complicated by diabetes. The treatment plan called for intravenous antibiotics, no surgery. Suzanne waited with her to be assigned a bed. And waited. And waited.

As of 2pm local time today she was still waiting in the emergency room. All day and night — and day — a procession of doctors and other hospital staff professed their shock at her treatment, promised to rectify the situation, and vanished. Meanwhile, just a short time ago a surgical resident happened by and re-evaluated her, opining that she does in fact need surgery. It’s Kafkaesque.

I’m going to New York shortly to help my family (especially my saintly burden-shouldering sister) with the situation, and maybe kick some medical ass.

Subway action hero

In which the author evades a citywide pursuit, battles a gang of ruffians, and kisses two women within minutes of each other.

From seventh through twelfth grades I attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan. I took the subway from Queens in the morning and back again to Queens after school. Most days I rode home with my friend and fellow Queens resident Chuck.

We were two geeky little guys, and we had female counterparts at Hunter: Kathy and Joelle.

They were the sort of girls who were into Tarot and Stevie Nicks and Lord of the Rings and guys who played Dungeons and Dragons. By rights, Chuck and I should have been D&D players, considering our other interests such as computers, electronics, and Star Trek; but we weren’t. That didn’t keep Kathy and Joelle from acting interested in us, though; and being still at the dipping-pigtails-into-inkwells stage of relating to women, Chuck and I feigned displeasure at Kathy’s and Joelle’s attentions.

(Not that they were especially mature themselves. Their nicknames for me and Chuck were “Cow-face” and “Moose-face,” respectively, and they delighted in pretending to annoy us.)

As it happened, Kathy and Joelle also both lived in Queens and so we frequently encountered one another en route in the afternoons. (Somehow none of us ever ran into one another in the mornings.) Whenever this happened, Chuck and I always made a big show of being vexed, and Kathy and Joelle always made a big show of following us as we tried to evade them by switching trains, walking to the far end of the platform, etc.

Of course, it was love, but none of us ever figured that out.

One time, for no particular reason, the chase was truly on. Kathy and Joelle made clear that they’d stick to us like glue on the ride home that day, so the instant school let out, Chuck and I raced for the 96th Street station and counted ourselves lucky to get on a number 6 train almost immediately, before the girls could catch up. At 59th Street we got off the 6 to switch to the N train — and there we found Kathy and Joelle waiting for us! When they saw us run from the school, they knew they’d never catch us if they followed us to the 96th Street station, so they hot-footed it down to 86th Street, where they caught the 4 express and beat us to 59th Street!

You can’t go home again

The N train no longer goes where it used to. The RR train no longer even exists. The one constant in the New York subway is change. Change, and the smell of stale urine. Two! Two constants. Here is what the MTA route system looked like around the time of this story; here is what it looks like today.

Chuck had a plan. On his cue, we unexpectedly hopped onto a departing RR train after its doors had closed (using the cool but stupidly dangerous leap-on-between-cars maneuver), leaving Kathy and Joelle behind once again. At Queensboro Plaza we switched to the 7 train, and got off at Roosevelt Avenue to transfer back onto one of the Queens Boulevard trains.

And there were the girls again, waiting for us with shit-eating grins, having foreseen our strategy. We conceded the battle and rode home the rest of the way with them.

One other time, perhaps a year later, I was waiting on the Queens Plaza platform after school with Joelle, maybe Kathy, maybe Chuck, and maybe one or two other Queens friends, when a group of slightly older kids started verbally taunting us. Naturally we ignored them. Then they began to insult the girls. I got angry and said something to them in the way of a warning, I don’t remember exactly what; then we continued trying to ignore them. The last straw for me was when their harassment became physical, to wit: tapping some of us on the head. I felt protective of my friends and grew uncharacteristically bold. I threw down my knapsack and demanded we be left alone. “What are you gonna do about it?” asked the chief bully, and gave me a shove. I shoved back and the fight was on. We circled each other with our fists up, each of us swinging occasionally and either missing or landing pretty ineffectual blows.

[I am a lover, not a fighter, but I am not above settling the hash of someone deserving. Though I don’t remember it, my mom loves to tell the story of the time I finally snapped and beat the crap out of my elementary school’s resident bully — who treated me as a friend ever after.]

The fight somehow petered out with no resolution. When a train came, his group and mine got on separate cars. It was one of the newer R-46 trains that prevented crossing from one car to the next without an operator’s key, so once we were underway, that was pretty much the end of that.

Through the window to the next car we saw the gang get off at the next stop, Roosevelt Avenue. However, as the conductor announced, “Watch the closing doors” and the door-warning chime went “ding dong,” the bully I’d fought ran back onto my train car, punched me square in the nose (knocking my head back into the wall behind my seat), and hopped back off.

I saw stars. But nothing was broken or bleeding, I had the sympathy and admiration of my friends, and the bully’s cowardly final act had given me a moral victory that I still savor.

There’s a nice little coda to the Bob-Chuck-Kathy-Joelle story in which I get kisses from both women.

In our senior year at Hunter, we had our Spring Carnival in the schoolyard. Kathy was one of a few people manning (“womanning”?) the kissing booth, and for a buck I finally got a smooch from her.

Another booth was a dunk tank — one dollar for one throw of a baseball at a target that would drop some poor sap into a tank of water. To my great surprise, there was Chuck, sitting on the hot seat in a bathing suit and T-shirt, looking distinctly dry. “I’ve got to try this,” I said, as I handed a dollar over to the booth barker — Joelle. Now, Chuck, Joelle, and everybody else in the world knew that I was athletically — what’s the right word? — pathetic. A small crowd gathered of folks who knew this fact and the fact that Chuck and I were best friends. Chuck taunted me confidently from his perch. I wound up and hurled a true baseball-style pitch. On that sunny afternoon the gods of great story endings guided my throw straight and true. The ball struck, a bell rang, and the look of astonishment on Chuck’s face as he fell into the water was worth a million bucks. Joelle squealed, jumped, and gave me a hug and a kiss.


A few nights ago I was in my study while the kids were jumping around in the bedroom, playing “pirates.” The sounds of mock swordfights filled the air… until suddenly they didn’t. All was silent for several moments. My parental Spidey-sense tingled and I got up to see what they were up to. I found Archer lying prone and smirking on the bed, Jonah leaning over him. Jonah looked up and explained to me, “He drank too much rum.”


This morning I spotted this shutterbug.com link about commercial food photography on del.icio.us’s popular page, which was my cue that it’s time to tell my Zanetti story.

In the late seventies and early eighties my dad worked as a salesman for a bookbindery. One of his clients was The Creative Black Book, a celebrated annual directory of and for professionals in creative services such as filmmaking, copywriting, photography, etc. The Black Book staff, led by founder Marty Goldstein, was young and hip, and their offices were fun to visit. My dad found plenty of reasons to pay “business calls” on this client that were really excuses to hang out and goof around. Goldstein and my dad became friends.

One of Goldstein’s friends-and-clients, in turn, was a photographer named Gerald Zanetti, who had a thriving commercial-food-photography studio in midtown Manhattan. Zanetti was also a technophile who in 1982 had one of the first small-office computers — the TRS-80 Model II — and no software to run on it.

Who you gonna call?

In 1982, Zanetti had a new computer but no way to use it, so he called me. The following year, my high-school friend Joelle bought herself a car but didn’t know how to drive, so she called me — letting me keep and use the car myself for many months in exchange for occasionally driving her places.

A tenuous connection between these two stories? Maybe. But today, Joelle’s husband runs the TRS-80 website hosting the Model II link you see in the main part of this story!

Enter yours truly. After a few years as a programming hobbyist I was ready to earn some afterschool money writing software. Through Marty Goldstein, my dad hooked me up with Gerry Zanetti and I had my first programming job.

(Holy hell, that makes this year the silver jubilee of my career.)

Zanetti loaded me up with a bunch of documentation about the Pickles and Trout version of CP/M, an operating system and programming environment that famously was almost the basis of Microsoft’s original DOS. Within a few weeks I was writing some simple office-management tools for Zanetti, but in the classic fashion of non-technical enthusiasts with money to burn, the specs for what he wanted were ever-shifting. Far from a consulting gig, my position at Zanetti’s studio became open-ended. When the school year finished I worked full-time over the summer. I became part of the Zanetti studio family, which included Zanetti, his wife, a rotating slate of assistants, and recurring visitors such as suppliers, food stylists, and other partners. My sister Suzanne did office work there on occasion too, and even I occasionally answered phones, stuffed envelopes, and ran errands.

As I toiled at the computer on a wide variety of projects — now programming, now data entry, now educating myself further in CP/M and later Xenix — all kinds of fascinating photgraphy-business stuff went on in the adjacent studio. I saw all the tricks of the trade described in the shutterbug.com article and then some: cereal arranged in a bowl of white glue, not milk; cigarette smoke blown across a cup of coffee to simulate steam; mashed potatoes for ice cream; and so on. For most jobs Zanetti used a professional home economist (a.k.a. food stylist) to prepare the food to visual perfection. I never knew a Whopper could look so good!

He was among the best in the business and lots of big-name clients came through the studio. Very often they purchased excessive amounts of food for the shoot and left it behind after the shoot was done. Many were the times I lugged a dozen steaks, a few hundred slices of American cheese, or a crate of Ronzoni spaghetti home on the subway.

Eventually I left New York to go to college but I continued doing bits of work for Zanetti from time to time via a character terminal and modem he supplied me with. He could never get enough of me writing software for him though he needed almost none of it, and his wife occasionally gave him a hard time about the expense of it. He was full of ideas for new computer projects, some quite ahead of their time — his blue-sky description was the first I ever heard, for instance, of an object-oriented photo-editing application.

Zanetti exhibited paternal forbearance while I learned my craft on his dime. I was exceptionally lucky to have such a willing patron and would not be where I am today without his support. Thanks, Gerry.

Atheism, the final frontier

The BBC has recognized outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins as their 2006 Person of the Year. That made me think of the original Star Trek.

When writing about the appeal of the original Star Trek it has become de rigeur to cite its optimistic vision for the future — in which war, racial strife, etc. have been overcome — especially since it appeared during the turbulence of the 1960’s. But I think the real answer is something deeper and more essential.

First, a digression. In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the Baron, that lovable spinner of fantastical tall tales, is opposed by “The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson,” a literal-minded and distinctly unlovable bureaucrat who prizes order and rationality over the creative chaos of the Baron’s world. The film depicts rationality robbing the world of adventure and romance.

American pop culture has always been hard on men of reason, who usually come off as amoral, insensitive, clumsy, narrow-minded, unpoetic, socially inept, or downright mad. Dreamers, lovers, men of action — they are the heroes, and anyone employing logic is a mere detractor if not an out-and-out villain.

In the popular imagination, the intellect is suspect. Thinkers in general, and scientists in particular, are a haughty elite, the priests and guardians of an occult sect with its own impenetrable apocrypha and incomprehensible dialects. They set themselves up as authorities on various subjects and make pronouncements based on arcane knowledge that are never to be trusted, because there’s always a contradictory pronouncement just around the corner.

But in reality, what can be more democratic than science? It’s the ultimate leveler; anyone can be an authority. Science isn’t a particular collection of knowledge or a particular place or particular people. Science is a method, famously encapsulated by Richard Feynman as: “1. Make a guess. 2. See if you’re wrong.” Anyone who thinks according to these rules, and follows fearlessly where the reasoning leads, is a scientist.

If democracy is the founding principle of America, science and rationality are its true religion. They are the bedrock on which its political and industrial institutions are built, even at times when science seems temporarily discredited by the prevailing political fashions of the day.

Yet, even as science is central to the American experience, it gets short shrift in popular culture. Often marginalized, occasionally trashed, seldom if ever was it celebrated properly — until Star Trek. The accomplishment of Star Trek, and the true source of its enduring appeal, was its portrayal of a future in which rationality does not kill adventure and romance but creates them, satisfying the unmet need of Americans to see their society validated — or, as one like-minded fan commented recently,

It isn’t Star Trek’s “optimism” that made it great. It’s the idea that in the future the Carl Sagans of the universe will be in charge and successfully run society on the principles of secular humanism and science while the George Bush and Dick Cheneys of the universe are Klingons. Star Trek is about the promise of a new Enlightenment […]

As a champion of romantic rationality and a lifelong Star Trek fan I am encouraged by the selection of Dawkins as BBC’s Person of the Year. Atheism has always been the belief-that-dares-not-speak-its-name. Even at the height of the Age of Reason, Thomas Jefferson, whom we might recognize as an atheist, called himself a Deist. But this news about Dawkins, and other harbingers (here, here, and here), suggest that atheism is coming out of the closet in a big way, which can only happen in an environment favorable to rationality. Can it be that the recent wave of anti-intellectualism in the Western world finally crested, crashed on the jagged rocks of the reality-based community, and is now receding?

That would be good news for the back-to-its-roots Star Trek movie now in development.