A boy and his dog, part 1: Pittsburgh to Bloomington

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

Fifteen years ago today, I got into my car, the Uffish Thought, a gold 1984 Toyota Corolla. Beside me was Alex the dog, barely three and a half years old, strapped securely into the passenger seat like Chewbacca to my Han Solo. Behind me, wedged into the hatchback and backseat, was a substantial fraction of my worldly belongings. In front of me, rigged to the center of the windshield and aimed through it via a complicated system of suction cups, S-hooks, turnbuckles, and twine, was a big 1992 videocamera borrowed from my friend Steve. We were two hours behind schedule. It was late in the afternoon. With a final kiss and a wave goodbye to Andrea, we pulled away from the curb on Beacon Street in Pittsburgh and began driving to our new home in California, six days distant.

I’ll be blogging about each leg of the trip, one per day.

Our first destination was Bloomington, Indiana. It seemed slightly out of the way in my Rand McNally Road Atlas, but it was the right distance for a day’s drive and it contained my college friend “Tall” Steve Volan, whom I hadn’t seen since he belatedly finished his CMU education and left Pittsburgh for his home state.

(Tall Steve was especially dear to me for his gift, on one occasion, of the book The Eudaemonic Pie. The book was moderately interesting; it’s the true story of a team of MIT nerds in Las Vegas, using microelectronics to beat the house at roulette, back in the 70’s when that took big brains [pushing the edge of the technology envelope] and big balls [thumbing noses at the Mob]. But it was Tall Steve’s inscription inside the front cover that earned it a place in gift-giving history: Accomplish something, dammit. It is now possible to report that the inscription unquestionably has had the desired effect.)

I had called ahead to a motel in my AAA Tour Book and confirmed that they allow pets. The plan was for me to arrive in Bloomington some time in the early evening, give Tall Steve a call, and meet him to hang out somewhere.

After just a couple of hours on the road, night began to fall, and it was clear I would not be arriving by “early evening,” though when I stopped to call Tall Steve from a pay phone (and walk Alex) I had no idea just how late I would finally get there — around 10:30, as it turned out.

Not Alex

Alex was strapped into her seat with a doggie seatbelt, but was accustomed to napping in the backseat on long car rides while Andrea and I sat up front. Somewhere just past Columbus she decided to turn and leap between the bucket seats into the back, and was brought up short by the harness. She was trapped awkwardly in a tangle of straps, unable to move, and I was doing sixty on the interstate. I couldn’t stop or pull over or even do much more than glance Alex’s way, but with just a few moments of fumbling and Alex whining, I freed her by releasing her seat belt — and then just a few moments more and I belted her back into her seat, all without taking my eyes off the road. It was a tricky maneuver but I got good at it over the next few days.

When we finally arrived at the motel in Bloomington I called Tall Steve to convey my regrets. He tried to persuade me (and Alex) to come out anyway despite the late hour, but Alex was extremely excited to be in a new place and in my exhausted state I dreaded the thought of having to restrain her in any of the places we were likely to visit so late at night. I begged off and we planned to meet the next morning instead.

I set out Alex’s food and water bowls and got ready for bed. I flipped through the AAA book to find a likely next stop and a dog-friendly motel. And then I fell right to sleep… for the first of about a dozen times that night.

(…to be continued…)

Credit next to where credit is due

Earlier today I was walking through my office when I saw this written on the whiteboard in a co-worker’s cubicle:

The most likely way for the world to be destroyed, most experts agree, is by accident. That’s where we come in; we’re computer professionals. We cause accidents.
— Nathaniel Borenstein

Small world. Nathaniel Borenstein was the professor of a comparative programming languages course that I took in the spring of 1987 at CMU (and later became my manager, mentor, and friend). He uttered this now-Internet-famous saying while teaching that course, and I am the one who originally propagated it on to the Internet.

Thought you should know.

The one that got away

I remember the summer of 1975. I was not quite nine. Everyone was talking about Jaws. My mom forbade me to see it, asserting it would ruin forever my enjoyment of swimming at the beach (as it had hers). She was probably right, but with the pop-culture world abuzz about the film, it was impossible not to burn with desire to see it, especially when my friend Matthew, who had seen it, described in gory detail the scene where they find a disembodied human head floating in a shipwreck!

As we now know, Star Wars came along two summers later and together these two films transformed the economics of Hollywood, ushering in the era of the summer blockbuster. But in 1975 the ubiquity of Jaws was an unprecedented phenomenon. Certainly there had been big “event” movies before, but not since the Great Depression, when droves of Americans turned to glitzy musicals for much-needed escapism, had going to the movies been so central to American life.

All this came back to me as I read a news blurb recently about how, after Jaws, Alfred Hitchcock refused to meet with Steven Spielberg because Spielberg made Hitchcock “feel like such a whore.” That, and the dismay this caused Spielberg (who idolized Hitchcock), was all I saw of the blurb.

At once I understood a little better why Spielberg cast François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Truffaut was not only an iconic filmmaker from the French new wave, he was also Hitchcock’s definitive biographer.

But I wondered about why Spielberg made Hitchcock feel like a whore. Did Hitchcock foresee, years before everyone else, the huge changes that Jaws was wreaking on the movie business? Did he fret about the coming rise of commerce over art? Did Spielberg’s success with Jaws somehow make Hitchcock question the motivation behind his own accomplishments? It seemed unlikely given all the changes Hitchcock had seen in the film industry over the course of his long career. Hollywood is not a place for those with hangups about artistic integrity.

All of which was interesting enough to think about that it prompted me to begin writing this blog post, which in turn prompted me to look up the full article, which explains the less-culturally-relevant reality: that Hitchcock was a whore. He took a million dollars to be the voice of the Jaws ride on the Universal Studios tour and felt dirty about it ever after. “I can’t sit down and talk to the boy who did the fish movie,” Hitchcock once explained to actor Bruce Dern. “I couldn’t even touch his hand.”

What brings you here?

Herewith, a selection of search-engine queries that resulted in hits on this blog, according to my server logs.

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Why I owe Adam Stoller three apologies

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, I worked on the Andrew Project at the Information Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, where Adam Stoller was a fellow programmer and system administrator. On at least three occasions I opposed Adam’s advocacy of something or other, only to reverse my opinion later.

Adam kept trying to interest me in XPilot, a space-battle game; but I found it confusing and could never get interested in it. Years later I became a huge XPilot fan. I’ve even contributed several new features.


American pop culture regarded sushi askance during my formative years.

In a 1978 episode of Columbo, “Murder Under Glass” [directed by Jonathan Demme!], chef Louis Jourdan serves a special sushi meal to a visiting Japanese dignitary, who exclaims, “Fugu sashimi — in Los Angeles!”

In The Breakfast Club (1985) there’s this exchange between Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald: “What’s that?” “Sushi.” “Sushi?” “Rice, raw fish, and seaweed.” “You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth, and you’re going to eat that?”

And from Desperately Seeking Susan that same year: “Now you have these sushi restaurants. Everyone goes for sushi.” “Sushi… I hate the stuff.” “Although, I tell you, I had some the other day. I took it home, I cooked it, it wasn’t bad. It tasted like fish.”

Adam was also known for his abiding love of sushi. At that time, sushi hadn’t permeated American culture to the extent that it has now. I found the mere idea of eating raw fish to be repellent, and never hesitated to say so to Adam — perhaps even cruelly. Now hardly a day goes by that I don’t crave a meal of sushi.

Once, after a considerable research effort, Adam tried to convince the ITC to switch from using RCS for source code control to using CVS. CVS was fairly new at the time, and I was among those who were distrustful of CVS’s fundamentally different approach than that of RCS. It didn’t require files to be locked before being edited; instead, if two developers edited the same file at the same time, they were later obliged to use a dubious merging algorithm to resolve any conflicts that may have arisen. Collectively we defeated Adam’s proposal and continued using RCS. Within a few years, though, CVS became the de facto standard for source code control in organizations with multiple software developers; no one even considered using RCS anymore. I’ve even contributed some bugfixes to CVS.

Adam, you were right about so many things, and I was wrong.

Greatest hits: Good King Bezos

The story so far: I co-founded the Internet Movie Database and accepted the award at the inaugural Webby Awards ceremony in 1997.

In 1998, the Webby Awards were held at the Exploratorium and we were nominated again. Andrea and I were joined by another IMDb teammate, Jon, who ventured north from L.A. for the show, which was bigger and swankier than the year before. We got “Nominee” t-shirts! And we won again. This time I was ready with a five-word acceptance speech: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” (Ironically, it’s a movie misquote.)

Soon after that, the IMDb was acquired by Amazon.com. Over the next couple of years, as Amazon’s stock price enjoyed its celebrated rocket ride, I joined the happy (but in the words of Beaker, “sadly temporary”) ranks of instant dot-com millionaires.

In 1999, the IMDb team leader, Col, came from England with his wife Karen for the biggest and swankiest Webby Awards yet, held at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, with a gala reception afterward in the newly renovated City Hall complex in San Francisco. It was the “year of money” — the height of the dot-com boom — and the show was produced on a scale to rival the Academy Awards. (Something should have tipped us off that it was all transitory — for instance, the fact that the screaming groupies who greeted the arriving nominees as we strode along the red carpet were hired ringers.)

The IMDb won yet again for best film site — the only web site to three-peat at the Webbies! Col, Karen, Andrea, and I ran up on stage. Col’s five-word acceptance speech was, “I’m king of the World-Wide-Web!” Later, Amazon.com won for best commerce site; Col accepted that one too. At the very ritzy reception he insisted on carrying both trophies plus the one from the year before — I’d brought it for him to take home — which made a bulky but impressive display and brought us all plenty of attention.

Around that time, I also happened to be on an extended consulting contract with Amazon on behalf of my own e-mail startup, Zanshin. For several weeks I flew to Seattle each Sunday night and returned home on Friday. The contract was going so well that Amazon had made an offer to hire the whole company and relocate us to Seattle. (We ultimately turned down that offer, but only after considering it for a long while.)

It was agreed that I would bring the new IMDb and Amazon trophies to Seattle on my next trip and deliver them to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Here’s the e-mail message I sent to some folks right after I completed that errand. Just a few weeks later he was on the cover of Time magazine as the 1999 Man of the Year.

I just returned from my audience with Good King Bezos, where I dropped off Amazon.com’s two Webby trophies.

He was busy talking with a secretary when the time for my appointment arrived, but as soon as I poked my head into his office (he has no personal receptionist), he leaped out from behind his desk with his hand extended. I took it and shook.

He told me how amused he was by the comment in my e-mail requesting the meeting, where I said that I may become the first person to be acquired by Amazon twice. He asked whether I was now an employee, then noticed my green “contractor” badge. I very briefly explained the whole history to him, at some points causing him to blurt out his trademark boisterous, surprisingly loud laugh.

I unwrapped the trophies and said what a shame it was he didn’t go to the ceremony, but that if he had, his would have been the only recognizable face. Boisterous laugh. We spoke a bit about Col and what a press magnet he was while carrying around three trophies after the awards ceremony (boisterous laugh), and I told him about the female reporters’ flashing eyes (boisterous laugh) and the woman who commented, “You have three penises!” (Extremely boisterous laugh with backward stumble and doubling over.)

He admired the attractive trophies, likening their design to DNA, and I pointed out that they’re each a single helix, so they’re more like RNA. This elicited another laugh, and I found myself thinking that [another CEO I knew] wouldn’t even get it if I said that to him, let alone find it funny.

He thanked me for helping to create and maintain the IMDb, and I thanked him for acquiring us. I said that between that, my book (which appears in Amazon’s catalog), the consulting gig, and the job offers, Amazon appears to have moved to the center of my universe in a surprisingly short time. Very boisterous laugh!

He then asked in all seriousness how he could help us reach a decision about accepting the job offers, and I told him very frankly that location is a big obstacle.

He said that he himself always liked making big moves, going back to when he was in elementary school, where he was not a nice kid. He believed he was smarter than everyone else and he frequently told them so. Everyone thought he was a jerk, so a major move always meant another chance “not to be a jerk this time.”

We thanked and congratulated each other again, shook hands, said what a pleasure it had been for each of us to meet the other, and then I left and he got back to work.

After getting back to my office, I looked in the mirror: distant gaze, beatific smile, (some) white hair — just like Charlton Heston coming down from the burning bush. Is Jeff B.’s personality that powerful? Or was I just really happy about the pizza I ate for lunch?

The candy that wouldn’t die

Who dumped a whole truckload of Fizzies into the swim meet?
— Dean Wormer, Animal House

(Sarah thought he was saying “feces.”)

Some time during the 1990’s I got word that Fizzies were being made again after some three decades of unavailability. I dimly remembered Fizzies from early childhood, when I used to mix up my own soft drinks with Fizzies tablets in my very own Fizzies Fountain. They were discontinued after health concerns arose regarding the sweetener they contained. When I heard about the reformulated version in the 90’s, naturally I ordered a large number of them in every flavor — which were all uniformly disgusting. I brought my stock of Fizzies tablets to work and shared them with a few not-very-enthusiastic colleagues.

Now they’re back again in a third incarnation. I got a shipment of the new ones on Tuesday (a small shipment — I learned my lesson last time) from Old Time Candy. They’re still pretty horrible, but not as vile as Fizzies Mark II were.

I can understand the many attempts to get Fizzies right. A portable way to create instant soda pop is somehow an extremely compelling idea. Unfortunately it seems that the presence of sodium bicarbonate in the recipe dooms it, flavor-wise; there’s no doubt you’re drinking flavored Alka-Seltzer. It may be that in order to really succeed, a Fizzies Mark IV tablet using real sugar might be called for, even if it is the size of a hockey puck (see below).

I regret I can’t recommend the new Fizzies, but I do recommend Old Time Candy, which has a wide selection of vintage candy from yesteryear, and good customer service.

Here is the e-mail message from 2003 in which I invited my co-workers to sample my surplus inventory of second-generation Fizzies.

Subject: “Hooray,” the scientist said

Live the legacy. Come get your very own piece of confection history from the 50’s and 60’s, briefly revived in the 90’s, now no longer available except from eBay and my desk.

I myself am just barely old enough to have some dim, fond memories of Fizzies from very early childhood, but be warned: after ordering a quantity of new improved Fizzies in a variety of flavors a few years ago, I tried one but couldn’t bring myself to try any of the other flavors, the first one was that vile.

Here’s an excerpt from the comically (and now, in retrospect, ironically) cheerful “Fizzies Story,” formerly at http://www.fizzies.com/fizstory.htm:

Fizzies were invented by Emerson Drug Company. The idea derived from scientists working with chemical formulas similar to “Bromo Seltzer” and wondering if a fun, fruit flavored drink could be developed the same way. “Wouldn’t it be grand if we could drop a tablet in a glass of water and have an instant soda pop?”

After long hard work, they finally figured out how to combine the right combinations of fruit flavoring, sweetener, citric acid and sodium bicarbonate (a substance that is much like baking soda) into a magical tablet that when dropped into water, turned water into an instant sparkling, effervescent fruit drink!

“Hooray,” the scientist said. “Let’s hurry and share this with others!” So in July of 1957, just in time for the hot, summer weather, Fizzies was born and appeared in various local supermarkets.


Fizzies continued to grow in the national and international markets until 1968, many times exceeding Kool-aid in sales and popularity!

But in this same year, one of the ingredients called Cyclamates, an artificial sweetener, was banned in the United States, causing hundreds of food products to be pulled from grocery shelves all across America. At that time, it was believed that products that contained this ingredient were not good for you. Once this problem arose, the scientists who had been so happy to put sparkling smiles on thousands of children’s faces, decided to voluntarily pull Fizzies from all store shelves until they were able to find a better way to sweeten them. This was important, because sugar could not be used. If Fizzies were made with real sugar, a single tablet would have to be about the size of a hockey puck!

Then one day, a group of “Baby Boomers,” who were children when Fizzies was popular and fondly remembered the fun they had with Fizzies, began a six year quest to return Fizzies to the market. Their mission? To fix the sweetener problem.

These Boomers, who had enjoyed the sparkling smiles Fizzies gave them as children, worked extra long hours for many years, but their work paid off.

Once the original formula was purchased, scientists and chemists worked around the clock until one day… HOORAY!!! The new Fizzies was developed!

It’s clear that a lack of marketing might resulted in Fizzies’ latest disappearance. Here’s the much more interesting paranoid conspiracy that resulted in Fizzies’ first demise (from http://www.acsh.org/press/editorials/sweetener082699.html):

On Oct. 18 1969, holding a can of Tab, I watched Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch tell the nation that because the sweetener posed a risk of cancer it would be banned. Just a few days before, I had seen a Food and Drug Administration scientist on television holding up deformed, sickly chicks that had been injected with cyclamates. At the time I was pursuing a doctoral degree in public health and knew that no sweeteners or other food additives had ever been cited as a possible factor in cancer causation. Why all this attention for a phantom risk? Why were we banning safe, useful products under the guise of cancer prevention? I have pursued an answer to those questions ever since.


FDA scientist Jacqueline Verrett appeared on the “NBC Nightly News” with her cyclamate-injected, malformed chicks. (She did not mention that injections of salt, water or even air would probably have had the same effect.) A few days later the manufacturer of cyclamates, Abbott Laboratories, released a study showing that eight out of 240 rats fed a mixture of saccharin and cyclamates–at levels equivalent to humans ingesting 350 cans of diet soda per day–developed bladder tumors. Finch announced the ban shortly thereafter.


An editorial in the international medical journal Lancet noted that “never have so many pathologists been summoned to opine on so few lesions from so humble a species as the laboratory rat.” The journal Nature warned that “it would be all too easy for public apprehension to be raised to the pitch where a fever of vegetarian faddism drives everything but mothers’ milk from the market,” adding in another editorial that the evidence against cyclamates was “about as solid as candy floss.”

[Cyclamates inventor] Sveda’s obituaries said he was not bitter about the banning of cyclamates, but in fact he was. He claimed that the original FDA decision was based on a combination of bad science and “sugar politics” (he thought the sugar industry was behind the health charges against cyclamates). He accused the FDA of a “massive coverup of elemental blunders,” and believed that the American public was due an apology for withholding an alternative to sugar.

Greatest hits: The Webby Awards

[Reproduced and edited from e-mail.]

In our last episode, I co-founded the Internet Movie Database. The IMDb team consisted of 15 or 20 film geeks scattered around the globe. We were a “virtual company,” coordinating all our activity via e-mail and the rare conference call. Of all the team members, I was the only one in Northern California and thus became the IMDb’s representative at the first Webby Awards ceremony in 1997.

Andrea and I prepared by shopping for new clothes; the invitation instructed us to “dress swanky.” I wrote and rehearsed an acceptance speech just in case the IMDb beat the other four sites nominated in the Film category.

The dot-com boom had not yet really begun in earnest, and so I was surprised to see that many large corporate sponsors were behind the awards ceremony; several “celebrity judges” had voted on the winners; San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was the official “welcomer”; and it was slated to be telecast on KRON, PBS, and The Discovery Channel. For a bunch of computer geeks it was an unaccustomed level of attention and glamour, but not unwelcome. With this event, the revenge of the nerds had officially begun.

When I saw all the trendy corporate sponsors with their brands emblazoned here and there at the club, I despaired of our chances of winning. I was sure that the fix was in, and only the moneyed sites would be walking away with the awards. The IMDb was strictly an enthusiast site, not part of a big media conglomerate.

We arrived at Bimbo’s 365 Club a little after 8pm. Being nominees, we were allowed to bypass the long queue of people waiting to get in. We saw a line of limousines dropping off dignitaries. Big searchlights shone upwards to mark the location of the event.

Inside, we received our “nominee” badges and drink tokens. We milled about along with a large number of trendy Multimedia Gulch folks. I’d been to Bimbo’s a few times before, but this was the first time I’d seen all the rooms of the club open and in use.

In the main room, a swing band was playing dance tunes. Andrea and I found a table and had a couple of drinks. I took a last look at my speech, which by now I had comfortably memorized.

The event began. Mayor Brown came out to say a few words about how he loved The Web magazine (which had organized the show), how proud he was that San Francisco was hosting this event, the first of its kind, and so on. He told a couple of good jokes, too, which I promptly forgot. Mayor Brown was something of a national celebrity, and in person it was easy to understand his legendary charm.

The mistress of ceremonies, columnist and playwright Cintra Wilson, then came out, made a few very funny remarks, and got the show under way. Her first rule was that, to keep things moving along, winners would be limited to an acceptance speech of no longer than five words! I tore up my speech — oh well!

There followed a rapid-fire sequence of category and nominee announcements, followed by winners and very quick acceptances. Film was the third category and the IMDb won! I ran up on stage and got a kiss and a trophy. Then I thanked our many thousands of contributors over the past seven years (in almost as many words) and ran off. It was very exciting. As I left the stage, some guy pulled me aside and told me to join the “winners’ circle” in the lounge after the ceremony.

The trophy itself was ugly as sin and tremendously heavy — cubical black base made of solid neutronium, near as I could tell, with a badly-etched plaque stuck on it and supporting a freakish oblong colored glass ovoid, which actually looked kind of cool at one point when I set it down on a table and some light came from behind it. The fifteen winners hefted their trophies around the club like Sisyphus. Some who weren’t careful enough with theirs found that the glass ovoid snapped easily off of the base.

Most of what followed was a blur because I was so thrilled at having won. I do remember the presentation for the best Sex site, though. One of the guys from Bianca’s Smut Shack who came up on stage to accept their award was wearing a Hugh Hefner style robe, smoking a pipe. Big laughs.

After the ceremony, we milled about some more and made our way to the lounge, where several camera crews were at work. Production people from various TV shows asked me to stick around so I could be interviewed. While waiting, Andrea and I met Mayor Brown. He was talking to a woman who had also won a Webby. He asked her in what category she’d won. “Politics,” she said. Mayor Brown turned to me and said, in mock confidentiality, “I want to see the people who won for their sex site!” I thought, “He’d get my vote, if I lived in San Francisco.”

Then I met an interviewer from a Web-related program on PBS. I underwent a very short interview in which I waxed enthusiastic about having won, espoused the IMDb philosophy (i.e., by film fans, for film fans), described the site, and said a few words about the team. I managed to work in much of what had been in my acceptance speech.

A still from The Internet Café

After that, there were two more interviews that were almost identical in content. One was for The Discovery Channel’s web show. The other was for C|net. The Discovery folks told me that my footage would be edited into a segment they’d already done about how the IMDb blows away the corporate movie sites. Some PC magazine reporters spoke to me too.

Andrea and I stuck around for a little while longer as the interviewing wound down and music, dancing, and drinking picked up again. Then we left, drove across town, and had a bite to eat at Mel’s Drive-In — suitable, I thought, since it was the setting for a movie (namely, American Graffiti).

It was great fun. Andrea and I resolved to embark on a career of ingratiating ourselves with politicians, celebrities, and captains of industry in order to get invited to events like this all the time. And in fact we did show up for the 1998 and 1999 Webbies…

(…to be continued…)

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.

Fligth to Mars

Shortly before leaving California a week and a half ago to visit my family back east, I got this e-mail from my excited dad:

Subject: Fligth to Mars

…and Pa’s!

Photo credit: Bill Brent

It was a play on words (and a clever one too — you go, Dad!) and also an in-joke: “Fligth to Mars” was the misspelled name of a ride at Adventurer’s Inn, a small amusement park that used to exist in Queens when I was a boy. I didn’t realize just how little a boy I was until I read that Adventurer’s Inn was condemned in 1973, when I was just seven. I have clear memories of several visits there. Of course the condemned site remained for a long time until it was finally bulldozed, and I passed by it many more times as I got older; perhaps that’s what kept the memories fresh. Is there a sadder sight than a long-abandoned amusement park?

I think I was the one to notice the misspelling on the Fligth to Mars ride, and it’s been a catchphrase in my family ever since. The ride was your typical motorized cart traversing a funhouse on tracks. One time while on that ride, just before emerging back into daylight, I felt something smack the top of my head, hard enough to startle but not to hurt. I tried to convince my parents that a piece of wood or something had dislodged and landed on me, and I was even briefly convinced that there was a new area of flatness at the top of my skull as a result. They never believed me, and so I doubted it too — until today, when I read that Adventurer’s Inn was condemned soon thereafter!

Photo credit: Bill Brent

And look! The Batman slide! I remember that too. To a seven (or less) year old it was terribly daunting. But also tempting — it was a Batman slide! How could I not? Finally on one visit I worked up the nerve to give it a try. I got a mat on which to slide down, and I lugged it up and up the stairs in the interior of the structure. At the top, facing the maw opening onto an abyss (or so it seemed), my courage flagged and I froze. A queue of eager, bigger kids began to grow behind me and I believe I started taking some verbal abuse. Finally I turned around, feeling miserable, and began down the staircase as other kids muscled past me on their way up. At the bottom I surrendered the mat and was comforted by one or both parents, applauding me for resisting the pressure to go ahead, and assuring me that I never have to do anything I don’t want to do. I’m still sorry I never braved the Batman slide, but I think the humiliation I felt on that long climb down the stairs has been usefully instructive all my life.