Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bits and pieces

Recently, I've been performing a (not-by-choice) experiment on the effects of sleep deprivation. For whatever reason, I have not been sleeping well for the last several weeks.

I blame the lack of sleep on me backing my Jeep into a snowbank while leaving the driveway yesterday morning. I did not back up even remotely straight and ran right into the pile where the plows have been depositing snow. Fortunately, because I have a Jeep, I didn't get stuck. But I still felt pretty stupid.

***

I heard back from Hershey:

It probably seems unusual to you that companies such as ours, have rules about accepting new product ideas or product suggestions from outside the company. Unfortunately, sometimes we have new products or other ideas in the works that may be similar to what someone outside the company may want us to try. To avoid confusion, we make it a practice to turn down all ideas from outside our company. We hope you understand our position.
My guess is that they do this to prevent lawsuits from people saying that their ideas were stolen. Unfortunately, this prevents them from trying some potentially great ideas, such as mine.

***

A neighbor had to leave town for several days on short notice, and I for some reason said I would watch her two very poorly trained dogs and five cats. And I don't even think she has running water. And I won't get paid.

Hilarity is sure to follow.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Upholding truth and justice pays $12.50

I went to court yesterday. Not because I had done anything bad or wrong (that I had actually been caught doing, I should say), but because I had witnessed a car accident and had stayed around to give a statement to the police.

Traffic court is a strange experience. In most cases, people come in and argue their cases and are found guilty. They are rarely—and by that I mean never—eloquent speakers. We did see one case thrown out, since the cop hadn’t witnessed the accident and only one of the people involved showed up.

Fairbanks is a small town. You constantly bump into random people in random places. When the D.A. walked in, Rowan recognized him as one of her students. He called my name, and I went and told him what I saw. Then he came and asked Rowan if she had also seen the accident, which she had. She reiterated my story.

The D.A. then called the guy who was challenging the charge into the hallway, where—I am assuming—the D.A. told him there was no way the charge was getting dropped with two witnesses against him.

We were told we could go home, but I was still entitled to the $12.50 witness stipend. I felt good for having done my part to uphold the standards of truth and justice, and for having made some money while doing so.

Later that night, Rowan said we should go to traffic court more often, sort of like live Court TV. And it didn’t seem like a bad idea. I had quite enjoyed my time there.

But after participating in the justice system, and helping to create justice, how could I return and just be a passive observer?

It would be like Clark Kent entering a phone booth just to make a phone call.

And it wouldn’t pay.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

C is for Cookie, and H is for Homage

When I was a kid, and even in to my early teen years, I loved Sesame Street. Not the learning bits (I knew the alphabet and how to count and the shapes and all that), but the parts involving the characters. There was something very real about those giant Muppets. Even to this day, I try to watch Christmas Eve on Sesame Street during the holidays.

My favorite characters were Big Bird and his stalwart cohort Snuffleupagus.

(Check out this Wikipedia page: apparently, Snuffy’s first name is Aloysius. I got into an argument once with someone who claimed that Snuffy wasn’t real, and was merely a figment of Big Bird’s imagination. This may have originally been the case, but in 1985 in episode 2096 Snuffy is revealed to the rest of Sesame Street as real.)

I also held a particular fondness for Cookie Monster, mostly because he was the main source of comic relief, aside from Grover and his often failed exploits.

But despite my love of Cookie Monster—and my own love of cookies in my very fat younger years—he couldn’t be my favorite character. Years later I would understand that it was his monomania for cookies that prevented him from becoming a round character (in the metaphoric sense, not the literal physical sense), and therefore something I could truly relate to. (I think this happened somewhere around 2007, when I finally learned the word “monomania.”)

Today, I found that NPR offers a blog called “In Character” that examines great American characters, ranging from Optimus Prime to Gordon Gekko to Willy Loman to the Lone Ranger.

Recently, blogger Elizabeth Blair sat down for an interview with Cookie Monster. Check out the video here.

In the interview, she gives Cookie a version of the Proust Questionnaire, which, in its original form, features questions such as: What is your idea of earthly happiness? Who are your favorite heroines of fiction? and, To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

There is more about Cookie Monster here.

I think Cookie Monster remains steadfast as a cultural icon because he is id personified, a creature completely devoted to the one thing that makes him happy. On some level, I think that we all want to be like him in that regard, but are bound by the restraints of real life.

However, I hope that there is some Cookie Monster in each of us, and that we can find the time and energy to keep him well fed.

Keepin' in touch with the family

I got an email today from the official brother of the kurdsworld blog. He lives near Phoenix, AZ, in the funly named town of Surprise. He had a response to my blog about grocery stores. Here it is:

One of the grocery stores here has so long had a stigma of being only a place for folks of Mexican heritage that they have waged a fairly large campaign of radio ads to let people know that they carry American products and even speak English. I will now try to recite from memory one of the more hilarious of their ads:

You hear a guy listening to one of those learn-to-speak-Spanish tapes and his wife walks in. (He has a very "white" name, Tom, I believe, and she is named Rosa, but speaks without a hint of an accent.)

Rosa: What are you doing, honey?

Tom: Practicing my Spanish; want to hear?

Rosa: Sure.

Tom: Yo quiero. (Spoken very slowly and with no attempt at an accent.)

Rosa: Wow. That's very good. Say, could you run down to Food City and pick up some pork for the pizole tonight? (I'm not sure what pizole is or if I spelled it right.)

[Editor’s note: According to www.m-w.com, pozole is “a thick soup chiefly of Mexico and the United States Southwest made with pork, hominy, garlic, and chili.”]

Tom: Maybe you should go, honey. My Spanish isn't that good.

Rosa: You know they do speak English at Food City, right? (She sounds perturbed.)

I lose my interest after that point but it always makes me laugh.

My friend Adam is a pharmacist and he occasionally has to do a shift over there, and on his lunch break he headed over to the deli. He said the guy behind the counter seemed genuinely annoyed that Adam did not speak to him in Spanish.

Likewise, he also has done shifts at AJ's, which is a very expensive, upper-crusty grocery, and he says he does a lot more prescriptions for things such as Percoset there.

Take it as you will.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sweet intentions

In an attempt to keep the current obesity epidemic rolling by getting more options in the candy aisle, I sent an email to Hershey's today. Yes, my life is very busy and exciting. Here is the text:

ATTN: Product Research and Development
SUBJECT: New product flavor suggestion

I am writing to suggest the development of a new flavor of Whoppers malted milk ball: dark chocolate mint.

I am an Alaska resident, and have extremely enjoyed a similar product from Alaska Wildberry Products, a somewhat large local confectioner. While the combination of mint and malt may not seem intuitively palatable, when actually put together the flavors complement each other nicely.

The combination of dark chocolate and mint seems to be appearing more often in the candy aisles recently (see the introduction of mint Three Musketeers), and I feel that the Whoppers brand could capitalize on this current taste interest.

I have enjoyed the new Whoppers strawberry flavor, and feel that the brand could also benefit from additional differentiation.

Thank you for your time, and have a great day.

Regal Cinemas assumes that deaf people are huge fans of Katherine Heigl or James Marsden

Since it was Valentine’s week—being a great boyfriend, I decided to extend the event beyond just one day—I decided to go with Rowan to 27 Dresses, a definitely un-guy-type movie.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the theater to watch the 4:00 showing, it was OCA, which the lady at the counter informed us was probably not a way we wanted to watch the movie.

Regal Cinema’s website defines OCA in this way:

“Open captioning converts a movie's dialogue, noises and sound effects into white text, and superimposes it over the screen images. The sound is normal, and the captions are visible to all. Unlike TV’s closed-captioned text, open captioning is not surrounded by clunky black boxes. Instead, captions are more artistically integrated onto the screen.”

I suppose if I were deaf, this would be a decent way to view a movie. For me, however, I am somehow compelled to read the subtitles, even if I don’t need them. This would undoubtedly distract me from staring at Katherine Heigl’s cleavage, and from peering into the bottom of my ICEE cup to slurp up the last bits of semi-frozen goodness.

We returned to the 1:00 show the next day only to find that they had now switched that time to the OCA screening. We asked the old, fat, bearded guy behind the counter why they go around switching the OCA times.

“We want to accommodate a variety of clients,” was his response.

But here’s the thing: the only OCA movie in the theater is 27 Dresses. How is this accommodating that audience? I watched the movie, and did not find it to have particular relevance to the hearing impaired community.

If I were deaf, I would be upset that my choices were so limited, and that the times keep getting moved around. I couldn’t hear, so I couldn’t call for show times, and what if I don’t have internet at home? It would make my life more difficult than it already was.

We returned to the theater a third time and watched the movie. It had its clich├ęs and predictable dialogue, but I am easily amused, and was therefore mildly amused, though I did start staring off into space on several occasions.

I am becoming progressively more jaded with the movie-going experience. Tickets are now $10 in the evenings. The bathrooms are always flooded, with standing water on the floors. Several urinals are always out of commission. They get poor quality film reels, and we don’t always get the movies I want to see up here.

But it is nice to get out of the house sometimes, if only because my interactions with other people and the outside world help keep me from becoming jaded and cynical.

Friday, February 15, 2008

There's something about Favre, and postmodernism

Last night, Valentine's Day, Rowan had to teach late, so we didn't do dinner. Instead, we watched Lost, and then started watching I Have Found It, which is a Bollywood movie based on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. For some reason, she thought I would like it (perhaps because I was amused by Bride and Prejudice, also based on a Jane Austen novel--bet you can't guess which one--but that was written in English, not Hindi, or whatever they speak over there).

I couldn't get myself involved in the movie, partially because I didn't sleep well the night before and was therefore tired and didn't want to focus on subtitles and the plot meaning of intricate dance numbers.

So we plugged in Something About Mary instead, and it amused me thoroughly. I was even more amused when Brett Favre showed up at the end of the movie and Rowan had no idea who he was.

Post-movie, I made a comment that Brett's appearance (us Wisconsinites are on a first-name basis with the man) was very postmodern, backing it up with references to the movie's self-referentiality, particularly when Matt Dillon's character says, "What the hell is Brett Favre doing here?"

Rowan didn't agree with me--perhaps understandably--and then asked why they had used Brett instead of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, which led to a discussion of how old the movie is. (It's from 1998; can you believe it?)

I then stood up and proclaimed, "Anyway, Brett Favre is the most postmodern of quarterbacks," and strode purposefully out of the room.

While I was taking the ensuing leak, in the bathroom, I thought about the answer to such a question, but came up with nothing satisfactory. Given time to think about it, Brett Favre seemed very un-postmodern.

After a day of thought, however, I have the following postulations for postmodern QBs:

Peyton Manning: His persona--with TV ads and everything--extends him far beyond the playing field, but everything is referential to his performance on that playing field. He isn't attractive, but his face is known even to non-football fans. He transcends the concept of athlete into media entity, sort of the football version of Michael Jordan.

Brady Quinn: Even though he rides the pine for his team, he has an endorsement deal for protein product maker EAS, and therefore shows up in advertisements during sporting events where he can be found standing or sitting around instead of actively participating. He is a quarterback who hasn't thrown many footballs. He is not viewed in popular culture so much a quarterback, but just some generic concept of athlete. He somewhat subscends (I'm using that as the opposite of transcends) the concept of football player into something more basic, and much less usefull.

Michael Vick: If his story were a fictional story, it would probably seem too unbelievable. By his actions of moderating dogfights--which some of his defenders in the aftermath considered a subculture--he failed to embrace his identity as a professional athlete and instead went too far in trying to "keep it real," which had the paradoxical--or, darest I say it, ironic--effect of playing out in an amazingly unreal way.

Other than those examples, I can't think of any other quarterback who could be considered postmodern.

And I can't comprehend why I've spent so much time thinking about this, or why it matters, or if it matters, or why I have a nagging feeling that it matters.

Really, isn't the only way to be postmodern to be aware that you're trying to be postmodern? Isn't awareness the main part of the concept? Are they aware? Does Brad Quinn know the word "postmodern"? Do I?

Defining people's entire personalities through a single behavior

NOTE: The string of "Greatest Hits" postings is now over. Looking them over, perhaps they aren't so great. But they are a little of the flavor of the writing. And probably much better than what comes next. Now for the new post:

***

There are two types of people who live in Fairbanks, Alaska: those who shop at Safeway and those who shop at Fred Meyer. I normally shop at Fred Meyer, because I am not a pretentious, overpaid yuppie.

Part of me feels that my dislike for Safeway is somehow ingrained in my blood. Even though my brother's girlfriend works at Safeway corporate in Phoenix, they shop at Fry's.

Personally, I just can't afford to pay extra for the exact same item I can get at Fred's.

But last week I found myself going to Safeway anyway. For Super Bowl Sunday, a friend had brought over a bag of Spicy Honey Mustard Kettle Corn Popcorn (I am not making this up), and it was strangely delicious, and I wanted more. They didn't have it at Fred's, so I went to Safeway.

They didn't have it there either, and the experience was different than Fred's.

It wasn't so crowded, which was nice, but the crowd was different. People seemed cleaner. There were no hippies. Overly-made-up women stared for minutes at containers of roasted red pepper crab bisque and aged cheddar and broccoli soup before making their decisions. They had a nut counter where a bored thirty year old gave endless samples of the thirty varieties of nuts to a couple in their mid-twenties who were dressed city-style-trendy and who had impeccably styled and moussed hair even though it was negative-forty outside. People strutted purposefully in their Italian leather shoes with their noses tilted up in the air, glaring at me in my dog-hair-covered attire. (That last sentence may not be true.)

Is it fair to judge people by their grocery shopping habits? You may say no, but I say, Hell yes!

The means by which we acquire food has defined cultures for milennia, as people moved from hunter/gatherers to farmers to the current bioscience of food production.

So much of our lives are spent gathering, preparing, eating, and thinking about food. And any action that relates to any of those processes says a lot about people and who they are. (For a mildly interesting look at how food beliefs affect relationships, check out this NY Times article.)

So I will judge people 0n their highly visible habits, since that is so much easier than getting to know them on a deeper level. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go eat my high-fiber, all-natural lunch, and then go wash it down with a gas station fountain soda.

For the holiday season, a brief treatise on economics

Lately, the economists have been pissing me off. The problem lies with the fact that some of them are taking economic theories and trying to turn them into theories of everything. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the "long tail" theory of economics, elucidated on by Chris Anderson (not the former NBA reserve center known as the "Birdman") in his best-selling book titled—appropriately enough—The Long Tail. Tim Wu describes the theory:

"In most entertainment industries (films, music, books, etc.) a few hits make most of the money, and demand drops off quickly thereafter. Demand, however, doesn't drop to zero. The products in the Long Tail are less popular in a mass sense, but still popular in a niche sense. What that means is that some businesses, like Amazon and Google, can make money not just on big hits, but by eating the Long Tail. They can live like a blue whale, growing fat by eating millions of tiny shrimp."

The "tail" is the long stretch at the end of the demand curve. Wu argues that Anderson takes the theory too far, that he

"threatens to turn a great theory of inventory economics into a bad theory of life and the universe. He writes that 'there are now Long Tail markets practically everywhere you look,' calling offshoring the 'Long Tail of labor,' and online universities 'the Long Tail of education.' He quotes approvingly an analysis that claims, improbably, that there's a 'Long Tail of national security' in which al-Qaida is a 'supercharged niche supplier.' At times, the Long Tail becomes the proverbial theory hammer looking for nails to pound."

There is a problem with expanding the theory to some sort of universal. If you believe in evolution—and you should—then you must also recognize that the idea of an economy is a product of human cognition. No other animal barters to improve its self-state. Economics are not innate; if they were, people the world over would have settled on a single, correct system. Human interactions bred economics, not the other way around. There is no chicken/egg dilemma here.

To give economics some due, animals are familiar with the concept of fairness. This is why one cat gets upset if you pay too much attention to the other cat. Fairness has also been the focus of several studies. A couple years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal of Emory University performed a study examining the concept of fairness in capuchin monkeys. They handed the monkeys a pebble and trained them to give the pebble back in exchange for a cucumber. They then took monkeys in adjacent cages and gave one of them a grape in the exchange. The other monkey balked at this, and refused the cucumber, preferring to have no reward if the reward was not fair.

While this may seem like an economic exchange—pebble for food—it is actually just a product of conditioning. The jilted monkey did not then offer something else, such as a prized toy, in exchange for a better reward. The monkey did not realize that sometimes a bartering position is a product of outside factors, as well as what is available on both sides of the exchange.

But the monkey did know when it was cheated, and took a stance against such an act. So the concept of fairness seems innate; as philosopher Joshua Greene observes about the study, "Chimps may be smart, but they don't read Kant." Or Chris Anderson or any other economists, for that matter.

The point of all this should be clear as we think about the direction of our lives during this, the most over-commercialized time of year. Goods and gifts and all things of material value are only worth what we as a society have cognitively assigned to them. Fairness to our fellow man, both in our thoughts and actions, is what is truly innate to being not just human, but to being a part of the larger world in which we exist.

So offer up some act of kindness to the world around you, and those who exist in that world. Ol' Chuck Darwin would approve.

Ron Rosenbaum, Chuck Klosterman wants his writing style back

Today I was reading a thoroughly amusing analysis of SkyMall magazine by Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum. In the article, Rosenbaum attempts to disect what SkyMall has to say about American culture.

I began reading without looking at the author. After about three paragraphs, I thought, "Hey, is this Chuck Klosterman?" But it wasn't. I will be pretentious and quote myself; here are my previous thoughts on Klosterman's writing style:

"Chuck Klosterman writes in a style that is perhaps somewhat overdone these days, especially since the rise of the blog--pop-culture commentary elaborated upon by interjections of philosophy, history, and other 'literary' or 'high brow' disciplines."

Rosenbaum definitely seems to be going in that direction. He analyzes the abundance of watches featured in the magazine:

"But what did occur to me is that the appeal of watches in Skymall country has something to do with the notion of death—of your time running out.

"Something to do with the fact that when one is up in the air, however familiar, on some limbic level of the brain, one is aware of how absurd it is to be suspended eight miles high in a metal container, only some poorly understood laws of physics keeping you from plunging abruptly to certain death.

"In some still-not-entirely assimilated region of the limbic brain, one's time is about to run out every second, thus the attraction of all those devices that somehow contain time, tame time, break time down into tiny dials within dials—even the word dial contains the word (or, to be precise, sound) die. Consuming chrono-porn in midair seems to be a way of managing the existential anxiety—the denial of the dial—of flight."

I don't necessarily have a problem with similarities of style. Klosterman is a good writer, and I thought Rosenbaum's piece is well-written, entertaining, and thought-provoking on some levels. However, in attempting to be writers we want to create our own voice. How good of a writer can I be considered if what I write is indistinguishable from anyone else's writing? Even if the writing is technically sound, that does not necessarily make it good or memorable.

I've been thinking about this idea of writing style because I've been grading my technical writing group projects the last two days. There are two of them: one is very unified and reads as if one individual wrote the whole thing (which I hope is not the case); the other is disjointed and feels as if the group members put together their sections in autonomous vaccuums completely free of any interaction with each other.

The problem arises in how I explain this problem to the students. If I tell them that the paper is stylistically schizophrenic, will they even be able to realize why the sections don't align? They initially seemed like smart kids, but their paper is atrocious and now I have my doubts. I doubt that they read enough to be able to distinguish stylistic ideosyncracies.

As a final note on the Rosenbaum piece, I must give him extra credit for referencing Phil Collins' masterpiece, "In the Air Tonight." He discusses a chicken wing tray advertised in the magazine and his fascination with the slogan for this device, "Where the wings have no shame." Rosenbaum writes:

"Yes, I'm obsessed with the phrase 'Where the Wings Have No Shame.' And yes, I admit it has something to do with one of my favorite early U2 anthems, 'Where the Streets Have No Name.' It's a haunting song about one's deeply uncertain place in the world—aloft or not. Haunting in the way 'In the Air Tonight' is, no matter how much you dislike Phil Collins."

A while back I referenced "In the Air Tonight" along with 7Mary3's "Water's Edge" in a comment on Amanda Bales' page. She has given me flack about it several times since then. However, as Mr. Rosenbaum agrees, the song is awesome. The opinion has been published; therefore, it has become fact. That is the way things work, right?

Kurd and the goddesses of flight

I saw her before we boarded, as everyone was gathered in the waiting area. She was tall, about my height (not that I'm tall, but I would be, if I were a woman). She was wearing tan jeans cropped about halfway down her calves and a beige corduroy jacket. Her hair was dusty blond, and she was tanned, but not overly so. Perhaps it was the uniformity of color that reminded me of the desert, but I had enjoyed my time there and found a subtle beauty in what some may consider desolate. And here was this woman across the way, reminding me of the desert, and I appreciated her beauty as well.

We boarded the plane, and I thought I would leave her behind like that desert I had visited too briefly. I nestled into my seat, and when I looked up I saw her coming up the aisle. I flashed my least awkward smile in her direction. She stopped at my seat, and I let her in to sit by the window.

As she sat down, I noticed her feet, how they were clad in bright red cross-training sandals. Maybe it was the color that fired all my synapses, but as I ran my eyes up her body from her feet to her face—her features were perfect in profile—I fell a little bit in love.

The plane took off, and Phoenix shrank below. We both stared out the window. So much dirt and the color of dirt, only baseball diamonds breaking the monochrome in bursts of green. The world resolved itself into grids. I longed for the asymmetry of Fairbanks or the surrounding untouched miles of wilderness. I thought back to the family farm, and how, though green, it too would become a grid from the sky. I wondered if humans could be happy if we did not exert so much control over our world.

Over three hours later we set down in Seattle. The only words I said to her the entire trip were to ask her if she would like me to throw away her garbage as the flight attendant came by.

As we gathered our things to walk off the plane, I thought about turning to her. You're beautiful, I would say. I wanted you to know that. And then I would walk away, like a scorpion scurrying from the sun.

I said nothing.

***

As I waited for the flight that would carry me from Seattle to Anchorage, I looked around for her, praying that somehow she would be on the same flight. She wasn't, and my heart broke a little.

I settled into my seat. Then, for the second time that day, a beautiful woman approached up the aisle and—as I flashed my least awkward smile—stopped to be let in to the aisle seat.

She was average height, with long and wavy dirty blonde hair, perhaps a little too tanned, and wearing a dark brown shirt. When she smiled, her teeth glowed a striking white in the semi-dark of the cabin.

She started talking immediately.

She obviously liked talking, but she seemed incapable of taking the conversation into new directions. She would say what she wanted to say, but then would start saying the same thing over but in a slightly different way. I had to guide her subtly to eke any new information from her.

She was from Kodiak, was a banker down there; she had been in Seattle for a vacation. She saw the Space Needle, and Pike's Market, and had wandered the town some. Kodiak is so isolated, and she had wanted to spend some time in a city.

She had lived all around the AK, but was now in Kodiak because her mother was sick and wanted to be there. She wanted to take up hunting because her father no longer did and therefore could not keep her freezer stocked. She talked about how the locals felt about the Coast Guard people and the tourists.

She never asked me a single thing about myself.

Eventually I tired of talk and grabbed my magazine. She fell asleep. As she rested I occasionally glanced over at her, this beautiful, stupid girl. It was only then that I thought that in a different world, perhaps I could be happy with someone like her, someone who saw the world only as it affected the small scope of her existence on a small island on the coast.

The plane landed. When she woke I asked how long the flight from Anchorage to Kodiak would take, and she said she was visiting some friends in town before moving on.

I don't know why, but I thought, ask me to spend the night and I will. There will be other flights. But she didn't, and we parted ways. I knew she would have forgotten me by the time she woke in the morning.

***

I arrived in Fairbanks shortly after one in the morning. I was exhausted, perhaps from the frantic pacing I did up and down the concourse before every flight I boarded. Being home was nice, but a part of me wished I was still in the desert.

I missed how the desert was so much emptiness, and the city sits there in the midst of it with its five million people.

I've been feeling invisible lately, or somehow unrecognized. Some examples:

I've gone to restaurants and been the only person not served among a group of people.

On my flight down to Phoenix, the beverage cart skipped my half of a row. They systematically move up and down the aisles one by one, but skipped me and the person next to me. I had to call her back from a few rows past me when it became apparent that I wasn't just imagining things.

The reason I had to ask desert girl for her garbage was because the previous seven times the flight attendant had gone past with a garbage bag, she had ignored my eye contact and half-raised hand and strutted by. I had to nearly physically halt her to give her the garbage from me and my beautiful neighbor.

Automatic doors have been ignoring my presence. Automatic-flushing urinals as well.

The baggage check woman, after looking at my ID, told me it didn't look like me.

When I went for my passport photo, the woman looked at the picture she had just taken, looked at me—who, I'm assuming, was no different than two minutes earlier—and said it didn't look like me.

My answering machine is a repository for messages that are not for me.

This morning, I had a green light and was about to make a right turn onto campus. The guy coming toward me made a left turn right in front of me, followed by the next five vehicles behind him, as if none of them saw me or cared that I was there. And the last time I checked, my Jeep is maroon, not camouflage.

What does it all mean? I don't know. I felt like I was hurtling toward some conclusion, some decision to don some metaphorical red shoes and blaze a path to some different life, but that isn't it.

We tend to focus too often on the things we didn't say or do, but ultimately what defines us is what we do, the decisions we did make. My ladies vanished into the night, the rain of Seattle and the wilderness of Kodiak, and I won't be seeing them again. And I am back here in Fairbanks and can honestly say that it is good to be home.

What does baseball say about our culture? And, my home state is better than yours.

Most of y'all out there don't care, but soon Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron's career homerun record. But a lot of people do care, and we can safely assume that not everyone who follows or cares about sports is a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. With all the attention Bonds' quest is receiving, we can also assume that some individuals attribute meaning to the quest that transcends a mere sport.

Bonds is an interesting character because we usually treat our great sports heroes—with some notable exceptions (Ty Cobb, occasionally Kobe Bryant, etc.)—with reverence. But Bonds achieved a portion of his greatness under the shadow of suspected steroid use, meaning that even though he will break a long cherished record, he will not be cherished, at least not in the present moment.

Chuck Klosterman, in writing about Barry passing Babe Ruth's milestone of 714 career homeruns, attempts to put the unknowability of how Bonds relates to previous slugging heroes into a general cultural context, stating that Bonds' situation is important because it is representative in its similarity to concurrent events of the era:

In November 2000, the United States held a presidential election, and nobody knew who won, so we just kind of made up an outcome and tried to act like that was normal. Less than a year later, airplanes flew into office buildings, and everybody cried for two months. And then Enron went bankrupt, and the U.S. started acting like a rogue state, and The Simple Life premiered, and gasoline became unaffordable, and our Olympic basketball team lost to Puerto Rico, and we reelected the same president we never really elected in the first place. Later, there would be some especially devastating hurricanes and three Oscars for an especially bad movie called Crash….

In 50 or 100 years, [historians] will search for events within the popular culture that supposedly embodied the zeitgeist of the time. Some of these people will use sports, not unlike the way contemporary historians might use Muhammad Ali as a means to define the 1960s. As these future historians try to explain what was wrong with the world in the early 21st century, I suspect they will use Barry Bonds. Here was a man accomplishing unbelievable things—things so unbelievable that they literally should not have been believed, even as they were happening. But we did not really believe or disbelieve. We just sort of watched it happen, and then we watched it get out of control, and then we expressed shock without feeling a grain of surprise, and then we tried to figure out how we were supposed to reconcile an alien reality we nconsciously understood all along. So if you're wondering how to feel about Barry's passing Babe, here's one option: You can feel like you're experiencing how the present tense will be understood in the future.

We want to understand the world around us, but—to a certain extent—we are passive and therefore do nothing, maintaining the status quo. Part of the reason Bonds and his inflated head are still pumping homers is because we can't take him down; sluggers have traditionally been equated with heroes, and we are too passive, as a collective, to make the leap that propels him into the realm of villainy.

In 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single season homerun record.

Like Bonds, Maris was hated, in large part for two reasons: Maris was chasing a beloved ghost, Ruth, and also challenging a more beloved teammate, Mickey Mantle, who finished with 54 dingers that same season.

For various reasons, baseball has captured the eye of writers and movie-makers more so than the other sports. To these artists, something about baseball seems like a highly appropriate metaphor to the world in general, resulting in such great works as Bernard Malamud's The Natural or David James Duncan's The Brother's K.

In one passage, Duncan points to another reason for the animosity shown toward Maris. Maris did not have a great career, but he did have two great seasons. In 1960, he won the MVP, posting a line of .283, 39 HR, 112 RBI. Duncan writes, poetically, that a change occurred in Maris the next season. Even though he posted a line of .269, 61 HR, 142 RBI, seemingly better numbers (except for the slight drop in BA), he was a different hitter. Maris, in his first MVP season, would drive the ball to all areas of the field. In his record-breaking season, he turned himself into a creature who was extremely good at pulling pitches down the right field line, particularly at Yankee Stadium, where the fence measured only 299 feet to right field. Although Maris in one way turned himself into a legend, Duncan writes that he also corrupted himself as a ballplayer.

I decided to look into Duncan's assertion of Maris' transformation into a 299-foot-right-field-at-Yankee-Stadium-homerun-robot.

Maris hit 223 of his career 275 homeruns to right field, and 122 of those 275 at home.

In 1960, when he won his first of two consecutive MVPs, he drove 13 of his 39 shots over the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium. Of the 39 total, 7 were to center or left.

In his record-setting year, he drove 26 of his 61 dingers to that short Yankee Stadium porch, with another 4 to right-center.

He hit 29 to the not-so-short right porches in other stadiums. Of the 61 total, only 2 went to center or left.

(It took a little digging and some counting on my part, but this information is out there; some folks must have less to do with their time than even myself.)

So there is some truth to what Duncan said: Maris definitely became more of right-field pull-hitter. He already was one, but became the embodiment of that creature.

But why wouldn't Maris, unlike almost every athlete in every sport, be better in the confines of a home game?

Even though he played for the same team as Ruth and Mantle, he did not receive nearly the same admiration of Yankees fans, partially because of the shadow cast by those other two figures.

One thing to remember, as well, is that Yankee Stadium, often called "The House That Ruth Built," was really a house built for Ruth and his own ability to pull baseballs down the right field line. In a way—as a homerun hitting machine—Maris was Ruth.

But one thing about our heroes is that we want them unique: with Superman in existence, we cannot find ourselves as fans of Ultraman or ReallyReallyGoodMan.

And this idea of similarity offers us our metaphor for why sports matters: in many ways it is a mirror of life.

We could point to sports and call them artificial, a system of rules that must be followed. But are our lives any less artificial? Is staring at a computer for hour after hour natural? Are the systems of laws imposed by governments or religions natural?

Sports are played by people, some hated, some loved. And their reactions and interactions inside the imposed systems of those sports are really not that different than ours in our lives. Sports can define us, because sports are us.

People care about Barry Bonds because what they believe about Barry tells them, and everyone else, a whole lot about themselves.

***

Edward McClelland recently wrote a review of a biography of Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold; McClelland's article is titled "Russ Feingold Is Not from the Real World."

McClelland describes an argument between Hillary Clinton and Feingold where Clinton says that Feingold—with his sometimes out-of-the-mainstream beliefs—does not live in the real world.

McClelland says, "As a matter of fact, Clinton was right. Feingold does not live in the real world. He lives in Middleton, Wisconsin."

The article is less a book review and more of a discussion of how place, and the people who live in that place, formed Feingold's progressive beliefs.

A passage:

The upper Midwest—specifically Wisconsin and its sister state, Minnesota—has long seen itself as the conscience of America. Both states have a tradition of clean government and social reform, imported by German and Scandinavian immigrants. And both elect senators who, depending on your point of view, are either champions of progress or annoying liberal pains in the ass.

While the article obviously discusses politics, it is still a good read, especially for any of you Midwesterners out there.

A final passage to whet your appetite:

Feingold can get away with such goody-goody politics because his base expects no less. If liberals everywhere were as wholesome as their upper Midwestern kin, Republicans couldn't scare anyone with the "L-word." In Madison, which has sent a lesbian to Congress, and in Milwaukee, which has had three socialist mayors, liberals aren't angry, or decadent, or elitist. They form peace groups at the Lutheran church and volunteer at the nature center. Their cars are rusty, and they need new Rockport walking shoes. They donate to public radio. (The upper Midwest is the heartland of public radio, producing two of its most popular programs, "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Whad'Ya Know?") They are, yes, a little hurt that the United States is solving its problems with violence. Wisconsin, after all, abolished the death penalty in 1853. Up north, the rural contingent cherishes its hunting rifles (as does Feingold, a gun-rights supporter), but it also struggles through the winter on unemployment, and carries ancestral memories of labor struggles in logging camps and mines. On a county-by-county map of the 2004 election, the western shores of Lake Superior are one of the broadest patches of blue in the nation.

Happy reading, and—to reference back to long ago blog posts and my odd love of the movie Signs—swing away.

I think I flashed the school bus yesterday, and some drawn out circular reasoning

I've been housesitting again, at a big place atop a hill back behind the muskox farm, a cozy place with a hot tub out back. And no curtains or blinds on the windows.

When it is dark and the lights are on inside, everything is visible from the not-so-distant road. Yesterday morning, I emerged from the bathroom after taking a shower and entered the bedroom completely naked (I use the "completely" here because I've learned that some people consider being topless the equivalent of being naked. I do not, though being bottomless but with a shirt on would seem to be bordering more on nudity). It was dark out, and as I stared out the window I noticed a school bus driving slowly by. I did not move, and though I was by myself, I felt slightly awkward immediately thereafter.

Will I make sure that I am properly attired next time I exit the bathroom? Of course not. My life is an accumulation of small stands against the "norms" of "society." These things are what make me a "badass" and so irresistible to women. That and my false bravado.

That night, I was sitting in the living room as a car started to pass by on the road, and then stopped. For about thirty seconds. Then drove away and then passed the house three more times. I never stopped staring at them out the window, knowing that they could see me but--aside from the shape of the car--I could not see them. Bob, the dog, and Cheeto, the cat, who lounged in the living room with me, seemed not to care.

As I sat on the couch, I read an article in Discover that analyzed our ongoing decrease in the percentage of information that is useful. The author discussed the increase in the number of scientists (a couple thousand in the 1800s versus millions today) and then made the assertion that the majority of the theories postulated by these scientists is either wrong or useless.

He also made the valid point that the percentage of information that is science-based is decreasing. In the early days of knowledge recording, most information that was written down was science. But the invention of the printing press, the rise of the novel, and other factors have lead to an ever-increasing portion of recorded knowledge that is not science, but is dedicated to other forms of information. (Which isn't to say that such information is not useful, but it doesn't advance understanding of the physical world.)

Then comes the advent of the blog, of which there are currently over 100 million, a number that is doubling every six months. And who can say what percentage of that information is accurate or coherent, or useful if it is? The interesting thing about knowledge is that it is cumulative, but it is becoming more difficult to isolate the bits (in science lingo, the smallest piece of information, existing or not, yes or no, one or zero) that add to the pile of usefulness.

I would bring myself to some sort of point here, but that would make these ramblings coherent and perhaps useful, and I would just be depressed that it is buried with the other "gunk," for lack of an immediate academic-sounding term. And I would link to the Discover article, but it was printed on paper, which makes it seem so 1900s. However, I do post my blogs in the Times New Roman Font to give a paper document feel to them.

So if this information is meaningless, why write the blog? In a way it is the linguistic equivalent of that naked stand in the window, to put oneself out there without knowing its effects. To say, "this is me, deal with it." Even if people might laugh when they shouldn't, and not laugh when they should, and you don't always know what you're trying to say, and you can't always go out on a scaldingly brilliant note.

New venue

Instead of posting my blogs on myspace, I've decided to set up shop here, partially because my buddy Steve also started a blog. (It's about music and tentatively titled "Mixed Cookies"; track it down and check it out.)

My goal is to get back into blogging, which I used to do regularly. I will try to post at least twice a week, hopefully more. In the blog, I will still look at the small mundanities of my life, and will occasionally still get all melodramatic. Because what's life without a little drama? And I will still overanalyze everthing.

To start things off and actually get some content up, I'm going to post several of my own personal favorites from the old myspace blog. Even if you've read them before, read them again. They're good, I hope. And then I'll start with new content, perhaps later today. Enjoy.