for all the wisdom of a lifetime, no one can ever tell

My friend TC celebrated his 39th birthday a few weeks back. He sent out an e-mail inviting folks to Rendezvous in Central Square for dinner and drinks.

He ended the e-mail thus:

Also, I have decided that a drink needs to be created called a “Jack Benny” in honor of the comedian who had a running schtick of always claiming his age was 39. To the best of my knowledge this drink doesn’t exist. Yet. When it does I shall be drinking it.

I fired back the following:

A “Jack Benny”: classic Manhattan; use dry vermouth instead of sweet; use Rose’s Lime Juice instead of bitters. I’ve just decided.

I gave it all of sixty seconds thought and some brief Googling to make sure I hadn’t concocted a poison. But TC, sport that he is, tried it and reported it potable. I have not had the courage to try it yet myself.

# # #

Since I don’t have any teenage daughters or college-age mistresses to shop for, I had no idea that a store called Forever 21 existed until I saw banners warning of an imminent opening in the Arsenal Mall. It’s a latecomer to New England, I believe. Looking it up online, I found that yes, it’s a retail clothing store that primarily targets young men and women.

Few things disturb me as much as the idea of wanting to be twenty-one, forever. I know I shouldn’t read too much into any store’s name, but I couldn’t help but recall a line from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle:

She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.*

# # #

Monday night I met Lindsay and her gentleman caller Marc at Legal Seafoods in the Copley Mall. I showed up at the Legal in the Pru first, much to my confusion. “I didn’t even know there was a second Legal in this mall,” I told the two when I showed up, breathless, four minutes later. “Having two restaurants within a few hundred yards of each other seems a bit much.”

“And we have another one in Park Plaza,” said our server, appearing at my elbow like a conjured devil. “Confuses people all the time. My name’s Jeff; I’ll be your server this evening.”

Lindsay had her first whole lobster, so the server gave her a crash course in how best to dissect one. “Find the way each joint wants to bend, and then bend it the opposite way,” he instructed, a tip that appealed to the jiu-jitsu student in me. I had a baked scrod with buttery crumb topping over some rice pilaf.

On the train ride home, I realized that, though I had filled out the tip on the credit card receipt correctly, I had written in the wrong total – inadvertently adding the line items and the total twice. We’ll see if the restaurant charged me for the bill plus tip (a roughly 20% gratuity) or for the incorrectly doubled bill (a 100% gratuity) in ten days when the statement arrives.

# # #

Let me impart to you some advice my father gave me on New Year’s Eve, 2002:

Remember, I met your mother at a New Year’s Eve party in 1975. So … be careful.

* This leads to one of the more interesting criticisms of Lewis’ theology that I’ve read – is Susan Pevensie being excluded from Heaven because of her sexual maturity? Personally, I could see an argument either way: either yes, Lewis is just that kind of frowning Puritan, or no, because trying to be eighteen for the rest of your life isn’t a sign of sexual “maturity” per se. It’s rather a moot point; read Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” if you’re interested.


I don’t want to set the world on fire

This holiday season, give the gift of a media blow.

Philip Marlowe: Private Eye: One of the very earliest HBO original series, starring a young but still jowly Powers Boothe as Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective. The series adapts Chandler’s short stories – not all of which involved Marlowe originally – and formats them as hour-long teleplays. The show suffers from the dated cinematography that afflicted every TV show in the mid-80s; it comes off a lot like Murder, She Wrote, if Jessica Fletcher hung out with heroin addicts and occasionally shook a broad if she got mouthy1. But the dialogue’s still pretty sharp: a good pastiche of Chandler and the intervening decades without sounding like self-parody. And Boothe has the attitude down.

The Tailor of Panama: I don’t have a lot of faith in anything le Carre wrote after Smiley’s People. He fell in love with the ornateness of his own descriptions, leading to entire chapters that recounted about five minutes of action. But The Tailor of Panama not only revives le Carre’s classic cynicism, it ramps up his sardonic eye at the absurdity of his former profession – espionage – and the politics that enable it. Harry Pendel has thrived in Panama for decades, cutting bespoke suits for three successive Presidents (including Noriega) and countless foreign parties interested in the Canal. He also has a secret – a secret which makes him vulnerable to British spy Andrew Osnard. Osnard quickly puts Pendel to use as a source for South American intel, and Pendel makes use of Osnard’s resources in turn. Clever, tense and regularly surprising. One of the few le Carre novels I felt could have been longer.

Tropic Thunder: Funny enough, but I felt it could have spent another 15 minutes in the oven. You worry a film like this will wear out its welcome early: a concept strong enough for an SNL sketch strung out to a 90-minute run time. But Stiller et al give the premise just enough room, while exploring a variety of other action movie tropes as well. The trailers that precede the movie left me rolling; Tom Cruise’s cameo entertained me but didn’t rock my world2.

Boomsday: Christopher Buckley once again takes a premise, gives it just enough room to stand on its own, and sets it loose on the bizarre world of Washington, D.C. This time around, it’s Cassandra Devine – a smart, hip blogger who catches America’s eye with the ahem modest proposal to solve the Social Security crisis by offering tax rebates to seniors who volunteer for euthanasia. She doesn’t mean for anyone to take it seriously; merely to spark some debate. But then it catches the eye of Senator Randolph K. Jepperson, whose path she’s crossed before and who’s looking for an issue to make a name on for his Presidential bid. It also draws the fire of the Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule, the AARP, the Vatican and a dozen other D.C. factions too ludicrous to be fictional. Boomsday’s pure farce, with nary a prescription for change (to say nothing of prescription drug coverage) in sight. But it’s a diverting few hours.

Burn After Reading: A Coen Brothers pot-boiler, in the original sense: something to keep the fire warm between projects. The Bros. don’t seem to know whether they want a screwball comedy – Tilda Swinton’s sleeping with George Clooney, while her husband John Malkovich writes his CIA memoirs, which he loses at the gym where Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand work, and then Clooney meets McDormand, etc. – or a black comedy, where (like office politics) the fighting is so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. Despite the word “comedy” appearing in both, they are very different animals. Still: entertaining and worth a rental. I laughed several times.

Anansi Boys: When Gaiman’s being grand – writing sweeping paragraphs about the importance of Song and Story – I don’t like him very much at all. But when he’s writing about natural people dealing with supernatural things, like a nebbish discovering his father’s a West African god and his brother has inherited dad’s powers, then he shines. He invests the ordinary with magic and horror and suspense, and there he has few equals. Reading this, I couldn’t help casting Hustle‘s Adrian Lester as Fat Charlie and LL Cool J as Spider. Trust me, it works.

Fallout 3: Wow3.

1 Now that I think about it, this would be awesome.
2 Watching Tom Cruise in heavy prosthetics made me realize: Tom Cruise only has one setting, and that’s Tom Cruise. That’s all he ever plays. Cocky guy with a ready smile and occasional psychotic intensity. It’s fun to watch – I’ll never get tired of seeing it – but does that really speak to a lot of depth? Will we ever see Tom Cruise play a grieving, mousy widower? An emotionally repressed wage slave? A villain?
3 I mean, holy shit, wow.

christmas is for children

Let’s not overlook the most important gift I could ask for this season: the Ravens in the playoffs. Expect to see a lot more of the #5 jersey over the next few weeks.

I’d say something clever in anticipation of the next playoff round, like, “I hope this year’s Dolphins play like last year’s Dolphins when the Ravens face them,” but the Ravens were Miami’s only victory last year. So … um … let’s just have a good game, yeah?

# # #

I sat down on December 24th to talk wedding details with Matt and Lydia, who I will marry in June 2009 (not to be confused with John and Melissa, who I will marry in May). Man, there’s a lot that goes into a wedding ceremony. How many readings, what kind of readings, who’s going to read them. Will there be a song? Who’s handling the vows? What’s everyone wearing? All sorts of crazy nonsense.

# # #

The TSA riles me up every time I fly through Baltimore, and I’ve finally laid a finger on why: it’s the “Simplifly” video that runs on constant loop while you stand in the security line.

The implied message – people who want to get where they’re going on time disrupt the system; people who docilely comply with the latest bizarre directive are quiet heroes – bothers me. What are you doing to make the TSA’s job easier? Does your packing style accommodate the Administration’s needs? Are you a cooperative citizen?

At about the 0:30 mark, a woman – the recurring villain in this video – sifts through sheaves of airline paperwork, looking for what the TSA demands of her this week (boarding pass, one form of ID). The scanner waits patiently for her to produce it, while the person in line behind her shoots her an, “Are you serious?” look. The nerve of these people! Not anticipating what they’ll be told to do before they’ve been told.

I’ve flown four times in the last forty days, as do many Americans around this season. No two trips through security were the same for me. For instance: despite being told repeatedly – through voice, sign and video – to put all liquids in a clear plastic bag for inspection, I never did. I only got stopped for it once: a thrower pulled my overnight bag out and rifled through my toiletries. If they can’t keep their own restrictions straight, why should I?

50 books: 2009

I’m using this entry to track my “fifty books a year” project for 2009. Entries listed in CSV for later exporting.

1, The Tailor of Panama, John le Carre, December 25 2008
2, Boomsday, Christopher Buckley, December 26 2008
3, Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman, December 26 2008
4, Button Button, Richard Matheson, January 2 2009
5, Strange Itineraries, Tim Powers, January 12 2009
6, Odalisque, Neal Stephenson, January 16 2009
7, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis, January 30 2009
8, The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers, February 13 2009
9, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, February 26 2009
10, Declare (again), Tim Powers, March 6 2009
11, The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, March 10 2009
12, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain, March 14 2009
13, Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden, March 15 2009
14, Emergency, Neil Strauss, March 16 2009
15, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, March 27 2009
16, Secret Agent: The True Story of the Covert War Against Hitler, David Stafford, April 4 2009
17, Xenos, Dan Abnett, April 11 2009
18, The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich, April 11 2009
19, The House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III, April 17 2009
20, The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester, April 17 2009
21, Accelerando, Charles Stross, April 20 2009
22, Your Religion is False, Joel Grus, April 28 2009
23, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, April 30 2009
24, As You Like It, William Shakespeare, May 1 2009
25, Jack and Jill, James Patterson, May 7 2009
26, Malleus, Dan Abnett, May 9 2009
27, The Surgeon, Tess Gerritsen, May 16 2009
28, Persuader, Lee Child, May 23 2009
29, Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh, June 1 2009
30, Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson, June 23 2009
31, Slan, A.E. van Vogt, June 29 2009
32, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, July 12 2009
33, No Second Chance, Harlan Coben, July 24 2009
34, Earth Abides, George Stewart, July 26 2009
35, Road Fever, Tim Cahill, July 27 2009
36, The Family, Jeff Sharlet, August 12 2009
37, Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane, August 19 2009
38, Paranoia, Joseph Finder, August 21 2009
39, No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy, August 22 2009
40, The Confusion: Juncto, Neal Stephenson, September 15 2009
41, The Confusion: Bonanza, Neal Stephenson, September 15 2009
42, Perdido Street Station, China Mieville, October 2 2009
43, The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley, October 6 2009
44, Wanderer, Sterling Hayden, October 10 2009
45, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin, October 14 2009
46, One Shot, Lee Child, October 20 2009
47, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire, Chalmers Johnson, October 26 2009
48, Gone for Good, Harlen Coben, November 9 2009
49, The Hard Way, Lee Child, November 28 2009
50(1/2), How The Mind Works, Stephen Pinker, November 30 2009
50(1/2), This Immortal, Roger Zelazny, December 1 2009

yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me

Time to catalog the annual Christmas haul:

  • One Canon SD1100-IS digital camera;
  • 2GB memory card for above;
  • Fallout 3, Gears of War 2 and Bioshock;
  • The Stress of Her Regard (Tim Powers)
  • Some Land’s End polos and Ts
  • Band of Brothers on DVD

Mom got a pashmina and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; Dad got Amazon and iTunes gift cards (to complement his other gifts – a Kindle and an iPod Nano); and my brother got some UnderArmour and a Swiss Army Knife. A good haul, even in this wintry economic climate.

bum rush the sound I made a year ago

For folks traveling today, tomorrow or later: here are a list of items the TSA will confiscate from travelers. This list includes the following weapons of mass destruction:

  • Gel inserts in your shoes.

    gel_insert(Tom: “Are you gellin’?” “I’m gellin’ like a felon. No, literally, I have been arrested and am facing criminal charges.”)

  • Snow globes.

    (Dad: “It’s part of Obama’s war on Christmas. You know he’s secretly a Muslim and has been waiting for this chance to put his anti-Christian agenda into play.

    Professor: “Well, sure. He just takes the apparatus Bush put into place, and half the work’s done for him already!”

    An exercise for the reader: which of us were joking?)

  • Kubotans. Confiscating a kubotan – a six-inch plastic stick that hangs from your keychain – illustrates the shallow mentality behind the whole TSA process. “Oh, these things could be used as weapons,” some moron decides, after trolling a few websites and spending twelve seconds in thought.

    kubotan(1) Another thirty seconds of thought would have revealed the following: a kubotan is a six-inch plastic stick. 95% of the people who carry these things have no formal training and are no more a threat with it than without. The other five percent? The ones who have not only seen, but know, pressure points, joint locks, submission and escort techniques? They’ll just find another six-inch plastic stick.

    Excuse me, sir, can I borrow that pen for a second? That’s a nice pocket umbrella; mind if I take a look? Hey, can you pass me that stapler? I’d like a Lifesaver; could you hand me that roll? Got a light? Hell, taking off a metal watch and wrapping it around your knuckles would accomplish the same effect.

    (2) No one’s going to rush the cockpit with a kubotan. The entire point of a kubotan is to enhance strikes and submission techniques, not to inflict instant, fatal injuries. It’s not like a knife, where an untrained jackass swinging blindly is still a serious threat. I suppose you could kill someone with a kubotan if you jammed it up into their eye or struck them hard enough to collapse their trachea. But that’s a million-to-one shot for all but the most fanatically trained users, and taking their keychain away won’t help (see #1 above).

    My point: a kubotan is not a deadly weapon. Confiscating it is stupid. Then again, confiscating shampoo is stupid. Confiscating water is stupid. We’re at the mercy of thugs and morons. Why even leave your home anymore?


It snowed a lot this weekend.

Thursday we had the annual Yankee Swap at Internet, Inc. In our version (I don’t know that these are the default rules), you draw a wrapped present from the pile and decide (before opening it) to keep it or trade with someone else. The action stayed pretty sedate until the latter rounds, when all the good gifts were in the open.

As expected, more than half of the gifts contained alcohol or were alcohol-related (wine stoppers, glassware, etc). I had my eye on a bottle of Maker’s Mark and had a late enough number to claim it, but I knew someone else would readily take it from me. So I took a set of Guinness glasses and coasters instead. I then lost that gift five minutes later in exchange for a Best Buy gift card, which I kept until the end.

Friday was the actual Internet Inc. Christmas party at the Charles Hotel. Forgetting that dinner would be served at the party, I made myself some fish and rolls at home, then showed up fashionably late. Fortunately they’d just tucked in to the buffet when I arrived, so I got to lay a solid foundation of carbs before I started drinking. And let me assure you – I did a lot of drinking. When the VP of Marketing buys you a sambuca shot, you do not say no.

After trudging home in a blizzard, I resolved to leave the house as few times as possible that weekend. I only did twice. Once to Christopher’s on Saturday, to get a drink and watch the Ravens embarrass the Cowboys in their final game in Texas Stadium. Once to IB on Sunday to see the annual holiday show, a hilariously inappropriate send up of Santa, Christmas trees, Christmas songs and cookie dough.

# # #

Light on content today; sorry. I’m going to be in Baltimore through the weekend. You know how to reach me.