Tuesday, August 31, 2004


Much political hay is made of the fact that John Kerry has periodically changed his position on various issues. His opponents call this “flip-flopping” and accuse him of lacking the steadfast conviction that supposedly characterizes a true leader. Setting aside the instances in which Kerry has waffled for purely political reasons, I believe he is to be commended for having views that evolve. It strikes me as the mark of a thoughtful person that he or she can take in new information and form fresh opinions. I used to believe, for instance, that I could learn to breathe underwater; where would I be today—drowned—if I hadn’t changed my mind?

I’ve modified my beliefs about all sorts of things and I’m not ashamed to say so. Or maybe I am. No, I’m not. Anyway, you see my point. Or perhaps you don’t.

Back in the day, I believed that humanity’s highest achievement in the musical realm was Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Subsequent to that I worshipped King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic.” Am I flip-flopper because now I maintain that neither of those artists are fit to carry Mahler’s metronome case?

As a teenager, I was a resolute devotee of Ayn Rand. I argued vociferously for the “virtue” of selfishness and fancied myself cut from the same cloth as Rand’s Howard Roark. Nowadays, I’m far more aligned with the Utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, who claims that if we can stop something bad from happening without sacrificing something comparable moral worth, we should. This would imply that selfishness is NOT the highest good. And I’m supposed to be chastised as a waffler for no longer believing that?

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the mark of intelligence is the ability to hold two contrasting ideas in the mind simultaneously; perhaps that it too much to ask of our political leaders. It would be great though, to have a President who could at least hold contrasting views consecutively.

Monday, August 30, 2004


Science can tell us HOW hangovers occur; it’s not given us an adequate answer, though, as to WHY they happen. It seems strange that we are hard-wired into this Puritan ethic where every pleasure has to be counterbalanced by an accompanying (and often overweaning) pain.

You would think that there’d be an evolutionary adaptive advantage to being the sort of creature who could live it up the night before and still be able to head out, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, on next morning’s Mastadon hunt. I don’t understand why natural selection hasn’t selected out the hangover gene, and more to the point, why it didn’t select it out last night so I wouldn’t feel so lousy today.

The phrase “death warmed over” comes to mind. So does the term “green around the gills.” And so, unfortunately, do the words, “another martini, please,” those very words which precipitated this condition in the first place.

In the comics, you always see the guy lying in bed the morning after with an icebag on his head. Not for me; I’ve got to get up and move around, hopefeully dislodging the icepick that’s stuck behind my eyes.

My hangover cure is pretty simple: a raw egg, some Tabasco sauce, two Alka-Seltzers, and a full-body blood transfusion by Keith Richards’ doctor in Mexico.

In my youth, I could usually count on feeling human again by about noon; these days I still aim for noon but it’s noon of next Tuesday.

Of course, I vow never to drink like that again. (Thankfully, I’m a follower of Heraclitus who maintains we can never step in the same river twice.)

I’m turning over a new leaf—what the hell does that mean, anyway? Who am I, Andy Goldworthy?

At least, this experience has taught me something. (And not just that “Never mix, never worry” is a lie.) I’ve also learned something important about the evolutionary process: half a dozen martinis later, man evolves into a slug.

Sunday, August 29, 2004


I am an asshole.

A self-centered, self-serving, self-indulgent asshole. And it’s a sure measure of my assholeness that I should point out this fact in hopes of defusing your judgment by beating you to the punch. As if the awareness of what an asshole I am earns me the right to not be considered an asshole—because I’m so self-aware.

Sheesh, what an asshole.

Of course, it’s the human condition: we’re all assholes. Every one of us wants just what we want and not what we don’t.

Q: So I can be excused for simply expressing my humanity in the typical way—for being a self-serving asshole, just like everyone else?
A: Nope, sorry, asshole.

Still, there’s selfishness and there’s selfishness. Mother Teresa may have gotten a measure of selfish pleasure out of helping Calcutta’s starving children but that’s different than the selfish pleasure Donald Trump gets from firing struggling apprentices.

Q: It’s a matter of motivation, right?
A: No, it’s a matter of who’s an asshole, asshole.

Q: But if the result of my actions is selfish pleasure while my motivation is altruistic, then aren’t I off the hook somehow?
A: No way, asshole.

Q: Then is everyone who wants their relationships to proceed in accordance with certain limitations an asshole?
A: No. Just the assholes who want that are, asshole.

Q: Then what would make me not an asshole?
A: Not being one, asshole.

I realize I’m far from the best person I could be. (Hell, I’m probably far from the best person that even Donald Rumsfeld—that fucking asshole—could be.) But I’m doing the best I can—which is exactly what every asshole—including that fucking asshole Rumsfeld—will tell you.

Q: So why don’t I do better?
A: Clearly because I’m too big of an asshole.

This is silly. I’m not so bad. I’m not an abuser, or a psychopath, or even a Republican. I’m not an asshole.

I’m just a dick.

Friday, August 27, 2004


Lately, I’ve been having trouble sleeping and I don’t know why. Why, I must have spent three hours yesterday at Starbucks drinking espressos trying to figure it out.

It’s not falling asleep that’s the problem—a couple pages of analytic philosophy and I’m out—it’s staying asleep. I keep having these nightmares that pull me from slumber. Like last night, I dreamed I was lying in bed dreaming that I was lying in bed; in my dream, I dreamed that I woke up; I wasn’t sure whether I was awake or not, so I pinched myself, but it hurt so bad I couldn’t fall back asleep.

Once I’m awake, I’m awake, which gives me essentially two choices: I can lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, solving all the world’s problems for the next few hours, or I can get up, start my day, and begin feeling exhausted enough for a nap.

Part of my problem is that I don’t really like being in bed; if I had my druthers, I’d only sleep when it’s absolutely essential, like during staff meetings.

I wasn’t always this way; when I was a kid, my parents had to drag me forcibly from bed to get me to school; many times,, I arrived in first period English still wearing my bedclothes (which was particularly problematic when I got to high school age and started sleeping nude.)

In college, my sleeping habits changed a lot. All those late-night study sessions—particularly the ones doing first-person empirical studies of psychedelics—changed my nighttime patterns forever. Many nights I couldn’t even close my eyes without seeing 3-dimensional Grateful Dead album covers strewn across my eyelids. Small wonder I feared even a hint of drowsiness.

Nowadays, I have no such excuse—nor, thankfully, any Dead albums. As far as I can tell, the only reason I can’t sleep is that I’m not sleepy—unlike this essay which I’m sure you’ll agree is totally tired.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


If there’s one thing that really hurts, it’s pain. Physical pain. Heartbreak sucks to be sure, but there’s something about a real owie that just makes this grown man cry. (Of course, many things do that, including the movie Toy Story II and Pittsburgh Steelers losses, but you see my point.)

I admit that I’m a baby about pain. Many’s the time a hangnail or stubbed toe has driven me right to the bottle. Once I burned my hand on an iron skillet and spent the rest of the evening with a liplock on my libation that would have made your average lactation consultant dance with glee (or is it wolves?)

Many people believe that pain builds character. Sure, but many people also believe that Thomas Kincade, “painter of light” is a great artist, so let’s not jump to any conclusions. (Besides, if we did and landed awkwardly, we could turn an ankle, and boy would that smart!)

Right now, I’m suffering from a pain in the neck. (No doubt this is some sort of cosmic payback from my dearly departed parents who often complained of the same affliction on my account.) It hurts to turn my head, to tie my shoes, and worst from the perspective of my usual habits, to both tip my head by back to drink and to lie down.

If only there were a safe, non-addictive, and completely effective painkiller. (And if only I had stock in the company that held the exclusive rights to it.)

I’d try just about anything to make the pain go away: acupuncture, massage, even leeches if my insurance covered it. I’d draw the line, though, at exorcism. If I’m in pain because I’m possessed by an evil spirit, then I’d just as soon it stays in here with me so I can use the carpool lane.

But there’s no chance that, like some pain sufferers, I might kill myself. That would hurt way too much.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Gawd, God

Goddamnit, I’m tired of being an atheist.

For as long as I can remember (which admittedly, is sometimes only about 5 minutes) I have maintained a disbelief not only in God, but in pretty much all supernatural phenomena, including ghosts, near-death experiences, and Ouija boards at slumber parties. Lately, though, I’m wanting to believe in something big and unexplainable—and frankly, Donald Trump’s hairdo just isn’t enough.

I’m not prepared to buy the whole Judeo-Christian conception: the old white guy with the big beard and all; it’s too much like believing in Santa Claus for my taste. Nor, however, am I comfortable with the full new-age version: angels and white light and the whole Birkenstocks and linen drag.

Spinoza typically referred to it as “god or nature,” and I think that’s pretty much where I’m coming from. I like the idea of God being a mighty redwood or a squirming thousand legger—although then it does sorta freak me out to think that as a little kid I routinely squished God beneath the soles of my P.F. Flyers.

Stephen Hawking, when asked if he believed in God, supposedly said something like “yes, if by God you mean the laws of the Universe.” God as gravity and electromagnetism kind of makes sense to me; I know this because I always swear to God when something heavy is pulled to earth onto my toe.

Part of what I’m missing is a deep sense of mystery over the unknown and feeling that there is more to life than what we can see and measure. And I’d like it to last, by contrast, for longer than merely the duration of another 2-day Hempfest concert.

I want to believe that the souls of my dearly-departed parents are hovering around me, but doing so without wanting to give me unsolicited advice on how to cut my hair or fold bath towels before putting them away.

God, is that too much to ask for?

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

On Becoming a Dog Owner

Oedipus famously blew it by killing his dad and getting jiggy with his mom; Lear’s lamebrained idea was to insist that his kids profess their undying love; we recently joined the ranks of famous fuck-ups in a much more profound way: we got a dog.

She’s a sweet puppy, but to paraphrase those words made famous by mothers since time immemorial: “What the hell were we thinking?!”

A few weeks ago, we were a fully autonomous family of three in the 21st century. Now, we can’t leave home for more than 3 hours at a time if we want our couch cushions to remain uneaten.

I like the dog, but I’m still not sure she does anything for me that compares to my scooping her poop. It’s sweet to be licked in the face, but if turnabout’s fair play, then she ought to be taking out the garbage or doing my taxes.

I never thought I’d become one of those people who walks a dog. Now you’ll find me having those inane conversations with other dog walkers about types of food, styles of collars, and how often to clip your pup’s toenails. This from a man who was trained to investigate the very arcane of the universe, or at least wonder why hotdogs come six to a pack and buns eight.

Speaking of training, we’re doing great—from the dog’s perspective. We’ve managed to teach her to wolf down her dinner in three huge bites, to tear apart anything resembling food that sits near her eye level, and to selectively identify our favorite knick-knacks for destruction by chewing. Not bad for folks who’d never used a clicker, huh?

There’s plenty more I could tell you about—the way her drool makes our hardwoods slippery, the hours of fun we’ve had chasing her back into the yard when she breaks free from her leash—but it’s time for a walk and as my dogs’s master, I’m her slave.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Dinner Parties

Every few months, Jen and I get the urge to throw a dinner party. Fortunately, the feeling usually passes and we can focus on our more natural role of guests rather than hosts of evening soirees. Eventually, however, the balance between serving and being served becomes untenable for even a dedicated free-rider like myself and we have no choice but to pay back the dozens of dinners we’ve cadged since last time we hosted.

Choosing from among our full array of friends presents something of a challenge, but previous commitments on their parts typically permits us to winnow the number in half, thus freeing us from the concern of having to add any more chairs to our four piece dining set.

In order to settle on a menu, it normally takes us no more research than does your average doctoral dissertation. Cookbooks litter our apartment and stock value of various internet search engines skyrocket as we search for the perfect combination of appetizers and amuses-bouche to tantalize our guests. Our investigations are well worth it as we ultimately decide on dishes as rare an unusual as hummous, chips and salsa, and mixed nuts.

Much thought goes into the selection of wines and liquors, too, and the sampling necessary to ensure top quality is always one of the high points of the planning process…until the morning after, of course.

The day of the event is completely given over to cooking and cleaning, interrupted only by breaks for yelling and screaming at each other and threatening divorce. Usually, we can count on at least one cooking disaster and more if we’re planning on greater than a single-course meal.

Our guests predictably arrive the moment before we have an opportunity to shower. The good news is we can always blame any offensive odors on chopped onions.

Finally, though, the food is served, the wine uncorked, and all the problems of preparation and planning are forgotten…until the morning after, of course.

Thursday, August 12, 2004


I can’t say that I love to camp. (Well, I could say it, but then I’d be lying.) Camping affords me few opportunities to express my best-loved talents. It’s hard, for instance, to create a classroom community of inquiry with woodpeckers and banana slugs. Nor do the woodland creatures really appreciate a perfectly-shaken martini. And I’ve yet to see a giant redwood that responds positively to a well-turned phrase or luminous bon mot.

I’m hip to the appeal of the natural world and all, but does it always have to get stuck under your fingernails?

And then, there’s the campground wildlife, to wit, those campers over there in the double-wide Winnebego with the exterior klieg lights listening to Metallica on a boombox.

I’m amused, of course, by the pointy-faced chipmunk poking around our campsite for food; but what really adds to the bathos is that she’s sure to fail in her quest. We drove around for two hours last night searching unsuccessfully for a place to buy food; not even a 7-11 to be found. And they call this the “great” outdoors, hah!

One thing I have observed about camping, though: the more mind-altering substances you consume, the more fun it gets. After six beers, poking a campfire becomes great entertainment. Add a couple of joints to the mix and it becomes a nearly transcendent experience. (Fall asleep with your pants leg in the fire and that sublime state you’re seeking is achieved.)

Camping food leaves something to be desired; that something is flavor. They say everything tastes better outdoors, but I disagree. Many things taste better served off fine china by doting waiters wearing white gloves.

On every camping trip, though, there is that one moment when it all comes together, when the forces of nature align with the cosmos and you find yourself suddenly one with everything. For me, that moment was clear: the second the hot water hit me in my shower back home.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Things I Had Planned for that Won't Come to Be

I had always expected my mom to be here to take my daughter on a three-week cruise around the Baltic Sea as a high school graduation present. I’d often fantasized what a wonderful opportunity this would be for grandmother and granddaughter to get to know each other better and to see some of the Old World’s most exotic sights. (I’d even more often fantasized about what a wonderful opportunity it would be for father and mother to wander around the child-free house in their underwear, swigging deeply from open bottles of red wine.)

But alas, with my mom’s death, it is not to be. And while alternatives will certainly present themselves—there’s always Junior Year Abroad programs—the finality of this lost opportunity serves to remind me of other doors that have closed on dreams I had once—or many times—dreamed.

For example, it’s obvious that any hope I had of roasting my mom on her hundredth birthday is now quashed. All those jokes I’d been putting together about being called “my baby boy” at 70 years of age will have to be mothballed. And while this hardly represents a literary tragedy, it does, I think, count as a sad day for the septuagenarian I one day expect to be.

My mom, who was as she put it, made a “rich old widow” by my father’s death (and life) had always said that she wanted to die with “one dollar in the bank.” I’d being doing my best to help that come to pass for years—just ask my architect, building contractor, and the bookkeeper at my daughter’s private school—but my program for impoverishing her will now remain unfulfilled. I’ll just have to do my best to squander my inheritance instead.

Finally, Mom’s death wrecks any chance of watching the Steelers win the Superbowl together. I’m sure both of us would really have enjoyed the game and the ice-skating in Hell that would have followed.

Monday, August 09, 2004


I recently became something I desperately wanted to be when I was a child: an orphan. My mom died, leaving me parentless—a condition I longed for daily from the time I realized I had parents to when I left home at 18 and could pretend I didn’t. My dream as a boy was to live at an orphanage. I’d have lots of friends around me and all the sympathy I could use should things go badly. And if I were lucky, I might even meet up with a larcenous old scofflaw who would teach me the secrets of begging and pickpocketing.

But being an orphan isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. First, there’s the issue of being all alone in the world. Second, there’s the problem of having no one to bail you out of jail anymore. And third, there’s the shock of suddenly realizing that you no longer have the option of moving back in with Mom and Dad—since now Mom and Dad live six feet under, or everywhere in the ether, depending on your metaphysical point of view.

Of course, it’s a relief to not have to worry about making travel plans for the holidays, but then again, the holidays aren’t likely to be much like holidays without the folks. Who, for instance, is going to ask those pointed questions about my career plans that have so long enlivened Thanksgiving dinners? Who’s going to look surprised again by my vegetarian diet when I turn down the drumstick for the 15th year running? And who’s going to make veiled comments about my unwillingness to stay more than three days with someone who uncomplainingly carried me in her womb for nine months?

In spite of all this, one advantage to being an orphan that I hadn’t foreseen. Now that I have no parents second-guessing my own parenting, I’ve got free reign to work on my own child’s growing desire to be an orphan herself.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Do I Have a Soul?

My mom died fifteen days ago. Or maybe it was fourteen. Some would say her soul is still around, but I that doesn’t mean anything to me. To make sense of it, I’d have to know what a soul is. I just can’t picture my mom floating around in a caftan, playing a lyre, but maybe that’s only if she’s an angel. No doubt there was and is more to whom she was and is than her physical body, but I can’t see what that could be. Her personality was a function of the things she did and felt, but now, she doesn’t do or feel anything. It’s tough to be a charming and garrulous know-it-all without a body. Maybe if she came to me in a séance, I’d have a clearer picture of what her soul is supposed to be, but would it really be her if she couldn’t smoke or hold a detective novel?

The problem is I don’t know that I have or am a soul. When I look within, I see a bundle of thoughts and feelings and desires, all of which are dependent upon my physical self. If my body wasn’t here, then neither would any of these states.

Now, lots of people, lots of whom are way smarter than me believe in souls. Ram Das says he “sees souls” when he looks at people. When I look at people, I can see the person behind the person, but it’s still a person.

Maybe I’m just hung up on vocabulary. A soul by any other name would be as light.

But I still don’t get the soul persisting after death. I’m perfectly willing to accept that the concentrated energy which manifests itself as me goes on in some form, but it’s very hard to imagine that it coheres as this person, this soul.

My mom is surely out there in some form, but whatever that form is, can it be my mom?

Saturday, August 07, 2004

What Is the AWOL Anyway?

I’ve been trying to figure out what this “American way of life” (hereafter AWOL) we’re so exercised about defending is. For a while I had it narrowed down to either the right to eat fast food in front of the television set at any hour of the day or the freedom to drive your car from one parking lot to another in search of said fast food, but I’ve come to think those are too simple. Lately, I’ve come to believe that the AWOL must be something far more basic to our collective sense of identity, something that reflects a deeper component of our being, something that’s a more essential part of how we conceive ourselves. Unfortunately, not everyone has a fine collection of souvenir baby spoons, so that’s ruled out, too.
So what is the AWOL? Perhaps it’s many things to many people. To suburban homeowners, it may be the liberty to paint their lawns green with a pesticide-nitrogen guache. To urban clubgoers, it may be living under the convenant that they are never more than half a block away from the nearest latte. To elderly living on a fixed income, the AWOL may be the government’s solemn promise to ensure that the pharmaceutical industry remains ever able to secure double-digit profits.
To me, the AWOL surely involves some sort of assurance that I am free to embody the elemental characteristics that make me who I am…but then again, I doubt I’d have many constraints against being a smug know-it-all and a holier-than-thou pedant under any system.
Could the AWOL, then, be something more universal, something—unlike the supersized meal consumed on the dashboard of the SUV—less uniquely American? Could it be a way of life available to people living in cultures that reject not only capitalism, consumerism, but even drive-thru banking, as well?
I for one, sure hope so; if Bush gets re-elected, my American Way of Life won’t be found anywhere in America.

Friday, August 06, 2004

My Movie Trailer (Read by James Earl Jones)

In a world where nothing is what it seems and lies become truth by simple repetition, one man stands alone against the gathering forces of evil—or a reasonable facsimile—forged in the darkest recesses of his country’s halls—and lavatories—of power.

In a time when men were men and women were fairly disgusted by the whole thing, a son, a father, and husband, (plus a breath mint and a candy mint all rolled into one) seeks his destiny and still tries to get home before dinner.

To a tribe of people for whom the world is a magical place (though no one’s really that impressed by the bit with the rabbit and the hat) a savior makes his way from ancient forests of memory to the secret stash of Jimmy the Flea who owes him a couple of buds, dude.

On a planet formed by the accretion of cosmic dust, an entity composed nearly entirely of hydrogen and oxygen, begins as a single-celled organism only to end up wearing trifocals and Sears Sansabelt pants.

From a land far, far, way, and long, long ago, (although there is a shortcut if you get off the interstate), an intrepid traveler searches the highways and byways of a forgotten landscape hoping against hope to discover just what “intrepid” means.

In a dream made real by wonder and hope, along with 7 Stolichnaya kamikazes, one man, one woman, and a small collection battery-powered love aids are all that stand between soulcrushing despair and feeling pretty good for being hungover.

Born of a union among night-dwellers and purse-snatchers, raised by feral cats and hockey players, taught the black arts by contemporary minimalists, the spawn of a full professor and a research librarian, his name became feared by all, especially those who stuttered.

Never before has such a vast collection of world-renowned stars lent their talents to an enterprise so banal, so pointless, so hyped beyond all measure.

Don’t miss it.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

What to Do With Myself?

I don’t know what to do with myself. Oh sure, I could carve notches into my wrists and make myself into an ashtray, but would that really represent authentic fulfillment of my dreams, not to mention my potential as an object d’art? Shouldn’t I aspire to something more noble, something that makes the world a better place for small children, stray animals, and more importantly, generous, terminally-ill billionaires desperately searching for an heir?

There was a time in my life when it felt like all my actions had a significance that went far beyond my own petty concerns. But then, unfortunately, my dealer got busted and everything changed.

Now, it’s all I can do to find meaning in the simplest of actions: single-handedly rescuing a troupe of Girl Scouts from a burning school bus, finding a cure for cancer, scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Soccer tournament, just the sort of mundane activities the already fill my endless days.

Of course, there’s always email. Thank God I’m able to check my inbox every twenty or thirty seconds to see if the message has arrived that will change my life forever. While it’s unclear exactly what this message will entail, I have eliminated a few possibilities, including inquiries from West African diplomats to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams and offers from prosthetic urologists to make me wild beyond my richest dreams.

I know, as we all do, that real satisfaction in life can only come from within. But then again, so does halitosis. We must wonder, therefore, how can one tell the difference? And if not, should mouthwash really be purchased in large economy sizes?

As I ask such questions, I begin to feel the stirrings of what might be construed as meaning in my life. (Either that, or it’s the tofu scramble I had for breakfast.) In any case, the way forward is clear: are there any dying billionaires out there with answers?

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

How to Relax

It’s become fairly obvious to me that most people—at least those who find it necessary to eat—no longer know how to relax. Perhaps this is genetic; our earliest ancestors are called hunter-gatherers after all, not hunter-gatherer-relaxers. Perhaps, though it’s a sign of the times; contemporary technology has made it possible for us to never be more than a mouse-click away from piles work that, historically, could have been moved to the bottom of the in-box and avoided for weeks.

The upshot of this is that you never see anyone fully cutting loose blowing it all off. Sure, I had beer for breakfast yesterday, but that didn’t stop me from responding to my emails in the afternoon. Today, of course, I’m deep into damage-control mode (who would have thought my dean would so object to being referred to as a “warthog” in the attachment I mistakenly included in my tell-all confessional to her) and so pretty much all the relaxation I accumulated in the last 24 hours has been used up.

And this, I guess, is what I’m talking about: unless you’re the chief executive of a major corporation like Microsoft or the U.S. Government, you’re hardly ever going to have a chance to lie around doing nothing but lie. Mostly, you’re going to have that nattering voice in the back of your head reminding you off all you should be doing but are trying hard not to—which of course, defeats the whole purpose, since few things are less relaxing than making an effort to not make an effort.

Sophisticated readers—and even ones who use the salad fork to spear their entrée—will recognize immediately where I’m going with all of this. Few, naturally, will want to follow, preferring instead to forge their own pathways straight from bed to the couch. As for me, I’m satisfied; having churned out this page, I’m free to take the rest of the day off.