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Thursday night, in the middle of something that seemed urgently important at the time, though for the life of me I can't remember what it was, the Internet went dead. My first impulse was to check the bill to make sure they hadn't disconnected me. Then, I picked up the phone, but the phone is bundled with the Internet and it too was dead. For the next thirty-five minutes I talked with a charming, absolutely efficient, infinitely patient lady computer on my cell phone. I talked on a pay-by-the-minute phone not intended for long conversations and tried unsuccessfully to explain this to her as she tried unsuccessfully to fix my problem. Together, we reset the modem and rebooted the computer twice. Along the way she used reassuring phrases like, "Very good" and "We're almost done," which took the edge off things. The truth, however, was that we were nowhere near done. With sadness, she reviewed the highlights of our conversation, apologized for not fixing the problem — she had done everything she could — and then transferred me to another female, a human female this time with a thick but pleasant accent in a place where it was already tomorrow.

She asked the same questions the computer had just asked, though the computer had asked them to speed things up. She also dug rather deeply into my personal identity, the services I pay for and my exact location, before assuring me there were no problems in my area. "Well," I said, "that's not exactly true, is it?" "Sir?" "There's at least one problem in my area." Well, besides myself, that is, there were no problems. Twice she talked me through resetting the modem and rebooting the computer — I was getting rather good at it by then — just as the nice lady computer had done. Then, with equal sadness, she informed me there was nothing she could do. My problem require a technician. But, that wasn't really a problem because she could provide me with one. After some searching, she said she had found an opening a week from Friday between 3:00 and 5:00 PM.

"Will that be convenient for you, Sir?"

"Convenient? Let's see if I understand. You're asking me if I will find it convenient to go without a phone for the next eight days, if I will find it convenient to go without Internet and if I will find it convenient to wait for a technician between 3:00 and 5:00 PM the Friday after next who may or may not show up because it's the end of his workweek. I suppose you're also asking…" "Sir," she broke in, "I think I may have solved the problem. There appears to be an opening at the same time tomorrow."

"Tomorrow… So, now you're asking if I'll find it convenient to wait between 3:00 and 5:00 PM tomorrow." "That is correct, Sir." Not entirely convinced, I said, "Perhaps I can ask you a question. If I'm here tomorrow between 3:00 and 5:00 PM, what assurance do I have that he'll actually show up between those hours?" "Well," she replied, "the technician will always do his best. For one thing, he will call to let you know that he is coming." "Call… How exactly will he call?" "Why, on your telephone, Sir." "On the phone that doesn't work?"

Long pause.

"Sir, I have made a special note for the technician to call you at the phone number you are currently calling from."

"Wonderful," I said. "And if I wait but he still doesn't come?" "Sir," she replied rather cheerfully, sensing she had reached a conclusion, "waiting is not a problem. The service representative will usually call before he comes. Of course, if he has an unforeseen problem of some sort, he may not call. If he does not call, it means he is not coming and you need not wait."
 
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I keep the alarm clock over the refrigerator. Years ago I developed the then rather satisfying ability to respond in the dead of sleep to the slight electronic blip that precedes the actual alarm. I could hit snooze before the obnoxious bleep, bleep, bleep crashed into my cosy, contented space. Setting the alarm at night was like having none at all. If you hit snooze before it beeps, or even after for that matter, for an entire hour, you've beaten the system, because the alarm resets itself for tomorrow. If you do absolutely nothing beyond hiding your head, it beeps for the entire hour and then gives up. I can hold out for ten or fifteen minutes tops. Alarm makers are proud of the obnoxious sound their products make. Imagine telling your friends that you got a raise or won an award for making a really obnoxious sound. A few trips to the kitchen and it's morning. You grow used to the idea. On the second to the last trip, I start the coffee. In other words, when I start to believe that I'm going to get up I make the partial commitment of starting the coffee. On the last trip it's at the loud gurgling stage when it's safe to steal cup and after that, you're up.

The challenge before that point is not just in making it back to bed, but in finding the exact angle, the magical body contour that matches the warm spot left behind. In summer it's a different problem. It's been light long enough that when the alarm goes off the subconscious has already had time to adjust. The problem then is in spreading myself out to find a cool spot, somewhere I haven't been. But in winter it's more a matter of life and death. It was freezing this morning. Rooftops were bright white and the coffee pot enshrouded in billowing clouds of steam as I managed my final pass. In the short time it took to hit the alarm and return to bed, I was covered in a frozen crust. The precious warmth had been lost. There was no welcoming trough until I shivered it back into memory.

Do people really wake up rearing to go, even in winter, or do they just say they do? There are lots of good things in life but, really, what could be better than a warm bed in winter?
 
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PasoWeather

I know. People who come from areas where it rains a lot will say that light green isn't rain, it's more like a persistent drizzle. But the last decade has been so persistently dry that every drop seems amazing. It rained more in Torrance when I was a boy. I've believed that all my adult life. It rained and rained when I was young. Things flooded, roads were closed. Department stores almost always had displays of bright yellow slickers or rain outfits and when it rained kids walked to school like an army of fishermen. I remember lying on the floor of a 1940s Dodge watching the cables and pulleys under the dashboard zip back and forth with a clack-thud, clack-thud pushing the windshield wipers back and forth. I remember jumping from the car to the sidewalk fearful of being swept away in a gushing torrent.

It doesn't rain like that anymore. Or so I believed. The dry spell has had something to do with El Niño and the Pacific High. I smile because of George Carlin's line, or a version of it, from the hippy dippy weatherman routine, The Pacific High was in Encino this afternoon. The change in currents and the ocean temperature interferer with the rain by changing the Pacific High, or something like that, so it doesn't rain like it used to. The evidence seems rather obvious. For one thing, they don't sell rain gear like they used to. For another, Torrance used to be half under water after a good rain. Now it's covered with schools and houses.

I shared these thoughts two or three weeks ago with someone while it was also drizzling and as I got to the part about great torrents of water, something snapped into focus. The weather's the same, it's we who are different. They don't sell rain gear like they used to because no one buys it. No one buys it because no one walks in the rain anymore. How unthinkable to send a child to school on foot in the rain, unless you live directly across the street, and even then. We had a 1950 Studebaker, later a 1955 Buick Special. My father drove the car to work and dropped my mother off on the way. When the car wasn't available, we walked. When it rained, we put on rain gear and walked, just as I did this morning to the store and back. We didn't have three cars, a truck and a motor home parked out back. We had one family car, two working adults, myself, and the twins. So, we had rain gear. Not because it rained that much, or because it rained much more than it does today, but because our lives never got rained out. We walked to school, to the market, to our friends, and sometimes downtown and back, whether it rained or not. Of course, if it was raging outside, we stayed home.

As for the flooding, the source of such lasting memories, Torrance and the greater Los Angeles area engineered it out of existence. It happened gradually. No headlines, no falderal, it happened in the background, the sort of civic activity we take completely for granted, like the control of infectious diseases through the gradual advancement of sanitation. Today it rains and the water disappears. But, it still rains. Today we have the choice of waiting for the clouds to pass in order to play outside or loading the kids in the SUV for an afternoon at the mall. If the kids are gone, we can watch the rain on television, or follow its progress on the Web. Whatever we do, we are not likely to get wet. The rain's the same. It continues to rain with or without us. But the world it rains upon has forever changed.
 
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marstreees

Whitney Striber published this fascinaating NASA photograph on Unknown Country yesterday with a comment that includes the following.
Every time something strange is photographed on Mars (including the famous "face"), NASA debunks it. If we're ever able to actually set foot on the red planet in the future, we'll hopefully be able to find out for ourselves. But as long as we have to rely on images from NASA satellites or the statements of astronauts (although some of them have been more forthcoming than others), we'll remain in the dark.
Whitney seems like a nice enough guy. He's made a career of making the mysterious almost accessible, but this time he overstepped his mark. Will we only know the truth about Mars when we see it with our own eyes? Perhaps. Unfortunately, this logic involves transporting billions of people to an inhospitable planet where we have thus far succeeded in transporting no one. So the we would seem to be Whitney. We have the evidence of a fascinating photograph, but the photograph came from NASA and NASA now debunks not the photo, which it stands by, but the uninformed interpretation of it. How can we know the truth if NASA won't agree with us? Not trusting NASA, I'll admit, has sometimes been good advice and, according to Whitney, we can't rely on future reports by astronauts either, because they're all in cahoots, so who or what can we trust? Why, our own eyes, of course. Our own untrained eyes. Well, Whitney's eyes, anyway.

There's an old Zen saying that seems to apply here. If I pee, how will it help your bladder? We can change that now. If Whitney pees — on Mars — how will that enlighten us?
 
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I'm not sure what reminded me of David Susskind, I've been thinking about him all morning. In high school I turned the sound down low and stayed up late to watch Open End, a program that ran completely contrary to normal programming. There were two cameras, no set, not even a backdrop that I remember, just a large round table with director's chairs, ashtrays, newspapers, books, coffee cups. People lounged around the table, Susskind presiding, and talked.

I had a late lunch at Mo's in San Luis Obispo last week. Their new location — they lost the grimier older one to retrofitting — now has televisions on every wall playing perpetual sports. The walls used to have road signs and classic photographs of mostly southern BBQs. All the sets were tuned to the same pre-game discussion. A group of experts held sway on the Rose Bowl field, unless they were pasted in. I'm resisting the use of quotation marks. One of the experts finished up his off-the-cuff remarks with something like Whada you think, Bill? Without a split second's hesitation he replied, Well, Jack, you know, 74.3% of the Big Ten Nose Guards in 4 out of 5 games this season… Out came a whole series of things he couldn't possibly store away. I was going to say understand. I know I didn't. This wasn't a discussion, it was a scripted discussion — they were reading from teleprompters. Somewhere, someone or a group of someones in a studio trailer were having a sort of discussion, perhaps days or weeks in advance, that was now being electronically relayed to people more authoritative, more recognizable, to present as their own thoughts and words.

People raised on sitcoms and sports television may not know the sound of people thinking and talking at the same time. Open End was civilized, never angry that I remember, sometimes pointed, always intelligent. I remember one guest who had been rather quiet answering reluctantly, "Well, David, the kindest thing I can say about that is that it's entirely untrue." That got the blood pressure up. There were frequently two or three people talking at the same time. The image of Susskind smiling with his hands up was a frequent one. I remember a guest turning his chair so he wouldn't have to look directly at another guest who was being particularly stupid or contrary. And these weren't basketball players unless the subject for the night had something to do with basketball. They were the intellectuals, the knowers rather than the known, in the vicinity of Susskind's studio.

William Blatty, the eventual author of The Exorcist, parodied Susskind in his novel John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. In a Sunday afternoon interview he maintained with a perfectly straight face that David Susskind and Dichotomous Susskind, his character, had identical last names purely by accident. The word dichotomy entered the American vocabulary by force of Susskind's perpetual use of it. Late night viewers of Open End saw dichotomies everywhere, even if what they sometimes saw was only pairs of related things. In the novel, Susskind was followed closely by an assistant whose job was to whisper polysyllabic words into his ear that he would then work into his next sentence. It's hard to tell if Blatty loved or hated him. He was an intellectual's intellectual in the usually nonintellectual field of film and television with an ample vocabulary, one that had the power to lead discussions this way or that, but not to control them. Unlike William F. Buckley's vocabulary that served often merely to obfuscate.

Now I remember. It was yesterday when I sat down to write something for the blog and an email arrived reminding me about the eclipse. I had no idea what to write until that moment. Late one night, through a cloud of cigarette smoke, someone asked Susskind what he planned to do when he ran out of things to talk about. He was greatly amused. As long as there was a front page to the New York Times, he said, he would always have at least three things to talk about. To demonstrate this, he reached down to the floor and came up with that day's New York Times. "Here," he said, and without hesitating he rattled off three or four discussion points each for three separate headlines. Enough for several programs.

Ezra Pound said somewhere that a poet should know a lot about something. It doen't matter what that something is. The process of knowing a lot about anything teaches us to distinguish between the known and the not known, to distinguish between slogans, for example, and actual ideas. What I learned from David Susskind, besides the enduring value of intelligent discussion, was that the great challenge in life is not finding something to talk about, but having something to say.
 
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New Moon

Though it won't be visible from here, in several hours the Moon will be exactly even with the Sun. Of course, it does this every month, going from nothing to full and then back to nothing again. This time, however, the Earth, Moon and Sun will be in syzygy, a wonderful word that describes three astronomical bodies in alignment. It could be worth untold points in Scrabble, if there was just one more Y.

It seems odd to me that the New Moon is new when it reaches nothing. No Moon or Dead Moon seems more appropriate. The Moon is created ex nihilo once every month and sometimes twice, as was mentioned in a previous post, adding a degree of regularity to the irregular concept of miracle. I know of no calendar convention for the second New Moon in the same calendar month. But, the New Moon goes pretty much unnoticed, so I suppose it's no real loss if you miss one or sometimes the other.

If you're reading this in Africa, the Indian Ocean or all the way toward Eastern Asia, you can disregard what I said about not being visible. You're about to see crescent shaped shadows and a glowing halo around the Sun. There's always something going on up there. Only, today it's the nothing that's of special interest.
 
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My mother was incapable of using the word Negro. Until the word black entered the vernacular, she was unable to talk about them — any of them — for fear that at some point she would have to account for their difference, the fact that they were black instead of white. Even then, she had to sort of work up a head of steam. A teacher at the school where she taught was a very well-dressed, highly educated, very pleasant, articulate black person. She had a range of innocuous descriptors that could be strung together this way and that, always ending in either black person or black teacher who did or said such and such. And yet, only one story ever had anything to do with race. The same held true for Mexicans. They weren't Chicanos or Latinos yet, or even people, God forbid, so every Mexican started out as well-dressed or polite and worked his way up the ladder to Mexican. About a third of her students were well-dressed. It was frustrating because nothing she allowed herself to say had anything whatsoever to do with race, color, national origin, or religion unless maybe a recipe was involved. So, why was it necessary to be so damned specific, or so completely evasive? When I'd asker her this, as I did many times, she'd eye me nervously, sometimes horror-struck. As if I had to ask.

I've written about this elsewhere but my mother came from a Tennessee family. Her father used the N word, a euphemism for nigger. I was horrified, of course, as was my mother, both of us growing up in California. The word meant black to him. People look at me when I say this as if asking, "How stupid can you be?" But, my grandfather was really proud that his cardiologist was the best nigger cardiologist in Memphis, which puts a strain on prejudice. He trusted him with his life. Black people and white people were different, which is why some were niggers and some weren't. I think my mother inherited the need to make this distinction without quite inheriting the need to rank people as being superior or inferior.

The one story that did involve race was a coffee break discussion in the teachers room. One of the more outspoken members of the faculty was upset that the Personnel Office was giving preferential treatment to minorities in hiring. She felt that everyone should be treated the same. My mother was horrified, because a certain well-dressed, highly educated, articulate teacher was sitting right next to her at the time. In fact, she just sat there sipping coffee, listening. My mother attributed this politeness to education and upbringing, and was amazed that she handled things as well as she did. What she never caught on to was that the complaining teacher treated the well-dressed teacher like everyone else. And, if you must know, I don't think she dressed all that well. She dressed like they all did back then.
 
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Stupid me. It turns out to be the word Negro that got everyone upset. Now that we have a black president, the word Negro in all its uses is especially taboo, or so I gather. The problem is, Sen. Reid used the word Negro quite correctly in describing a speech pattern known as Negro dialect. For the average black in this country the chances are quite good that his parents, grandparents or great-grandparents used or continue to use Negro dialect in their everyday speech. It's possible, after all, with varying degrees of accuracy, to identify people as black over the telephone, just as it's possible to tell the difference between a New Yorker and a Canadian living in New York. In the Army, I came to the conclusion that black drill sergeants were superior, generally, at calling cadence because of their speech patterns. White drill sergeants went to great lengths, I thought, to avoid sounding black, and were less effective as a result. It's not because black drill sergeants spoke black dialect, but because they had within them a heritage of Negro dialect that allowed them to linger naturally on certain vowels and to emphasize particular rhythms in their speech. Under a thick veneer of political correctness, we all know these things. Pragmatically speaking, Sen. Obama had the opportunity to incorporate aspects of Negro dialect (quite foreign to him) in his political persona. He chose not to do so. For a white person — is Caucasian still permissible? — to do so would be un­thinkable.

The day I was inducted, a cocky sergeant strutted his stuff up and down the classroom aisles where we were filling out paperwork. He snatched a paper from the hands of an enormous, and enormously dangerous looking man in an Afro with cutoff sleeves and a length of chain used as a belt. "What race is  this?" he demanded. He held the paper up for us all to see. "The question is, What race are you?, not What color are you? Black is not a race." It was here that he made what I would call a tactical error. He demanded to know, expecting, I suppose, to continue with a canned lecture on the subject, "If I was filling out this form, what would I answer?" The potential felon looked him over defiantly from head to toe and said, "Pink."

Of course the Army is one thing and politics another. The sergeant wisely retreated. Sen. Reid wisely apologized. The sergeant lived to be arrogant another day while Sen. Reid now finds it difficult to conduct business at all. Can't we just get along?
 
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David Paterson is the rather light skinned legally blind first African American governor of New York. He finds remarks attributed to United States Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a recent book to be reprehensible, according to an article at timesunion.com this morning.
In "Game Change," an insider account about the 2008 presidential election, Reid was quoted as saying that then-Sen. Barack Obama would likely find success as a candidate because he was "a light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
The article goes on to say that Reid was an early supporter of Obama. Patersen himself goes on to say that
not only were [the comments] reprehensible, but it's amazing to think to print a whole book, that so many people saw, and nobody noticed that this ill-chosen remark was in the book?
I'm confused. The ill-chosen remark had to do with… He's talking about President Obama — right? — the first black President of the United States. Not the blackest Negro, but certainly black enough that no one questions his racial heritage. He speaks a very standard, supremely articulate English. Is this a surprise? He was raised in Hawaii, attended Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. What kind of English should he speak? Where in this process would he have acquired, for example, a Mississippi accent, or Alabama slang, or even Harlem jive? And how is it "degrading" to suggest that such a person would have broad voter appeal? He won the election, didn't he? Patersen finally says that Reid should not be forced to resign. I'm sure Reid is greatly relieved by this.
It's a very intrusive and kind of degrading remark, but it's one that was probably close to a different kind of way of phrasing it which might have been acceptable.
I'm obviously not cut out for politics, but maybe what Reid meant to say was that Sen. Obama had the potential to be the first English speaking not necessarily black President of the United States.
 
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Doing laundry at home is infinitely preferable. Still, a life outlined exactly to our preferences is one that has lost its potential. It is the irritants and the unexpected that offer progress.

I've only know one person who loved doing laundry. He was a gay would-be actor who worked as a waiter, which narrows him down to about 10% of everyone in Los Angeles. He had carloads of personality that he marshalled instantaneously in situations that could throw others into an absolute tizzy. There was a worm in a salad one day. It's hard for most of us to come to terms with, but there are varieties of worms that eat very much what we do and sometimes have their meals interrupted. Anyway, the people at his table had stopped eating and had ghastly expressions on their faces. Something was obviously wrong. He could see the outlines of a worm, a bright green worm bathed in Ranch dressing with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. "There it is," he announced, snatching the plate from the table. "I've been looking everywhere for that." He swished into the kitchen, swished out again with another salad. Never said a word. Everyone resumed eating. The average waiter might have apologized or groveled and the worm, whose meal was interrupted, would have floated in the air all through dinner. Rocky transformed every space he occupied. Rocky. It was probably a stage name, but it's the one I remember.

Rocky and his girlfried — I'm not being satirical — would stay up late, drink, make the rounds, and then do laundry at an all-night laundromat. I think they sometimes emptied out drawers of perfectly clean clothes to experiment with new detergents or softeners, or possibly to have the wherewithal to experience new and unexplored laundromats. My memory is somewhat vague because it always fell just outside the domain I wanted to know more about. They were almost inseparable. She'd sneak off to get laid, a process that seemed inevitable, but she'd also hold his hand through nerve wracking blind dates that people concerned, I suppose, about the ever presence of his girlfriend, set him up with. She'd go through the introductions, make sure he looked just right, and then drop them off somewhere.

I meet people all the time who say they love doing laundry. I've learned to be skeptical because it always turns out that what they really love is their new washer and drier and the opportunity to share their features or capacity with you. In the late 1950s we had a new washer and drier in our new tract home. Everything in our world seemed brand new at the time. There was a strip center up the road, not that we knew the term strip center. It seemed utterly new and modern. It was nicely done, propped up with Palos Verdes stone and lush planters. A liquor store on the corner, a hardware store, a barber shop, a 31 Flavors ice cream parlor that we were utterly beaming with pride to have in our very own neighborhood, and a hair salon. Beyond that was a field followed by more fields until finally a gas station. We drove or walked to it almost daily. It's hard to believe, but haircuts were every two weeks and sometimes more often than that. Of course, the 60s put a screeching halt to that obsession. There was also the odd fact that some women never washed their own hair. Was it hair spray? Was it the absence of hand-held hair driers? Anyway, the strip center became the alternate center of our existence.

Then came the unexpected. The center expanded. Where there were once rambunctious weeds, there was now something miraculous — a laundromat. Banks of driers and row after row of porcelain white coin-operated washing machines. It had the first change machine I ever saw. It broke dollars down into three quarters, two dimes and a nickel, and it also broke down quarters. Believe it or not, it built them right back up if you put five nickels in. It was amazingly cheap: 25¢ a load and 10¢ per time period for driers many times the size of the one at home. The time period started out as ten minutes but soon dwindled to half that — the first sign of edging inflation. It was not uncommon for people to do their washing in the laundromat but take things home to hang outside on the line. Some habits die hard. Anyway, as I said, we had a brand new washer and drier to go with our brand new tract home, but to run six or eight loads at once and know that driers 3, 5, 8 and 9 had your familiar towels, sheets and blue jeans tumbling clearly, almost identifiably in the drier windows was somehow irresistible. We piled mountains of laundry in the back seat, knowing that 31 Flavors and a sampling of our neighbors awaited us. This too seemed terribly modern at the time.

Today it would be fair to say that I hate doing laundry. I do it grudgingly. Somewhere the excitement dwindled into an irksome irritation. The results, of course — I love the results. Clean sheets and pillowcases, clean towels, clean, freshly ironed clothes. I never asked Rocky about ironing. Everyone loves the results. Does anyone really look forward to wearing clothes that aren't clean? I remember nothing more spectacular, more supremely luxurious than stuffing a green pull-string bag with my name and company number on the outside and three days later finding on my bunk a rectangle of brown paper tied in twine that was my perfectly pressed, neatly folded laundry. It made the rest of life seem almost worth living.

Yesterday, on final rinse, a young man carried baskets of laundry in for his mother. No longer a boy, he seemed in his early twenties. He wasn't there five minutes before he went from person to person saying, "It's really boring in here. I wonder if they know the TV's off. Any idea how to turn the TV on? It's really boring, isn't it?" He said this same speech over and over again hoping, I suppose, that someone would push the magic button and return television to his life. He had become a singular source of entertainment in himself. He gave this speech to a dark-skinned diminutive lady in her forties or fifties in a plastic chair with her hands folded softly in her lap. She was waiting for the drier to stop. She shrugged in an uncomprehending way and then resumed her perfectly motionless pose. She was Indian in appearance. We have a percentage of Mexicans in this area who speak neither Spanish nor English. She had obviously not been raised on television. What went on inside seemed entirely pleasant since it caused not the least change in her demeanor. I had the feeling she could wait effortlessly until tomorrow if that's how long it took.

I think of Rocky at times like these, folding my underwear into precise rectangles in the corner of a dismal laundromat with the drone of washers and driers and humanity in the background. I seem to learn something each visit, but it's always an enormous relief to carry my few things into the parking lot where I can breathe freely again. I sometimes experience a sense of fulfillment, as though I had connected with a soiled part of myself long hidden, but it's not fulfillment exactly. It's merely relief. It's knowing that my favorite frayed t-shirt is available again, that I have socks for tomorrow. It's the knowledge that my hamper is empty. I hope Rocky found some nice young man to settle down with, or even an old one for that matter, or that maybe he and his girlfriend found the perfect person to form a modernized couple with, someone who likes doing laundry.
 
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People just don't seem to know what's going on up there. I've told this story a thousand times, but things keep reminding me of it. Tonight a cashier at Albertsons said she told everyone at home what I told her about blue moons. "They didn't believe me," she said, "but at least now they know." On New Year's Eve she asked if I knew there was a blue moon. I did. In fact, as I started to explain, it was an unusual one, but I could tell by her look that I had said something wrong. On a guess I asked if she knew what a blue moon was. She said, "It was just something on the news," and then, "Why, do you?"

It's hard to believe, but it's almost twenty years since Clyde Keener pushed a book into my hands saying, "Read this. You'll love it." It was Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War (1990). Clyde was a Helprin enthusiast. He loved lengthy books and protracted discussions. Retirement had banished him from the Faculty Club at UC Santa Barbara, a place he was born to inhabit. By sheer coincidence, if you believe in coincidence, I had just read the Penguin edition of The Consolation of Philosophy, the early 6th century work of Boethius. I sat next to Clyde at the Pali Cafe for lunch one day and he threw something out about the trivium and the quadrivium. When I said something back, his jaw dropped. He thought I might be an angel sent to collect him, not that he believed in angels. Clyde was well into his nineties at the time. We had mediocre lunches but wonderful conversations after that. I never shared my opinion about Mark Helprin, but I shared a few things about fours and threes. I showed him how six pennies fit together around a seventh to form the basis of seven lore. That shut him up for a while. A very short while. I wondered how it was possible for an inquisitive man like Clyde to miss the seven pennies thing. Then I began to wonder what crucial things I had missed.

I didn't share my opinion about Helprin because, first of all, he'd just say it was beside the point — "You have to look at the big things," he'd say. — but also because I was afraid he might figure out that Helprin wasn't all that in touch with the big things either. He certainly did not know what was going on up there.

Alessandro, an elderly man in a cream-colored suit with a walking cane, and Nicolò, a young illiterate factory worker, find themselves on the same bus leaving Rome. By a sequence of events they end up on foot, setting the stage for what follows. They enter the small town of Acereto. "Even at ten o'clock, the town was asleep, the windows shuttered." So, with no one to ask them in, they "ate and rested at the fountain." Helprin waxes, "Not a single light burned, and the moon had not yet risen, but the piazza and the buildings surrounding it were of a pale color that amplified the starlight enough to outline shapes and give away anything that moved across fields of varying contrast." Anyway, they ate, rested, talked for nine or ten pages, and then continued on their trip. "They picked up the pace outside Acereto. Perhaps because they had eaten and rested, Alessandro found strength." Alessandro, remember, is the old man. "For the next hour or two, keeping up with Alessandro would be a task that would set the boy to breathing hard..."

So, what time is it? Two hours of walking would make it midnight even if they hadn't stopped to eat, rest and talk. Without counting dialog, it's at least early morning. Alessandro walks fast because he knows the moon is about to rise, and not just any moon, a full moon. Nicolò tries to reason with him, but the old man says, "Wait till the full moon rises." The illiterate Nicolò asks, "How do you know it's going to be full?" and the the answer is, "Among other things, it was full yesterday except for a tiny splinter. Tonight, it will be perfectly round. That's why I'm walking so fast." Poor Nicolò huffs, "You walk fast when the moon is full?"

They reach their immediate destination in time. They stargaze for a while. More pages of dialog. Suddenly, Alessandro turns to the east. His cane clatters down upon the rock they are standing on. He catches sight of a tiny orange dome, rising coolly, unlike the molten sunrise, from behind the farthest line of hills. From a high point above Acereto, east of Rome, in the month of August, after a lengthy hike in the middle of the night, a full moon rises. Nicolò, the illiterate is utterly amazed, as well he should to be, but Alessandro, as you might imagine at this point, "was drawn back in time."

True, it's just an introduction, but there's one small problem. The full moon cannot rise on or after midnight, even if it helps the plot. Nicolò was right to be amazed, he had just witnessed a miracle. The laws of celestial mechanics require that the full moon rise as the sun sets. The full moon is full because it's in line with the earth and sun, just as it was this past New Year's Eve.

I was incensed by this twenty years ago. The moon in A Soldier of the Great War got past the author, the editor or editors, the publisher, and every critic whose review I was able to read. I'm over it now. Yet, I wonder how many such atrocities and stupidities I've committed myself without getting caught. Do I really want to know? At least I have a good idea what's going on up there.
 
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I'm not convinced that the universe is terribly impressed by our counting system. Nor the Earth. It's a dismal day. Morning and yet already noon. Windless. The ground damp and strewn with leaves from rain that was days ago. Noiseless. The ominous sound of loss. Or is it merely the sound of televisions enthusing within tightly sealed homes. The motionless pretending to participate in turmoil and excitement. Perhaps the world is ruminating. Anticipating. Or perhaps it is doing what it always does, though we always suspect otherwise. Uniquely. Uniformly. Unimpressed.

Eggs scrambled in a scalding pan. Sourdough toast. Butter dripping through the holes. And Mexican espresso. Breakfast at noon. An event strangely worthy of the decade to come. May our years be ordinary but useful. Simple but pleasurable. May our thoughts be still but complete.
 
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