Saturday, December 22, 2012

Things I Miss About Racquetball

Gym bags and locker keys strewn in the hallway on the honor system.

The curious little flat handles on the doors.

The spongy spring of the ball on the racquet strings.

The three-beat rhythm of a ceiling ball.

Shaking hands with every opponent, whether I liked them or not, before and after each match.

“Kill for show, pass for dough.”

Stopping in mid-swing and saying, “Whoa—hinder.”

Calling a timeout by making a T with my hand and the racquet.

Wrapping my toes with adhesive tape before a match.

Being literally soaked with sweat.


Free Gatorade at the tournaments.

League standing sheets thumbtacked to the bulletin boards.

Friendly trash talk.

My friend Pedro saying, “Your face is as red as a radish.”

Figuring out my opponent’s weakness and then pounding on it mercilessly.

Playing “just one more game” with sore feet.

“Bad warm-up, good match.”

Being able to practice alone.

Supreme Athletic Club in San Carlos, “where everybody knows your name.”

Those spectacular ring-shaped bruises.

Taking a long, long drink from the water fountain.

Friday, December 7, 2012

You May Already Be a Luddite

I’ve never liked using the telephone. There’s something rude about making a bell ring in somebody’s house while they’re brushing their teeth or cooking dinner, and then expecting them to drop everything and talk to you about whatever’s on your mind.

But for a long time, phoning people up was my job. All through the 1990s, I worked in advertising sales, which involved spending hours on the phone with my clients, mostly musicians who ran small businesses out of their homes. On many occasions I rang somebody up at the odd hour and caught him eating, or drunk, or cranky from being roused out of a dead sleep (note to self: do not call musicians before noon). And there I was, chirpy-voiced, peppering this poor, half-dressed person with questions about his business plans and advertising dollars. I had to do it—mailing took too long, and there was always a deadline—but all that phone-calling seemed invasive and boorish.

And then came e-mail.

E-mail was like a miracle. Now I could send messages to my clients any time of day, and they could reply with a dignified response when they felt good and ready. It was so polite, so professional, so calming. Soon my friends and family got e-mail, and I loved that too. I could write them little missives in the middle of the night and get notes back from them in the morning. Sometimes the same night! I, a shy person, was becoming almost social.

But now the world has turned to texting. I tried it for a while, but it’s a pain to text on my little flip phone and I’m too cheap to buy a fancier one. And it irks me that texting is once again enslaving us to phones, when I just liberated myself from the damned things. I check my e-mail at work, at home, wherever there’s a computer, and I stay reasonably in touch with the world without having to carry a phone around and risk it ringing in the movie theater or falling in the toilet. But now some of my friends are almost impossible to reach via e-mail; they’re texters, and texts are what they respond to.

And just like that, I’ve been run over by the speeding bus of technology.

So now I’m in a strange vortex where my friends—not cleanly divided by age group—fall into the categories of texters, e-mailers, or phone people. So gathering a tennis group or setting up a writing workshop has become something akin to transferring a file from a PC to a Mac via some old diskette drive: Most of it gets across, but parts of it look funny, and parts of it don’t work. And a subtle pecking order is starting to assert itself: The sleek, on-the-go texters look down a little bit on us Luddite e-mailers with our clunky computers. And to us e-mailers, the phoners seem practically prehistoric, their voices crackling in the receiver like echoes of Alexander Graham Bell himself. And the phoners and texters are so far away from each other that they have to rely on us e-mailers, like some frantic middle sibling, to relay news between them.

I suppose in another 20 years we’ll be using some technology that we don’t even know the name of yet—we’ll all be snizzling or po-topping or gynorming each other to set a coffee date or blast the ex for forgetting to pick up the kid. Perhaps we’ll wistfully look back on these days of texting/e-mailing/phoning as a golden age, a technological Jerusalem where three different pillars of communication all coexisted in a sort of wobbly peace.

But for now, I have e-mails to send. And a message blinking on my answering machine. And I should probably turn on my iChat. And I can’t stop looking at those ads for the Kindle, the Nook, that new thing from Google, and the iPad and iPod Touch and iPhone with all their literal bells and whistles.

But before I do any of that, I need to clear my head. So I’m going to sit down and do a crossword puzzle. On paper. With a pencil. Because I like pencils. They’re so quiet and full of words.

Photo by Takkk

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My Year in Books, Part 2

A few more book reviews from the past year’s reading. (Part 1 is here.)

★ ★ ★ ★   Doc
Mary Doria Russell DocMary Doria Russell (2011)

I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but on a trip to the local bookstore one day, that was what drew me to this brilliant novel about Doc Holliday. I’d been watching a lot of American Experience documentaries on Old West icons—Annie Oakley, Jesse James—and I’d had my eye out for a sharp, authentic Western, something recently written and meticulously researched. And the sepia cover of Doc practically jumped off the shelf at me. Doc details a year in the life of Doc Holliday, long before he stood alongside the Earps in the infamous gunfight in Tombstone. The Doc in this novel is a younger man, far from his home in Georgia and still getting used to life the wild West—specifically, the busy cattle town of Dodge City, Kansas. Mary Doria Russell’s atmospheric prose captures the sights, hardships, and nuances of everyday life in the boom-and-bust Dodge; it’s the kind of writing that keeps you up at night just to experience it a little longer. And her Doc is equally compelling, a moody gambler and nightowl who doesn’t suffer fools, is handy with a gun, quotes Virgil and Homer to the deaf ears of the townies around him, and really just wants to be a good dentist. But what attracts our sympathy perhaps most is Doc’s debilitating illness—the relentless tuberculosis that we know will kill him only a few years later. And he’s not the only one in trouble; the shy, taciturn lawman Wyatt Earp has his hands full with Dodge’s mob of crooked businessmen and drunken cowboys. And there’s a murder mystery afoot, but honestly, it plays second fiddle to Russell’s powerful, lyrical writing. You don’t have to be a fan of Westerns to enjoy this exquisitely crafted work of literary fiction. Doc was a surprise from beginning to end, and a rare book that I wished were longer so I could stay in its world a few more days.

Tea Obreht The Tiger's Wife ★   The Tiger’s Wife
Téa Obreht (2011)

This bestseller came riding in on a lot of hype, mostly because its author, Téa Obreht, was in her early 20s when she wrote it. And it’s an exciting debut, set in the war-battered Balkans. The plot that loosely holds the novel together—a young woman coming to terms with the death of her grandfather, who filled her childhood with fantastical tales from his own youth—is told mostly through interlinking stories. Obrecht’s deftly constructed narrative immerses the reader in the characters’ world with little backstory or exposition; dialogue and imagery do most of the work, which makes for a satisfying, sensory reading experience. But while the individual stories hold up beautifully on their own—any one of them would rock in a literary journal—the seams that hold them together sometimes seem hastily stitched. And there’s a lot of stopping and starting: Just as Obreht gets rolling with a great story, she abandons it and quick-cuts to another, starting over with a new character and a different historical era. So what could have been a stellar collection of short stories is shoehorned into a somewhat frustrating novel. And Obreht’s magic realism—anthropomorphized animals, larger-than-life heroes and villains, and a man who never dies—has been done before by Marquez and his many imitators and feels a little stale. I also found myself wondering whether this book would have attracted so much attention if it were set in Omaha instead of the former Yugoslavia, a land exotic to most American readers. So, while I give high marks to Obreht’s storytelling skills and expect to see her short fiction winning prizes for years to come, I found The Tiger’s Wife to be less than the sum of its parts.

★  ★   The Leftovers
Tom Perrotta The LeftoversTom Perrotta (2011)

This is another book that spent a lot of time on the bestseller list last year. And this one was right up my alley—a literary novel that feels like it could have been written by Richard Russo or Ethan Canin, but with a sci-fi premise. In this imaginative “what-if” novel, the leftovers are…well, everyone left on Earth. Two years before the novel begins, a strange event occurred: Millions of people—men, women, and children all over the world—simply vanished, leaving their bewildered loved ones behind. No one knows whether it was the Rapture or something else, but the world has been plunged into a sort of post-9/11 trauma, times infinity—the economy is in a shambles, and life has come to a virtual standstill as the grief-stricken survivors begin to realize that their missing family and friends are never coming back. But Perrotta isn’t going for cheap thrills with this provocative idea; The Leftovers is a deft character study of a handful of people dealing with mourning, loss, and survivor guilt in its many permutations. As in most good literary novels, its characters’ stories don’t wrap up neatly, as well they shouldn’t—these people’s lives are profoundly broken, and there’s no going back. But The Leftovers is anything but a downer; it’s a great read, full of human foibles and a surprising amount of wry humor.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Poem: I Have Been to America's Drive-in

For election day, an American poem...

I Have Been to America’s Drive-in

I have sat in the world’s laziest restaurant
and leaned out of the car,
Jane’s Addiction barking on the speaker overhead.
I have pushed the one giant button
and pushed in my card
and thanked the boy on roller skates
who handed me a bag and drink,
his face incongruously happy in the rain.

I have smelled the warm-baked lust
of hamburger buns, licked
dripped mustard off the heel of my hand
while watching the movie of strip-mall traffic,
Jeeps and pickups and SUVs
accelerating through their days,
the orange-and-blue balloons
of the AT&T store
waving wet over a tea of autumn leaves.

I have taken a bite of burger
and glimpsed a holocaust of cattle,
seen them reduced to bullets
in a twenty-pound PetSmart bag
slung in the back seat
of an ’88 Mazda.
I have seen the redneck men
in T-shirts stuck with rain
drop their bottles
in the trash can decked
with national-park pebbles.

I have plunged the red straw
into a Diet Coke and tasted
cinnamon and baseball,
sat with a plexiglass menu
between me and someone else
I could not see
until she backed out
and set her car on a course toward west
past the giant insistent signs
telling her the thousand things
she had to do
before dinner
and home
and love.

(appeared in The Whistling Fire)

Posted for dVerse Poets Pub OpenLinkNight #69.
(Hello, DVerse poets!)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

World Series thoughts, some of which
are about baseball

Max Scherzer, trendsetter
Every time Detroit pitcher Max Scherzer is interviewed on TV, I can practically hear the internet clog up as people rush to their computers to Google what the heck is going on with his eyes. Scherzer has heterochromia iridum—his eyes are different colors. But not just a little different, as is the case with Jane Seymour and Mila Kunis and Christopher Walken, all of whom (yes, I Googled this) have the same condition. Scherzer’s eyes are wildly different colors—one brilliant blue, the other dark brown. They’re mesmerizing and exquisitely beautiful to look at, and they contrast with each other so drastically that the only similar examples on the Wikipedia page are white cats and Malamutes. I predict that, thanks to Scherzer, mismatched eye color will soon be the hot new fashion trend. Contact lens moguls are watching this World Series, rubbing their hands in greedy glee.

The magic necklaces are back
A few years ago, I ridiculed the Texas Rangers for wearing ropey magnetic necklaces during the playoffs. They lost anyway, and I had fun immaturely taunting the TV—“Where are your magic necklaces now?” But the necklaces are back with a vengeance: More than half of the players in this year’s World Series are wearing them—sometimes two or three at a time, as if they had sailboats tethered to them, bobbing around just offscreen. The magnetic necklaces are said to improve circulation and help players recover more quickly from injury, and I know these guys have to do everything they can to stay healthy and make enough money to last them the rest of their lives. But every time I see one of those necklaces, I wonder if, under his socks, the player also has those Kinoki “detoxifying” pads stuck to the bottoms of his feet.

What we look like at 5,000 frames per second
In this year’s postseason, Fox Sports is debuting its new toy: a super-slow-motion camera that takes an astonishing 5,000 frames per second. This is not the first time this year we’ve seen that technology—NBC trotted out a couple of super-slo-mo cameras at the Olympics. But NBC used them for evil, often to show—and make fun of—the contorted faces of gymnasts and divers as they torqued their bodies into unnatural twists. But Fox has managed to make their baseball slo-mo shots beautiful: the rippling muscles of a batter’s arms, the flex and bend of the bat as it contacts the ball, and that fantastic, iconic shot of Giants pitcher Sergio Romo yelling in the rain just after he closed out the final game of the NLCS. Of course they have to occasionally show us grotesque shots of pitchers practically breaking their elbows while throwing fastballs, but that’s nothing new. All I can say is, thank God these cameras weren’t around when Joe Theismann broke his leg.


Go, Sleet!
There are no tigers in Detroit (zoos don’t count), and I’m pretty sure there are no giants in San Francisco. So these team names are wrong and show no civic pride. I think teams should be named for something that’s actually in their city, something the locals know and love, or at least ruefully acknowledge. I’ve never been to Detroit, so I’m not sure what to recommend there—the Sleet? The Chryslers? The Bridge to Canada That I Can Never Remember the Name Of? But San Francisco, which I know well, offers a lot of tantalizing choices. There’s the Homeless, of course (could lead to some sort of reform or awareness, or maybe just a lawsuit). The Hospital Curves. The Dirty 30. The Cranes. But I’m going to go with…the Peets. Because they’re everywhere. (But their apostrophe must go.)

The Panda protects
In closing, here’s one of my favorite clips from this past week: newscaster Paul Robins getting pooped on by a seagull at McCovey Cove. The bird must have pegged Robins for a Tigers fan; notice that Bethany Crouch, in the Panda hat, makes it through unscathed.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Year in Books, Part 1

This was the year I started reading again. Why I stopped reading is a long tale; the nutshell version is that a few years ago I came down with a mysterious illness that made me dizzy—constantly, every waking moment. Many things aggravated it: driving, walking, anger, talking to people who made me nervous, stress in general, grocery shopping, and—perhaps most distressing—reading. So for two or three years, books piled up around me but I couldn’t read them. It’s only been in the past year that I’ve been able to read again, but I found I was out of practice; I didn’t have a set reading time and routine like I used to, and I’d become embarrassingly addicted to television. But all those books were calling, so I figured it out—more or less—and am happy to present some book reviews from the past year’s catch.

★ ★ ★ ★   The Mount
Carol Emshwiller (2002)

2012’s not over yet, but I can’t imagine finding another book that will take this one’s place as my favorite book of the year. The premise of this lyrical, wildly entertaining sci-fi tale is an uneasy one: Aliens have invaded Earth and enslaved humanity, but not in the usual TV-movie way, with plucky rebels taking potshots at sleek spaceships. In Emshwiller’s far more frightening world, the toddler–size aliens are so much smarter than humans that they’ve turned us into beasts of burden who work the fields and are ridden and raced by the wealthier aliens for pleasure. By the time the story takes place, this enslavement has gone on for many generations, and the humans are largely resigned to it. And for the protagonist, a young man who’s the favorite mount of an alien aristocrat, it isn’t a bad life: He gets good food, plenty of exercise to keep him in racing shape, and a warm stall to sleep in at night—often curled up next to his alien owner, also a youngster, who is completely devoted to his human pet. How the aliens control the humans—with a sense of entitled stewardship and the sincere belief that the humans would die or descend into barbarism without the aliens’ care—mirrors our own justifications for slavery in the past and, more immediately, our attitudes toward the animals who live alongside us right now. This important, mind-altering book is also a rollicking good read that may change the way you look at the cats, dogs, and horses around you.

★   The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson (2008)

Sometimes a thick, mass-market blockbuster lives up to its hype—Lonesome Dove or The Firm, for instance. And sometimes it doesn’t, which was the case with this book that probably needs no introduction. I’m going to swim against the tide here and say that though I tore into this first volume of Larsson’s trilogy with relish, I ended up quitting about two-thirds of the way through. It took too long to get going, and the dark parts were so dark that it made me not want to spend my evenings with this book. I gave up crime novels long ago for this very reason—they focus too much on a small, twisted segment of human society that I don’t want my dreams to dwell on. I did love that bleak little Swedish town in winter, though, and I kept feeling like the book was about to knock my socks off—any time now, any day now, maybe right around the corner. Then I just got tired of waiting and decided to read something I enjoyed instead.

★  ★   An Old Junker: A Senior Represents
Howard Junker (2011)

Disclaimer: I know Howard Junker, a little. He published one of my poems a few years ago in his fine journal ZYZZYVA*, and many of us West Coast writers consider him literary royalty. So I was delighted to find that he’d written a book about his experiences as an editor, and as a college student, and…well, as a person. And this book does not disappoint. Basically a collection of blog posts, it runs the gamut from reminiscences about his school days (and an astonishingly large number of soon-to-be-famous schoolmates) to the vagaries and gossip of life in the litmag world and the motley and combative writers who make up the San Francisco “scene.” The book is—like its author—funny, erudite, wide-ranging, and sometimes scathing (don’t get him started on Dave Eggers), and it touches on dozens of authors that I now want to read, particularly Ploughshares founder DeWitt Henry, about whom Junker writes elegantly and affectionately. The only curious speed bump is that An Old Junker is presented (at least on Howard’s website) as a “blognovel of old age,” which calls into question how many of the perfectly plausible stories are actually fiction. Similarly, the subtitle A Senior Represents doesn’t do the book justice; this is a fresh, entertaining journey through an unusual life, told through the very modern device of short, snappy blog posts. So, while I wished that the book would have picked a less ambiguous genre (or spelled out more clearly what makes it a “novel”), I loved An Old Junker and genuinely couldn’t put it down.

But that's not all . . . part 2 is here.

* When I got published in ZYZZYVA, I was invited to read at an issue-release party at the San Francisco main library. As part of the deal—and perhaps even more thrilling—I got to have dinner with Howard, along with a few other starstruck contributors, at a Thai restaurant. There were too many of us to sit at one table, so we had to split up into two groups. Normally well-mannered, I shoved my way through the crowd to grab a spot at Howard’s table. And I swear, it was like having dinner with Gore Vidal—he was gracious, charming, and funny, shifting gears effortlessly between literature and current events, world travel and good restaurants. But he was no snob; I got the impression he could converse just as easily about Netflix vs. Hulu or where to find a good mechanic.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pet Names My Cats Might Call Me,
If Cats Could Speak English

My Big Hairless Pear
Boring Monstrosity
Inedible Biped
Strictly Ornamental Nose