The fifth anniversary of 9/12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three kinds of meat

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

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

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

Greatest hits: Toilet Bowl Hill

[Reproduced from e-mail, by request.]

This story takes place in the winter of 1977-78. I was in sixth grade and hung around a lot with my friends David and Sarah. One day after a heavy snow, the three of us felt like sledding. David said he knew of a cool sledding spot I’d never heard of before, called “Toilet Bowl Hill.” Off we went to a wooded spot near Sarah’s apartment.

When we arrived, I discovered that the spot was aptly named. We stood at the south edge of a circular depression. Kids were sledding down the east and west slopes into the “basin,” then trundling back up for another run.

When I suggested we march around to the east slope to do our sledding, David said no; he wanted to try “Dead Man’s Run.” David showed us the top of it, near where we were already standing. It was a narrow gully, like a bobsled track, that ran down the south slope, with trees very close on either side. No one was sledding there, and it was easy to see why. A sledder would quickly lose control in that narrow channel, which descended toward the basin much more steeply than either the east or the west slopes. It jagged back and forth slightly, and tree roots jutted into the path. The rider would certainly be thrown from the sled, into one of the trees or at least the brambly underbrush. Sarah and I said “No way!” but David wanted to give it a try, having heard legends of daring local kids who’d done it before.

Now, when you’re eleven years old and your friend volunteers to perform a crazy stunt, maybe you spend a few seconds trying to talk him out of it, but really what you want is to see him do it. So there was David, setting the sled down in the top of Dead Man’s Run, apprehensively gauging the course ahead. Sarah and I were filled with fear and excitement.

And then David’s grip on the sled slipped, and off it went without him!

For a second it was funny, and we accused David of chickening out and making it look like an accident; but as we watched the sled careen down the hill (getting knocked around mercilessly), horror began to dawn on us. You see, Toilet Bowl Hill has a sleddable east slope, a sleddable west slope, and a mostly impassable south slope, but it has no north slope — because that whole side is the Grand Central Parkway. Along the north side, nothing but a few short, widely spaced wooden posts separated the basin from lanes of speeding cars; and when the sled reached the bottom of Dead Man’s Run, it had tremendous speed — more than enough to allow it to cross the basin and sail out into highway traffic!

Time slowed down for me as I watched the inevitable unfold. There’d be a hideous wreck on the highway. People would be hurt, maybe killed. Worse: I’d be in a heap of trouble! I think my craven eleven-year-old mind was already plotting how to put it all on David. There: it crossed the basin and was still gliding along, slower than before but still at a good enough clip to exit onto the roadway.

And then a miracle happened. Against all odds, the sled banged into one of the few short wooden posts and came to an abrupt stop.

Sarah, David and I stood at the top of Dead Man’s Run for several long, silent seconds while contemplating the bullet we had just dodged. Then we trooped downhill to retrieve the sled. When we reached it, we were standing just a few feet from the shoulder of the road. We watched the cars speed safely by. Feeling much too somber, we left Toilet Bowl Hill without sledding at all.

Greatest hits: handing change

[Resurrected from my old, defunct website.]

Here’s a pet peeve of mine: when I pay for something and the clerk hands me change, and I’m handed bills first, then coins.

The best way I can think of to describe the problem is this: bills have to be manipulated with the fingers, and coins have to be held in the palm of the hand. Balancing the coins on top of the bills undermines both requirements. Before the bills can be folded and tucked into a pocket or a wallet, the coins have to be rolled off into the other hand. Sometimes the coins roll completely out of control, clattering onto the checkout counter or the floor.

If the clerk drops the coins into the palm instead, then places the bills on top, no second hand is required to stash the change. It’s easy to hold the coins in the palm while pinching the bills in half and tucking them into a shirt pocket, or into a wallet (which the other hand is now free to hold open). The same hand can then drop the coins into a pants pocket.

It seems perfectly obvious to me, and it’s all I can do not to give this lecture to every clerk who apparently hasn’t thought this through.

I am Ken lite

In yesterday’s blog post, Ken Jennings (yes, him again) reveals that in additional to everything else, he’s also a closet cartoonist. I’m a closet cartoonist!

Zoger the Vorton, episode 3, part 1, from my college newspaper, The Tartan

This brings the number of ways I’m like Ken to at least six:

  1. We’re both software engineers;
  2. We’re both published authors;
  3. We’re both new(ish) dads;
  4. We’re both e-mail quizmasters;
  5. We’re both closet cartoonists; and
  6. We were both in the Seattle area this week.

There are a couple of key areas in which we are not the same, such as the sizes of our respective audiences, and one of us having won millions of dollars on national TV. Although if you include the dot-com boom, we’ve both “won millions.” Now one of us has to catch up to the other by losing those millions back…

Happy birthday Star Trek

Star Trek is 40 today. Happy birthday, Star Trek! Yes, it’s longer than Alex has been around, and yes, like Alex, no one originally expected it to last anything like this long. But the similarities end there. Star Trek never curled happily by my feet or licked my face to cheer me up.

What can I say about Star Trek that hasn’t already been said many times before? Well, I do have a couple of cute personal stories from when I was a kid in the 70’s and Star Trek had not yet transformed into a cultural touchstone. (It was still the shameful secret love of closeted nerds everywhere.)

One dim memory from a summer at the Pine Knoll bungalow colony in Monticello: my friend Michael wanted to “play Star Trek,” which at that point I’d never seen. I was assigned the role of Scotty, who (Michael explained to me) kept the spaceship in working order. I got into character as best I could, complaining about broken gears and attempting to fix them, but was berated by Michael who said, “The Enterprise doesn’t have gears, it has dilithium crystals!”

A few years later, having by now seen plenty of Star Trek on TV (the original series and the animated one), my friend David and I were confirmed Trekkie nerds. My mom took us on a subway ride into Manhattan to visit a short-lived mecca for Trekkies called “The Federation Trading Post,” a store full of Trek memorabilia, which at that time was sparse and hard to find. The tiny store was itself hard to find! But once you did, you could buy phaser and communicator props, scripts of all 79 episodes and audio cassettes of some (not videocassettes — VCRs wouldn’t appear in average homes for a few more years), rubber Spock ears, all the James Blish books, etc. Most of the really cool things were not within our budget, but we did score The Starfleet Technical Manual, the Star Trek Blueprints, a couple of blank Trek-uniform shirts and the insignia patches and gold braiding to sew onto them. I got a gold “command department” shirt; David got a blue “science” one. Back at home, I asked my mom to sew on my insignia and braids, showing her the exact specifications (to the millimeter!) from the Star Trek Technical Manual. Bless her, she made it perfect. Thanks, Mom! For a short time thereafter, David and I instituted our own “Starfleet Academy” at which we would wear our “uniforms” and practice flipping each other and rolling to our feet á là Captain Kirk.

Of course I’ve long outgrown most of that, but to this day there is still a model of the Enterprise-A on my desk. It’s the most beautiful of all sci-fi spaceships.

Pointless in Seattle

Next stop, Seattle, where Danger is sending me for a one-day seminar at Microsoft on some new API with which we need to interoperate. I do not expect to get much information from attending the seminar that I can’t get from Microsoft’s printed documentation, but if it makes Microsoft feel better when their third-party developers show up to drink the Kool-Aid, fine.

The weird thing is, this is the third company I’ve worked for that has sent me on a business trip to Seattle — and I’ve never been sent on any other business trips.

I like Seattle a lot. Andrea and I almost moved there in 2000. The seminar will probably be a yawn, but at least I’ll get to see my good friends Kurt and Eva, Bay Area expatriates newly relocated to Seattle.

Brushes with greatness!

I went to elementary school at P.S. 196 in Forest Hills, NY. Among my friends there was a girl named Amy Linker. A few years after we all graduated, Amy landed a co-starring role opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in a popular TV sitcom called Square Pegs.

While Amy’s show was on the air, I attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where among my new friends was a girl named Cynthia Nixon. Several years later, Cynthia landed a co-starring role opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in a popular TV sitcom called Sex and the City.

What does it mean? And, which of my female college classmates will be SJP’s next TV co-star?

Brush with greatness?

Just now I clicked over to see the latest on BoingBoing when I had a strange moment of small-world zen: both of the top two entries (as I write this) contain comments from former co-workers of mine. In TSA changes laws of physics, declares ice to be liquid, commenter “Lone Locust of the Apocalypse” is my friend Spencer. (I don’t think I’m outing you by saying so, Spencer.) And Original S.S. Minnow for sale has a comment from Paul Boutin, the Internet’s man-about-town and another friend of mine.

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.