Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Amazing Toilet

From time to time, I am obliged to fix our toilet. It's one of those wonderful duties that come with home ownership.

And each time I do, I am impressed by the simplicity of this most utilitarian of devices.

I think about that simplicity as I try to fix the damned thing, which I just did the other day. I replaced the ballcock and float cup, and replaced the flapper. I installed a new chain. It all required me to shut off the water and drain the tank.

Always, there are a few moments of wonder, as I stare into that apparatus and marvel at its simple design. Toilets, by which I mean the common household commode, haven't changed much over the years. Remarkable! How did some clever soul ever invent it?

Think of it: the float ball. The lift wire. The pull rod. The shank. The bonnet. All working in common cause to flush away our waste!

In modern potties, the float cup has replaced the float ball, but its function is essentially the same. Oddly, on the float cup I just installed, someone tried to re-invent the wheel: there was a new device on it, affixed by a hinge. It was some kind of water-saving feature but it wouldn't work right, so I removed it.

The toilet now works like new. This was an easy fix, and due to the simplicity of the amazing toilet, I was able to do it myself. Usually I'm all thumbs. With more complicated problems, I call a plumber.

Here ends my discourse on Toilet Appreciation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Deleted Scenes

Praise from a Future Generation, my 2007 book about the first generation critics of the Warren Report, is due as an e-book this fall. I’ve spent part of this summer making a series of mostly tiny corrections to it.

Since its publication, I've only looked at portions of the book. But now, as I slog through it cover-to-cover, I have chanced upon a deletion I was not previously aware of.

It is, admittedly, a rather inconsequential deletion. It was made in Chapter 20, “The Meeting.” The original manuscript has a paragraph or so describing how an early critic named Lillian Castellano telephoned Sylvia Meagher on October 3, 1965, just as a meeting of some East Coast critics got underway in Sylvia’s apartment. “It was quite a coincidence you should have called,” Sylvia said in a letter to Lillian a few days later.

That paragraph is not in the book. When I read the published version recently I didn't even notice right away; I only noticed when spot-checking the end notes. The citation for the Meagher quote above is still there!

Why the publisher chose to make the deletion in the first place is a mystery. I see no good reason for the cut. What it saves in word-count is negligible. Naturally, this discovery has me wondering what else might have been deleted that I never noticed.

If you read my book, you're already in a tiny minority. If you read my book and this blog, you're in an even tinier minority! I don't plan to lobby for any restorations in the e-book. But I would like to at least make a record of the deletion, even if only a handful of people see it.

The deleted material should have been on page 254. (The undeleted citation, erroneously entered as note 27, is on page 526.) Here's a .jpg file of the manuscript:

Thursday, August 18, 2011


You should see Sicko, Michael Moore's 2007 documentary about health care in the United States. It's guaranteed to really piss you off, if you're an American.

It sure as hell pissed me off.

Sicko makes crystal clear the fact that when it comes to health care, we in the good ol' U-S of A are a society of haves and have-nots, at the mercy of a ruthless, profit-oriented insurance system. It ain't about health care; it's business.

Michael Moore took a lot of flak when this movie was released, and I don't doubt there are exaggerations in some of the film's case studies. Moore is without doubt a polemicist; he comes from a clear point of view.

So what? So do most of his critics, who tend to be right wing, Fox News zealots. They don't hate him for who he is; they hate him for what he stands for. And they do hate him.

While there may be exaggerations in Sicko, there's a lot of truth here, too – painful truth. Moore did not invent the former health care officials who repudiate and regret their participation in this bottom-line system. He did not invent the health insurance company claims adjusters who are rewarded for denying as many legitimate claims as possible.

Health care isn't a privilege, it's a basic human right. Much of the civilized world, Sicko informs us, enjoys health care at that level. Not so in the United States, as we know.

The American health case system is a crime against humanity.

So go see Sicko. You can find it on Netflix.

It will infuriate you.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dead Frog

Now that we are deep into summer – almost through it, alas! – I'm in pretty good physical condition, and into some of my longest bike routes.

On a recent August morning I biked about thirty miles. That's pretty good, for me. It took about two and a half hours, including a couple of stops to take pictures.

Like these photos of hot air balloons. Almost every Saturday and Sunday morning in this area, you can count on seeing hot air balloons out over the valley. These particular hot air balloons were some distance away from my location. I was using a not-real-great digital camera, one with mediocre optics, but which fits easily into the rear pocket of my cycling jersey. So the photo at left is not as sharp as I'd like. And it's just a detail.

(On a ride a couple of years ago I passed a large field some balloonists use for a landing place. Access to the field is gained through a gate, which must have been locked that morning. The balloon landed a few hundred yards from the road. A couple of guys held on to its gondola and guided the balloon toward the road. As they reached the gate, a guy still in the gondola let out a fiery blast, and the balloon ascended just enough to clear it. And me with no camera.)

More recently, I've been enchanted with the town of Niwot, which is not too far from where I live. I bike through it on a regular basis. I talked about this a little bit in a Fourth of July blog post.

I don't know what the building in the photo at right is for. It's just off of Main Street in Old Town Niwot. It charms me; it must have been the morning light that gave this scene such appeal. That white building at the extreme left is called Left Hand Grange, whatever that is. You can't really see it, but to its immediate right is a tiny wood structure called the Old Fire House Museum.

From here, I go pedaling happily into the badlands north of Niwot – as I once joked to a friend. Badlands, my rumpus room. This supposed joke makes absolutely no sense, because the area is so nice.

"So nice." Yes, nice. Pleasant. Pastoral.

It was in this vicinity that I met the bullfrog.
I met the bullfrog shortly after he had been severely damaged. He (I'll call it he, but I don't really know) sat there on the side of the road. I whizzed on by, but something struck me as unusual, so I wheeled around and came back to check him out.

That poor thing was hurt bad. I was callous enough to take the photograph at left. I cropped it out, but a dash of frog blood was smeared across the pavement. He was probably in shock. One of his hind legs, you can perhaps see, was bent back around his body, and a bulge of frog guts swelled out of his side.

So he was doomed. Nothing I could do for him. It occurred to me that the humane thing would be to finish him off. But even if there had been a big rock nearby, one large enough to crush him quickly and efficiently, I don't think I could have done it. I don't have that in me. And there was no convenient rock.

Instead, I eased the poor thing to the weeds along the side of the road. As I did, he attempted to move his useless legs. I apologized for leaving him in such a state.

Then I got back on my bike and road away.

A mile or so up the road I came upon this tranquil setting. This is the calm I associate with the badlands north of Niwot.

As I took this photograph I wondered whether the frog was dead yet. Probably not; it had only been a few minutes. But surely, it wouldn't be much longer.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Slob's Story

From the file: True Tales of Detroit, circa 1989 (!!)

I am a slob, and it is a chronic condition.

I am unbothered by the atrocious state of my living quarters. “My place looks like a tornado just blew through,” I often quip. This usually gets a laugh.

Take my kitchen, for example. Or rather, my kitchenette—a closet with gas burners and a fridge. Why it is not crawling with vermin, I’ll never know. I enjoy cooking, but tend to drop things. Stuff jumps out of my wok as it's scrambled about. Or leaps from the bedslat-sized counterspace when I’m not looking.

The floor below is a ghastly wasteland of past repasts.

Once, to impress a woman, I not only took my car through a carwash, but also stuck a quarter in a heavy-duty vacuum machine, and cleaned out years of accumulated grit and garbage and grime. Later I took spray cleaner to the inside of the windshield, and to the plastic covering the speedometer. These areas had never been cleaned before. They were thick with some sort of goo, although no one smokes in my car—that is a hard and fast rule, like the wearing of seatbelts.

To my eyes, the automobile was again pristine.

But my car, while an extension of myself, is not my home, where I hang my hat and sleep at night, and shave and shower, which is what I want to tell you about—about the extraordinary disorder of my digs.

Disorder is an appropriate word. For one thing, I rarely straighten up the place. When I do, things get lost—the madness of my methods has been disturbed. Hence the magazines piled on the couch no one ever sits on, the overflowing bookshelves, the round dinner table strewn with odds and ends with which I could track the nearly five years I’ve lived in this place, if I were so inclined—a paradigm of superpositioning, if you remember that term from Earth Science. Pictures of a friend of mine’s kid when she was three. A handwritten note (circa 1987) from Stingray, an L.A.-based rocker who helped bring some Russian musicians to the United States a few years back. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice; I don’t know why that’s there but it is. (I bought it used many years ago; in it I found a receipt from a Hudson’s Department Store, dated March of 1959. I was hooked.) Transcripts of interviews with jazz musicians, conducted in late ’87. Postcards and Christmas cards from all years.

I know where all this stuff is, in spite of the apparent disarray.

To straighten up is to tamper with my muses.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Sex Diet

The Sex Diet is a sure-fire, can't-miss way of losing weight and keeping it off. In fact, it is foolproof.

I’ll describe it, and I’ll describe it from my own point of view, but this description is really a model. You may customize it by plugging in your own details.

It involves working with a personal trainer. This personal trainer is, by necessity, one’s ideal (or idealized) sex partner. Fill in your own blanks, but real world obligations and considerations are not to be considered.

This is a critical point. For the purposes of this blog post I’ll use the pronouns she and her, but remember this is only a template. Terms such as ideal and perfect are, obviously, highly subjective.

My trainer is a woman about my age, give or take a few years, with a pleasing face, a perfect body, and a well-oiled, finely tuned brain. I would train with her intensively for five or six months.

It might take a bit longer.

Each day would be similar to the next. We begin in an indoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool, which is home base for our sessions. We have the place all to ourselves – there isn’t even a lifeguard. I’ve had breakfast an hour or so before arriving, a carefully balanced meal of complex carbohydrates, protein and fresh fruit put together by my trainer.

I start by swimming a few laps. I swim naked, and my trainer, who does not enjoy the luxury of a name, is also naked. She stands at the pool’s edge, a clipboard under one arm, watching.

I’m not a swimmer, so it doesn’t take much to wear me out, at least not on the first day. After four lengths of the pool – there and back, there and back – I’m totally out of breath. I get out of the pool, heaving. My trainer allows me to catch my breath, and then we have sex, right there by the side of the pool. I’ll spare you the details, but this is a fantasy so it’s very enjoyable.

Afterward we lounge in a hot tub discussing politics, or an amusing item from the morning paper.

Before long I’m rested from the sex and the swimming. We get out of the hot tub and recharge with a quick glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed and on the rocks.

At the trainer's urging, I begin a series of stretches. The first positions I assume, she says, are inspired by da Vinci's Vitruvian man. "Visualize it," she tells me, and I do.

Next I sit on one of those padded gymnastics mats. The stretches that follow, she says, are "modified yoga." She encourages me to attempt a full lotus position. I can manage only a half.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of this I get back in the main pool and do four more laps. Then there’s more sex. It’s about 9am.

The balance of the morning is spent with these four esses: swim, stretch, sex and soak. There is an optional fifth, which is sauna. Maybe sixth for sweat.

Somewhere along in here, my trainer has me step onto a scale. It’s one of those fancy scales you usually only see in a doctor’s office, very precise, on which small weights are moved along runners. My trainer slides the little weights. Her brow furrows and she pouts ever so slightly as she records a number on her clipboard.

“So how much do I weigh?” I ask.

My trainer smiles. “You’re just right.” Then she pulls me down to the floor.

By 11:30 I’m ready for lunch. But first I spend half an hour lying face down on a massage table as my trainer’s talented hands knead my flesh. She also uses her elbows. “It’s a Swedish thing,” she says.

Then we have lunch. My trainer has prepared a meal as well-balanced as breakfast. Where she found the time to make it is a mystery.

This meal is a little heavier on the carbohydrates, because when we’re finished we’re going on a bike ride. We fill water bottles, pull on Lycra bike clothes, and set out. Our route is thirty miles. I’m not in shape to swim, but I bike a lot and feel like I could go just about all afternoon. We maintain a moderate pace and complete the ride in just over two hours. This includes the stolen moments at a secluded place, where we pull over and slip into the brush.

When we finally get back to our indoor pool, we strip off our sweaty bike clothes, shower together, and then soak in the gurgling hot tub.

By this time I’m getting fatigued. It is only mid-afternoon, but the exertion of the bike ride followed by the hot tub has me light headed. We retire together, the trainer and me, to a very comfortable bed, and snooze for about an hour. It is a deep and satisfying sleep, and dreamless.

After a few months of this, the pounds are melting away. New muscle replaces old flab. Before long I realize a form resembling the willowy, slender youth I once was.

The training continues. I begin fearing a relapse, regaining that excess weight if my training ends too soon. My trainer, too, recognizes this pitfall; we agree to keep at it for an indeterminate period of time.