Crazy life

In my freshman year of college there was just one tiny TV in my dorm. I don’t remember whose room it was in, but one night I was in that room with my stoner friends George and Merle. I’d had a couple of tokes myself and was feeling mellow. We longed to find something to watch on TV so we started flipping channels. I think we thought it would be a goof to find a kid’s cartoon or some other innocent program to view while high.

Our channel flipping halted by unanimous acclamation on something wholly different (and much better suited for our altered state): a riveting closeup of a rocket lifting off in extreme slow motion. Chunks of ice fell from the rocket body as slowly as snowflakes. Panel seams flexed and vibrated. It went on forever, the enormous main stage inching upward out of the frame. Then the rocket nozzles came into view, and even as drastically slowed down as the footage was, the flaming rocket exhaust that shot from those nozzles was still too fast for the eye to follow. Other equally miraculous scenes followed, one after another.

As we learned when a pledge break interrupted our spellbound trance an hour later, we had happened upon a PBS airing of Koyaanisqatsi, a movie consisting of nothing but breathtaking cinematography and a hypnotic Philip Glass score. It provocatively juxtaposes scenes of unspoiled nature against scenes of human society and technology, variously speeding things up or (as in the case of the rocket launch) slowing them down. Its title comes from the Hopi language and means “crazy life” and “life out of balance” (among other similar meanings).

Desolatus rising

It instantly joined the ranks of my favorite movies. A couple of years after this encounter, the repertory movie theater near my college (the late, lamented Pittsburgh Playhouse, not to be confused with the performing arts theater that now uses that name) serendipitously scheduled Koyaanisqatsi for my birthday, and I led a large contingent of friends across town for a viewing. When the Philip Glass choir sings “baah, baah, baah, baah” in the “Pruitt Igoe” section of the film, we sang, “Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob!”

A couple of years after that, Andrea was at my apartment and we watched Koyaanisqatsi on video. It was the first movie we ever saw together. “And today, that woman is my wife.”

Fast-forward to 1999, the year of money. We learn that a release to DVD of Koyaanisqatsi is being held up by some legal entanglements, and that the film’s director, Godfrey Reggio, is trying to raise the funds to rescue it from ownership limbo. We think nothing of sending a $150 contribution, and in return we get a precious artifact: a private edition DVD of Koyaanisqatsi signed by the director.

Three years later, our son Jonah was born. We plan a big trip east to visit both families to coincide with my birthday and Jonah’s first “half-birthday.” Shortly before leaving California we receive an invitation (thanks to our contribution years earlier) to attend a private preview screening of Reggio’s final “Qatsi” film, Naqoyqatsi (which followed Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi) — in Manhattan, where we’re already planning to go — on October 9th, when we’re already planning to be there — on the Upper West Side, one block away from the apartment of my sister Suzanne’s friend, where she and the friend can babysit Jonah while we attend the screening and the gala reception afterward. Amazed by the way things work out, we attended both.

A culmination: I shake the hand of Godfrey Reggio

Naqoyqatsi was nothing to write home about. (Neither was Powaqatsi, except for the interesting trivia that Philip Glass ripped off some of his own music from that film to reuse in The Truman Show.) And the reception, while visually interesting — a lot of stark white decoration punctuated by hundreds of bright red glasses of Campari — was full of strivers and hangers-on, not the kind of scene that interested two exhausted new parents very much. But the walk to and from the reception, through West Side streets at nighttime, was magical, our first serene alone-together time after months of crazy life.

The end of the line

At the beginning of a publishing project, everyone’s busy and excited. Finished those revisions I asked for? How do the figures look for chapter 6? Any good marketing suggestions? Know some good reviewers who should receive preprints?

Then comes the excitement of opening the carton of author’s copies of the finished product; the even greater excitement of seeing the book on store shelves (hmm, not arranged prominently enough, here, let me just move this other book out of the way…); the satisfaction of depositing royalty checks for work long since finished; the joy of reading positive reviews; and above all, the exhilaration of occasionally being recognized and thanked by an admiring reader.

The audience for my book was small, but not too small for me to have experienced all of those celebrated rites of passage of book authors.

Now I’m experiencing the somewhat less-celebrated last rites of publishing: when sales have dwindled so far that they are outnumbered by returns from booksellers to the publisher. Behold, my latest royalty statement.

Yes, that’s negative one dollar and seventy-one cents in royalties. Ah well.

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 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, 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’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?

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…)

Mohammed meets mountain

It’s not clear which of us is the mountain and which is Mohammed, nor who came to whom — Ken came to my metropolitan area, but I then had to take the ferry to where he was. At any rate, Ken Jennings and I met briefly last night at Book Passage in San Francisco, where he signed my copy of Brainiac. (He recognized my name from his message forums and wrote me a classy inscription: “I’d add a movie quote but you’d probably catch a misquote.”) Andrea and the kids were in tow and Andrea was doing a yeoman’s job of keeping them contained while allowing me to sit through Ken’s pre-signing talk and then wait in line, but by the time I got to the front of the line, Jonah- and Archer-created chaos exploded through the store and I didn’t have time for more than a few words with Ken. In fact I only heard part of what Ken said to me, and Andrea heard the other part; we pieced it together later.

It only looks like a scene from “Polite Mormon meets Obnoxious Jew.”

The thesis of Ken’s short talk was that he doesn’t consider “trivia” to be trivial at all, and he made a case for trivia being a kind of glue holding society together. He also mentioned that he met his wife thanks to trivia (kinda like methat’s eight!) when he knew what came next after some particular movie quote.

…Which reminds me of a story. At the beginning of my freshman year at college I didn’t know a soul and briefly contemplated pledging a fraternity. One night, one of the frats had a Repo Man rush party, but to get in you had to be a girl or invited — or so two frat brothers told me when I knocked on the frat-house door. As I was about to turn away, one of them added, “Unless you can complete this quote: ‘Find one in every car…’” I promptly supplied, “You’ll see,” and was admitted.

The party was kinda cool. Pine tree air fresheners were hung everywhere. There were cans of “FOOD” and (of course) “BEER.” The pool table in the basement had been converted into a phosphorescent Chevy Malibu. Quotes from the movie were plastered all over the walls. (One of them became the basis for the name of my next car, the “Plate-O-Shrimp” [or in the words of my sister Suzanne, the “Piece-O-Shit.”]) But frat life clearly wasn’t for me and thereafter I went about making plenty of good friends all on my own.

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…)

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!

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.