In high school, I fell in love with CliffNotes, not because it helped me read the classics. Ha! Right! I read the CliffNotes on our assigned readings and skipped the books. Needless to say, I did not do well in my English classes. Here’s another solution.
Wrong Hands illustrator John Atkinson blends cartoons, literature, and humor in his new book, Abridged Classics.
The news from Mother Jones doesn’t surprise me. All “smart” devices have the ability for others–including the government–to accidentally or purposefully eavesdrop on your conversations. I’m especially creeped out by Amazon’s and Google’s smart speakers.
In case you needed another reminder that Amazon’s Echo, an internet-connected recording device designed to listen and respond to verbal commands, can pose security and privacy risks for you and your loved ones, here you go. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now…you’re being hacked.” A family in Portland, Oregon contacted the company recently to ask it…
I had heard of Arundhati Roy and her novel The God of Small Things when it was published back in 1997. I had long forgotten why the book interested me. I was a newly-minted Christian at the time, so maybe the provocative title with “God” in it made me want to check it out. I probably jotted the title down for future reading on the bookmark I was using at that time. That was my pre-Goodreads.com method of keeping a list of books I wanted to read. That approach wasn’t advantageous. (Somewhere out in the world, there are a dozen or so deteriorating New Yorker and QPB Book Club bookmarks with book titles scribbled on them.) It took the recent publicity of her 2017 book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness–glowing reviews and fascinating interviews–to remind me of the author’s previous award-winning novel and my interest in it. In between these two critically-acclaimed works of fiction are twenty years and eighteen non-fiction publications and activism.
When I started reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I immediately fell for Aftab, a Shia Muslim hermaphrodite born in Old Delhi, India. As she reaches adulthood, she has gender reassignment surgery and becomes Anjum, a glamorous, affectionate woman. Anjum moves into a house called Khabgah (or “House of Dreams”) with the group hermaphrodites and transgenders. Anjum later leaves Khabgah and moves into a nearby cemetery where she transforms it into a guest house, called Jannat (or “Paradise”), and creates Jannat Funeral Services. Jannat Guest House becomes home to other marginalized and persecuted characters like herself. This, I believe, is where Roy gets the title to the book. The significance of the cemetery is that in India graveyards are usually for Muslims. Hindus cremate their dead, and so these sites become ghettos of sorts since Muslims are the minority and have been pushed to the bottom of the economic and social chain.
But this is only the beginning of this beautiful and brutal braided narrative covering many decades of often bloody struggles and strife. The story moves back and forth in time and geography: Delhi to Kashmir, from the 1990s to current time dealing with the hypocrisy of the caste system to the Kashmiri separatist movement that called for the Muslim-majority Kashmir to break from Hindu-majority India.
The West often thinks of India as the land of yoga, meditation, and Gandhi. However, Roy said in a recent interview with Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept, “There has not been a single day since August 15, 1947, when India was declared independent that the Indian Army has not been deployed within its own borders, against its own people…It’s just a nation that is nailed together by military might.” As an American who never studied the history of India, Richard Attenborough’s version of Mahatma Gandhi’s life is the most background knowledge I have on the subject, so the stuff in this book had some shockers. (By the way, if you have fifteen minutes, check out Roy setting the record straight on Gandhi here. It was news to me!)
Roy dedicated the book to “The Unconsoled,” and that would apply to the characters in this book if they were alive. They don’t fit neatly into the complex grid that is India. An India “that is divided into this tiny little fretwork of caste and ethnicity and language and each is pitted against the other,” as the author told Scahill. A humous example of this is contained in a joke that militants passed around on their mobile phones:
I saw a man on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Muslim or a non-Muslim?” He said, “A Muslim.” I said, “Shia or Sunni?” He said, “Sunni.” I said, “Me too! Deobandi or Barelvi?” He said, “Barelvi.” I said “Me too! Tanzeehi or Tafkeeri?” He said, “Tanzeehi.” I said “Me too! Tanzeehi Azmati or Tanzeehi Farhati?” He said, “Tanzeehi Farhati.” I said “Me too! Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Uloom Ajmer or Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat?” He said, “Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat.” I said, “Die, kafir!” and I pushed him over.
Forgive this blogger’s indulgence. The joke was too funny to not reproduce here. It is also the only time while reading the book that I laughed out loud. So, the passage misrepresents the work as a whole, but the punchline fits with much of the novel’s text. Still, there are beautiful love stories here amongst the massacres, lynchings, and tortures. The fact that Roy can effectively reveal love and tenderness in this kind of landscape is her genius.
When interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! Roy said, “Fiction in reality as well as in my imagination is my real home, but this time it is home with the roof blown off.” Indeed, at times The Ministry of Utmost Happiness seems like it is rubble where home used to be. I, for one, am grateful for the storm. I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a tough read, but worth every challenging page.
If I had treated Ministry of Utmost Happiness as some kind of dark speculative history and didn’t follow up by reading the sobering nonfiction Capitalism: A Ghost Story I might have just moved on an been a happy idiot, but I didn’t. Capitalism: A Ghost Story is, at least to this rookie of Indian politics, a The Ministry of Utmost Happiness without tenderness or beauty. Capitalism: A Ghost Story is in part about how non-taxpaying foundations like Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation with almost unlimited resources turn their economic wealth into political, social, and cultural capital.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story is about neoliberalism, racism, the privatization of public works, and pollution run amuck, and the wreckage unfettered capitalism leaves in its path. There are Kashmiri separatists, anti-government Maoists rebels in the jungles fighting against the government that wants to strip the forest for mining operations and massive privately-owned dam projects threatening to wipe out hundreds of poor communities. Scary shit, indeed!
Roy spends much of the ink here on the evils of foundations. It is fascinating in a very dark way how foundations have a history of “defusing and deradicalizing” movements like, for instance, the Black civil rights movement here in the 1960s and the “successful transformation of Black Power into Black Capitalism.” Roy writes:
“The Rockefeller Foundation, in keeping with J. D. Rockefeller’s ideals, had worked closely with Martin Luther King Sr. (father of Martin Luther King Jr.). But his influence waned with the rise of the more militant organizations—the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations moved in. In 1970 they donated $15 million to “moderate” Black organizations, giving people, grants, fellowships, scholarships, job-training programs for dropouts, and seed money for Black-owned businesses. Repression, infighting, and the honey trap of funding led to the gradual atrophying of the radical Black organizations. Martin Luther King Jr. made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism, and the Vietnam War. As a result, after he was assassinated even his memory became toxic, a threat to public order.”
Foundations “remodeled his legacy to fit a market-friendly format.” The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, with a grant of $2 million, was set up by the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Mobil, and Monsanto, among others. The center maintains the King Library and Archives of the Civil Rights Movement. We rarely hear about the radical, socialist King. All we easily remember (unless you look for his late speeches or read Tavis Smiley or Cornel West) is the “I Have a Dream” speech, the non-violent protests, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C. Stuff that corporate and middle American can easily ingest.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story is a sharp rebuke of neoliberalism and multinational capitalism. Her in-depth writing reminds me of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Chris Hedges. I can’t always wrap my head around what she is saying. That’s alright though–I would prefer to be challenged than jaded.
The last book I read was Roy on mass government surveillance. Things That Can and Cannot Be Said is a collaboration with American actor John Cusack and is, for the most part, nothing new. Roy and Cusack fly to Moscow with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to interview NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The interview turned out to focus on Ellsberg as much as on Snowden. Most of the book is interview transcripts, the first part of it between Roy and Cusack alone and the second half the co-authors with the famous whistleblowers.
Snowden seemed to add little new information to the conversation. Roy questioned Snowden over the controversial Wired Magazine September 2014 cover. Snowden gave a flippant answer. Presumably, because he has fielded that question too many times already. To me, this was a missed opportunity. Snowden–like Ellsberg–entered the armed forces and later the government because he wanted to serve. Like Ellsberg (and for that matter Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, et al.) he was not a radical. I might be reading in between the lines here, but I felt Roy was disappointed in the Wired cover pic. She has been quoted as saying, “Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use to first shrink wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” My guess is she felt that Snowden was falling back on a banal patriotic trope and she wanted a clear answer from him and what she got was frustration.
I gleaned more from the Ellsberg comments. I hadn’t visited the Pentagon Papers scandal since college, so some of what he had to say refreshed my memory. One of the more chilling comments came from Ellsberg. I have heard others comment on this, most notably Chris Hedges, though Ellsberg broke it down to how it would all happen:
“We don’t have a police state, not yet…One more 911 and then I believe we will have hundreds of thousands of potentials. Middle-easterners, Muslims will be put into detention camps or deported. After 911 we had thousands of people arrested without charges, but I am talking about the future…I’m talking of hundreds of thousands in camps or deported. I think the surveillance is relevant to that. They will know who to put away. The data is already collected.”
Ultimately, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said was a rehash for me. All the stuff I have read about since the initial story from The Guardian broke and then the interviews and articles that have come in its tsunami-size wake.
What to read next by Arundhati Roy–Walking With the Comrades where Roy traveled into the forests of Central India where Maoist guerillas confront some of the world’s biggest mining corporations. Or maybe The Doctor and the Saint where Roy attempts to replace Gandhi with Ambedkar as India’s preeminent modern figure. Wait! Minutes before posting this I bought An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire–a book that has been described as “a call to arms against the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire.”
I’ll probably just take a break from Roy for a while. She is an excellent writer and a great thinker, but like Chomsky, Hedges, and Klein, a little too sobering to take in large doses. Still, I just may get around to reading The God of Small Things sooner than later. I wonder what other titles are on all those lost bookmarks.
Today is the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, and while much of his work is over my head, some of his basic ideas are spot on like how all profit is “surplus-value” (obtained by paying workers less than the value of what they produce). Marx called capitalism inefficient, wasteful, and immoral. Today this seems like an understatement. Read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate for starters. Marx wrote of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist system before there were crippling recessions and depressions, booms and busts. Marx also predicted monopolies. Most of these predictions and assertions were writing in his masterpiece, the three-volume tome Capital: Critique of Political Economy (also known by its German name Das Kapital). While I can say I have read the passionate yet anachronistic Communist Manifesto (co-written by his friend and often financial supporter Friedrich Engels), I cannot say I have read much of Capital Volume 1 and I have never seen the other two volumes.
I had a proper introduction to Marx in high school thanks to Mr. Thorn–an exceptional economics teacher–who had his class read Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers. Heilbroner’s Marx seemed to me like the hero of the common laborer, but I was young and a remedial student and was aware of this deficiency. I was easy prey to the smarter kids who thought Marx was terrible. (It was the Cold War and I lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood and attended a high school of the like.) Mr. Thorn was a free-thinking kind of teacher and was open to ideas by Marx and Thorstein Veblen–another thinker in Heilbroner’s book that fascinated me. I loved the class so much that upon receiving a “C” in the course I enrolled in the class again, earning the same grade despite covering the same material. (I told you I was dull!) Without a doubt, Marx was the most challenging chapter in a very challenging book for me, but Marx cared about working person. No matter how mediocre of a student I was, I understood Marx cared for the little guy, and I liked that.
In college, my exposure to Marx was relegated to a guest speaker on one day in my Economics 1A class. My professor lectured almost exclusively on how reduced governments, free trade, deregulation, and fiscal responsibility in government was the ideal. I got re-acquainted with Adam Smith, David Ricardo and was introduced to Friedrich Hayek and other Austrian School economists, as well as Milton Friedman, and other University of Chicago economists. Just like in my high school economics class, I was horrible, garnishing a “C” and compelling me once and for all to stay away from the subject but focus on the social ramifications of economic projects. I have always been compassionate. Where I got that from I don’t know. Maybe my parents, but also there were my Sunday school teachings of Jesus. (I would later articulate Jesus feeding and healing the poor into being pro-welfare, pro-National Health Insurance, and pro-Guaranteed Minimum Income.) When I was a kid, I liked Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor idea. (I would later articulate this into aggressive wealth redistribution aka Progressive Taxation.)
Anyway, I put up with the libertarian-leaning class study. In a lame attempt to be “fair” the professor had a student who was a member of a socialist party come in an explain socialism to the class. It sounded good to me, but after the socialist finished his talk a classmate who had been quiet the whole semester started asking questions. Soon he was ripping into the speaker rhetorically asking something like “How do you expect architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. will agree to be paid the same as janitors, waitresses, groundskeepers, dishwashers, etc.” The socialist stammered and the guy in class just kept coming at him. I even remember the professor smiling impishly on the sidelines not about to help the young socialist out even if he could defend the speaker if only in theory. When the capitalist apologist was done, he became the Big Man in Econ 1A. I knew there were smarter socialists on the planet who could debate this student, and for every smarter socialist, there would be a more intelligent capitalist, and so on, but I didn’t know the answers. I would like to think the winner in the Debate Royale would be a socialist. In a timeless universe perhaps Marx would be the last man standing.
After I graduated I put away Marx and socialism and settled down as a family man, discontinued my subscriptions to leftist magazines, and voted an uninspiring Straight Democratic Ticket in most elections. Twenty years later, in 2007, I would get back into following politics after falling in love with the eloquent words of Barack Obama. At the same time, though, I started reading the alternative press, like I did back in college. People were calling the U.S. Senator from Illinois a socialist and I was intrigued to know if he really was one.
Could it be true?
Yes! Lowrie homered!
Shortly after Obama took office, I started wondering how this guy could be a socialist when he was hiring the same people Clinton used to betray American workers with their free trade agreements, screwing the poor by reforming welfare and passing the Crime Bill, and opening the door for catastrophe by dismantling Glass-Stegall. I was flipping through an issue of The Nation Magazine one day and saw an ad for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sported the faces of Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and the Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders–three people I had a lot of respect for. West was one of Obama’s biggest supporters. (He would later call Obama a “counterfeit.”) I knew of the erudite Chomsky back in college. The Senator from Vermont I just had heard about. Sanders had recently done a filibuster on the Senate floor corporate greed and the decline of the middle class that lasted over eight hours. I had read extracts from it in The Nation and was inspired: I hadn’t read Marx in years but thought this hero of the working class and poor was the closest thing to it. When I became a member of the DSA, it was the first time I called myself a socialist. By the time I read the full transcript of Sanders filibuster in his book The Speech I was a big fan, but I also knew–long before he ran for president in April of 2015–that he was a lite version of a socialist. Bernie was–is–more like a pre-neoliberal Democrat. Noam Chomsky has referred to him as a “New Dealer” and others have likened him to LBJ. I knew he was the best bet by far for president in that election, but neoliberalism has both parties and the mainstream media in a death grip. Bernie didn’t stand a chance. At least in 2016.
Shortly after the Mid-term elections of 2010, I began attending meetings and reading groups at my local chapter of the DSA here in Sacramento, but while my fellow members were warm and welcoming all my years of reclusiveness had taken its toll. Additionally, I was often by far the oldest person in the room. Most of the attendees were college students–my kids’ ages. I stuck out. I continued to attend meetings off and on, then quit for a while, then started up again, then I just decided to watch from the sidelines. I remain a member. I pay my dues, contribute whenever there are fund drives, but otherwise, I’m more of an armchair socialist.
I have read the Max Beer biography The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, portions of Eric Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man, as well as revisiting the chapter on Marx in Heilbroner’s book. I admire Marx mainly in some of the ways he has inspired thinkers that I better understand and follow. For one there is the filmmaker Raoul Peck, director of the new film The Young Karl Marx. The movie is good if not stunning like his previous film I’m Not Your Negro. The interview below of Peck by Amy Goodman is interesting because they show how the National Rifle Association uses fear of Marx(!) to combat the rise of anti-gun protests after the Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland Florida.
Another interesting note about Wayne LaPierre’s C-PAC speech is that it is highly speculative that “on college campuses ‘The Communist Manifesto’ is one of the most frequently assigned texts” and it is dubious, at best, that “Karl Marx is the most assigned economists” [sic]. The complaints from Marxist professors like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright, and my favorite, Richard D. Wolff, is that heterodox economics is not being taught in many colleges in the U.S. enough. The trend for some time now has been towards Neoclassicalism, a school of thought that has no room for Marx, or Keynes or any of the others outside the orthodoxy. I like Wolff (and Harvey and my youngest son who is a Marxist) because he is so accessible. He hosts the excellent podcast Economic Update, he is a frequent guest on The Thom Hartmann Program and here he is on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Finally, I accidentally found the video below when looking up Wolff on YouTube. Wolff is the narrator for this Join the Socialist Party USA video. I am not endorsing the party, but maybe I should. I’m still a Democrat for some inexplicable reason. (More about me and my attachment to the Party of FDR and LBJ (and not the Clintons and Obama) in an upcoming post.)
Anyway, I agree (at least on an intellectual level) with the message in the video. I’d like to think Marx would, too, if he were around today.
I’m sitting on my scooter in a traffic jam at least two full city blocks long. I can see the light half of a block in front of me turns from green to red to back to green and red again. Within each light change, I move a little more than one car length towards the inevitable intersection and my turn to crossover into another block of gridlock. I deal with traffic jams every time I ride my scooter home after work. The difference this time is this size of this jam and that it is pouring down rain. If this were the midday, late evening, or weekend the ride from where I work to home would take about fifteen minutes. Add another fifteen minutes during a usual five o’clock rush, but this is the Mother of all Traffic Jams, and I’m guessing that’s because it is raining buckets of H2O. I can hear the occasional unfruitful honks by frustrated drivers. What are you guys bitchin’ about–you’re dry in your climate-controlled vehicle, idiots!
If I were on my bicycle, I would, unless I ignored the forecast, have rain gear on and I would be home in thirty minutes. Why have I never worn rain gear when commuting via scooter on rainy days? I have no idea. I’m a moron. I bought the rain gear for my bicycle commuting and for some reason my brain associates the bright yellow hazmat-wear exclusively with my bike, not my scooter. As I feel the water run down my back and chest, and my jeans are soaked through, I know I will never make this mistake again. There’s also the path I insist on taking home when I am on my scooter. I know two motorcycle commuters from my work that park away from the congested areas. One reason I didn’t care for where they park is that the slots are about a three-block walk from our office, whereas the place where I park my ride is only a block from our office’s front door. But that is the point–they walk through the gridlock and are only slightly impeded by traffic after that. I blew off that idea because I get to my ride faster than they get to theirs. I know they would argue, “but you don’t have to take that route, Jack.” Meh, I like my way home, says the stubborn old scooterist soaked through. I see a city bus go by in the cross traffic. I bet those commuters are dry and toasty in there. I used to ride the bus. That was the best thing about commuting via mass transit.
Forty-five minutes later, I finally get home. I park my ride in the garage, and open the door to the dry and warm house, and yell for someone to fetch me a big towel. My wife is not home and my son is most likely in his room on the other side of the house with his headphones on playing a video game, I bet. I say fuck it and stripe down to my birthday suit, prance into the house checking the laundry room first, hoping for a towel–clean or dirty, damp or dry–in there, but the laundry gods do not favor me today. I tiptoe through the kitchen, crossing a large window looking out to the street–Hello neighbors!–and snag a clean kitchen towel. After drying my feet and legs, I chuck that wet towel and pick another clean, dry kitchen towel just to cover the dog and dice in case my son runs into me in the hallway and I scar him for life. I make my way to my bedroom. After I dry off, put on some dry clothes, I deal with the mound of soaked clothes I left in the garage. That commute was the worst of the three possible situations for me getting home in a monsoon. Another scenario is peddling home on my bike without my rain gear. I’ve done that too, though not so much these days–I’m a better-prepared bicyclist commuter than a scooterist commuter, I guess. The third scenario is getting home via the bus, but not being prepared for rain (thin or no jacket). Most days–rain or shine–I ride my bicycle. If it rains my rain gear inevitable leaks through the edges of the polypropylene, but I wouldn’t get as douched as I got riding home on my scooter on this early evening thanks to traffic like this.
In the thirty years I have worked in Downtown Sacramento commuting from either East Sac or South Sac most of the commutes were done on the Regional Transit District (RT) bus system, but in the last seven or so years, I have found bicycling and, occasionally, scootering more liberating. (The three years I drove into work by car I’ll leave out of this post. There’s not much to write about.) There are definitely things you miss by not being in a bus besides climate control and being able to relax: people, for better or worse. And unlike the 60s Honda ad, you don’t really get to “meet the nicest people on a Honda,” or a Vespa–you’re moving too fast and the engine noise gets in the way of any meaningful
Conversations at red lights outside of the “two wheels on the ground” gesture. Bicycling is only slightly better for that kind of thing, but if you need/want to get to work or home quickly, discussions are usually cut to a minimum. Also, for a recluse like me, blocking out the world and listen to my audiobooks and podcasts on my phone is ideal.
When I first got my day job with the State of California, I lived in East Sac near T Street’s scenic median park area. That’s where I picked up the bus. Fred, a gregarious bus driver, would greet me with a “Hellooo, JACK!” So outgoing was Fred that he seemed to ignore my head-down, “Don’t Bother Me, I’d Rather Be Left Alone With My Book” body language and introduced himself and ask my name early on when I was stuck struggling with the onboard ticket machine. After the first couple of Hellooo JACKs, I felt obliged to sit across from him usually reserved for the seniors. Within a week I knew his first name and that he lived only a couple of blocks away from my home with his wife, computer enthusiast son, and wheel-chair bound daughter. (An explanation of those descriptors is below.) I began to look forward to our rides and felt disappointed when the double doors would swing open and someone else was at the wheel, but only for a moment. Now, I could read. I don’t make friends easily, and I very rarely make close friends–the kind of friends who know my family, and I know theirs. (A product of my horribly reclusive junior high and high school years, I suppose.) I can’t say I wanted to become close friends with Fred, just that I treasured the short time we had together on the commutes. He also seemed to respect my boundaries and never attempted to take it to another level (e.g., invite my family and me to a backyard barbeque, dinner out, etc.).
The following Halloween when I was walking our older son, Peter, around the neighborhood picking up enough agents of tooth decay to make him happy, I noticed a house with a big institutional-looking traversing ramp in front of it. When my son knocked on the door, Fred answered and gave my kid some treats. I walked up and greeted him as a neighbor for the first time. He was surprised and–I think–a little embarrassed. If I pegged the embarrassment quality, I don’t know why. I hope it wasn’t the ramp or me seeing his daughter who was in an electric wheelchair behind him. We said thank you and moved on. The next day Fred was less animated but just as warm. We chatted all the way to my stop downtown. Inside of a week, though, he began to open up about the challenges he and his wife have raised a child who has a disability. Anyone who knows me knows I will never win any awards for empathy. I am far too self-centered. So when he began to sob, saying, “My poor daughter,” I felt like I wanted to crawl out the window and ride into town on the roof. When he spoke of his son it was in awe of how he built his own computers. When he spoke of his daughter, it was strictly about her challenges and her depression. It is sad when a parent describes a child in those descriptors, then again, I didn’t know what the young woman was like–she could have been in a permanent state of depression over her physical disability or she could have been suffering from clinical depression. Fred never talked about how many books she read, what a good writer she was, the beautiful art she created, etc. He never defined her in any other way but disabled.
Shortly after the sobbing incident, a new regular bus driver replaced Fred on my line. I don’t know if Fred got a new assignment or he requested a change, or maybe he and his family moved. I knew where he lived. I could have walked over to his house on the weekend to see how he was and what was up with his absence, but I felt awkward about doing that. I instead decided to capitalize on the extra time I had to read on my commute. This callous bastard finally got some good reading in. Shortly after I got a new bus driver, my family and I moved to South Sac and naturally, my bus route changed with the change of address.
The new bus trips were not as long, but the timetables were not friendly to my dawdling ways–I missed the morning bus often and because the bus stop to get back home was five blocks away from my office, I had either to sneak out early or get home late. I didn’t get to know any of the drivers, and that was fine with me, but by the time I got on the bus was very crowded, which was a pain. Many of the commuters were Sacramento High School and McClatchy High School students who were not rowdy but were loud and took up a lot of space with their backpacks. You had to ask them to remove their packs and they would rarely scoot over so the insensitive shits would make you climb over their legs to sit down.
By this time my youngest child, Ely, was a toddler the significant amount of weight I had gained while he was in utero had not come off. So, when the weather warmed up my wife told me I needed to exercise and on a Saturday we went to the local bike shop, College Cyclery, to pick up a commuter bike. It was a serendipitous affair: the bike shop owner, Chuck, was an old family friend. Back when I was a kid my family and his used to go camping together tearing up the Sierras in dune buggies my father made when he wasn’t making boats. My wife had picked out a Peugeot from the used bikes chained up in front of the store. I took the hybrid road/mountain bike for a ride and decided it was okay. It was the first time I had been on a bicycle since high school, so the only thing I could compare it with was my Schwinn ten speed I road back in 1976! I would later discover a bigger bike shop with more product in East Sacramento, but a friend encouraged me to patronize the local independent bike shop and I took that advice. With only one exception, I have purchased all my bikes from College Cyclery and have all my tune-ups/maintenances done at this shop, as well.
When I started commuting via bike the going was rough at first. My fat ass had not done the least amount of exercise since community college, ten years ago, and the extra pounds made the ride brutal–showing up at work sweaty and winded. I was happy when the rainy season began, but the bus experience had its rough moments. There were the altercations at the 7th Street bus stop near what is now Golden 1 Center when I was trying to get home. One time, standing out there waiting for my bus, a fight broke out. The punching and pushing had a mosh pit effect and a second after the fight broke out the innocent to my right slammed into me and I slammed into the young woman to my left who gave me a look like a started it. Another time someone pulled a knife on someone. In a minute, the fight ended up in the street stopping traffic. If I wasn’t so freaked out I might have started snapping my fingers singing “Boy, boy, cool it, boy,” but I doubt the two black guys ready to fight have ever seen “West Side Story.” They probably wouldn’t take kindly to a white guy calling one of them “boy,” either. A short time later, I walked around the corner at this bus stop to find three patrol cars and half-dozen youngsters on their knees wearing zip-tie cuffs. This wasn’t the first time patrol cars had been at this bus stop, but considering how far I had to walk and how crazy things could get there, I started taking the city’s light rail system to a bus stop outside of what appeared to be the “danger zone.”
From time to time, at this new bus stop, a different bus would stop that took me closer to home if not all the way. I would take it just to get moving. Chris rode this line, a guy who was a courier in my office. A cigar smoking, conservative, who lived on the dodgy side of town, I didn’t have much in common with him, but for the short bus ride, we would share a bench and make small talk. I would get off in front of the Tower Theatre on Broadway–my old job. From there, I would wait for my bus. On the last day I ever rode on Chris’ line I heard two people on the bench behind us talking trouble. I’m reconstructing the conversation as best as I remember including the couple’s vernacular:
Man’s voice: “Nes time I see dat bitch, I’m gonna cut her!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
Man’s voice: “She think I be trippin’, but I’m gonna cut that bitch!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
The man continued his threats with his companion always responding “Yeah.”
Scared shitless, I discreetly leaned over to whisper to Chris if he was getting all this. I got a loud snore back. He had slept through it. I guess that was commonplace where he lived. It was moments like these where I missed riding my bike.
As far back as I go as an RT customer, Sacramento’s public transportation had always transported high school students to the mild inconvenience of meek folk like me. Things got miserable, though, when my city bus began hauling middle school students. The bus was now packed and the relatively quiet ride turned into clattering anarchy on wheels. There were always problems with high school students on the bus, but the incidents were manageable. When middle schoolers started riding my line the cacophony and hijinks were annoying. After someone pulled the cord requesting a stop other teens would begin yanking the cords to see how many times they could make the bell ring. The bus driver would pull over and chew the brats out. I thought I was back in junior hi again, except I wasn’t so I had zero tolerance for this shit. Still, they weren’t my kids so I tried to stick to whatever I was reading or crank up whatever I had on my iPod. (The middle schoolers may have inspired RT to prevent the bell to ring multiple time because shortly after this hell, the signal would only sound once whenever two people would pull the cord requesting the same stop.) During one week a bunch of girls decided to play a variation on the Chinese fire drill prank. One of them would request a stop, when the bus stopped at the next stop, a bunch of the girls would file out the back door only to run up to the front of the bus and come back in, thinking they were so clever, and making everyone that much later to work. This happened a few mornings until the bus driver said fuck it and took off leaving the half-dozen or so teenagers on the sidewalk having to hoof it to school. I’m not sure if that was the safe thing to do, but he received applause from a few commuters. I should have complained to RT, but it didn’t matter, I guess enough people did protest, and the middle school contingency was gone next school year.
Around this time, my wife, a dedicated all-weather bike commuter, decided I needed a new bike. The days were getting longer and sunnier and she felt I needed an upgrade in the bicycle department. We went to a bike shop in neighboring Rancho Cordova and she picked out an aluminum-frame Bianchi Advantage for me. I flew to work on the Italian hybrid! I was still taking the same route through Downtown to get to work, but I must have shaved a good ten minutes off of my time. It felt great, but it wouldn’t last long. One early evening I made the dumb-ass mistake of leaving my bike unlocked outside a neighborhood video store and two teenage boys snagged it. I ran after them looking like an ass assuming I could catch up with them. When I returned to the video store out of breath and pissed off that the property owner didn’t provide a bike rack, the lady behind the checkout asked, “Didn’t you see the two kids riding in circles right outside the store–one of them sitting on the other’s handlebars?” I knew it was my fault for not being aware and for leaving my bike unattended. (Not to mention, if I had locked the rear wheel to the frame neither of the little shits could have run off while holding up a thirty-pound bike!) Regardless of my stupidity, I vowed to never go back to that store and got a Blockbuster account. Years later I got a Netflix account and I never checked to see if that store got around to getting a bike rack. I make it a point now to see if a business provides bike racks. I usually don’t patronize the places that don’t offer them despite how infrequent I use my bike outside of commuting.
My replacement bike was a relatively heavy Giant Sedona, but by that time, I was going through a medical condition that left me without a driver’s license and made me shy away from riding a bike. I was now entirely at the mercy of the city’s overpriced and underserved bus system year around. My Sedona collected dust until I loaned it to my son, Peter, who rode it to his work at a coffee house near Sacramento City College.
In my bus travels, I have met and befriended a few people–not something I do very well. There was Alex, the most negative person I have ever met. To any of my readers who know me personally they may conger up images of pots and kettles upon reading that last statement, but seriously, Alex made me seem like Zig Ziglar. As far as how Alex made me feel, watch the short video below from the 1980 film “Airplane!” I felt like anyone or all three of the poor bastards sitting next to Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) when Alex got going about his life.
I had the misfortune to end up on the same buses with Alex in the mornings and the afternoons. There he was with his copy of the day’s San Francisco Chronicle in his lap. His paper of choice since The Sacramento Bee was a “liberal rag.” I don’t like to mix it up with people, but as a student of journalism, I knew that most West Coast press analysts calling The Bee one of the best newspapers this side of the Mississippi while The Chronicle was often criticized for its poor editorial judgment. I just listened to him complain about the world. The refrain that dragged me down with him was his beef that his boss had blackballed him from making it into an analyst classification. Poor Alex and poor me, too: I was tired of my job running a warehouse and was trying to get into the analyst class, also; albeit, I wasn’t really applying myself. I was just feeling sorry for myself. This made the bus trips with Alex toxic.
Then there was John. Unlike Alex, he was an inspiration. Because he got on the bus after I did we almost never sat next to one another. The first time I noticed him he was yelling. A couple of Sac High male students were seated knees to knees blocking the aisle–like they often did, intimidating fellow commuters from walking past and nearly all of them would place their backpacks on the adjacent seat so you had to ask if they would remove it so you could sit down on their bench. The first time I saw John, he stopped at the blockade, looked straight down, the students returning his gaze as if to challenge, then John bellowed, “MOVE,” as if the slight man was a football coach. They moved. I was impressed.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but there was a third high school represented on this bus every morning. The Met is a small experimental charter high school in Midtown. The students on my bus who attended the school seemed relatively quiet, courteous, and unassuming compared to Sac Hi and McClatchy students. I noticed John striking up conversations with them. He always wanted to know what they were doing, what video games they were playing at the time, TV shows they liked, films they had just seen. John was never judgmental, just inquisitive. On one of the rare occasions, he sat next to me. After exchanging greetings, he pulled out a devotional and began reading. I took that moment to tell him I was a fellow believer. As a Doubting Thomas, I am always impressed with people whose faith is strong. We had a lovely talk before parting. John continued talking with these high schoolers as the school year progressed. After our initial conversation, he seemed to make a point of saying hi whenever he walked down the aisle to find a seat, which was nice.
Unlike Alex and John, I met Mike at the bus stop outside my home one morning. He was open, but with enough distance to make me feel comfortable. His icebreaker was something like, “Hmm that sounds like a hawk.” Time past in silence as I noticed he was craning his neck to try to get a better look at the bird. “It is! Check it out: a Red-Tailed Hawk! It looks like she has a nest in that tree,” pointing across the street at the top of a tall tree of which he knew the species.
In fact, he seemed to know a lot about many things. I didn’t attempt to verify every assertion he made, but he did seem wiser than his years. (He was around 50 at the time I met him.) I don’t think he was trying to impress, just making conversation. Another thing, Mike knew Alex and he agreed with me when I confessed I thought Alex was friendly but had a soul-sucking personality. Mike was a Buddhist who raised Bonsai trees and a pharmacist for Department of Health Services. He regaled me with stories of inspecting pharmacies in California State prisons including the time he was caught during a lockdown. On one occasion, I was waiting at the bus stop and Mike rolled up in his 1972 Honda Civic and asked me if I wanted a ride to work. The man was so meticulous that the car appeared to be brand new. He was an avid bicyclist with a half-dozen different styles of bikes but didn’t ride to work because he felt the commute was too dangerous.
During this time my current bike was slowly going through waves of disintegration and renewal. Peter would start borrowing our second car (which was not a problem since I couldn’t drive). Whenever I asked him what’s wrong with my bike, he would say either the front wheel had been stolen, or the saddle was stolen or both. Whenever my wife and I drove by the coffee house, there was my old red bike locked to the bike rack, but missing a wheel or saddle/post. Giant bikes came with quick releases on the axils as one would expect at this time when bicycle thefts were on a steep incline. What was befuddling was the addition of a quick release on saddle posts. Presumably, the owner was supposed to remove the post/saddle every time the owner parked the bike and, maybe, carry it over the shoulder? What was equally as moronic was that I never got around to replacing that quick release with a bolt and nut which made this situation worse. (On subsequent Giant bicycle purchases, before I wheeled the new bikes out of the shop, I would have the quick releases replaced on the saddle post with a bolt and a nut and the quick releases on the axils replaced with security hubs.) In the meantime, I would buy him a new saddle post and/or front wheel and one or both would get ripped off again. I don’t think I ever showed him how to use a quick release, but he also never asked or explored how to mitigate this chronic problem. Presumably, he felt it wasn’t his bike, so he didn’t care. With my medical condition limiting my transportation options and RT continuing to reduce services (by this time they had canceled both Saturday and Sunday service for my line) my choices were whittled down to begging my wife and my son for rides. These were not happy times for me.
Later, Mike reported to me that he got a job working for the Department of General Services. He was especially excited because he had a safe route to ride his bike to work, riding along the Sacramento River, crossing the Tower Bridge, and parking his bike of choice that day in a secure bike room in the Ziggurat in West Sacramento. The Ziggurat (or the “Zig” as the locals called it) is without a doubt the ugliest building on the Sacramento skyline–a mustard-colored god-awful thing by day, and by night, it glowed gold like an exercise in pure kitsch architecture! Aside from the crappy outside, Mike said it has many amenities including a gym and a cafeteria.
Shortly after Mike started riding his bike, I received the green-light on getting my driver’s license back, and with that confidence, I also began riding my bike to work again. I had a new bike now, a Giant Cyprus–which was very similar to my last bike, except this one had suspension in the forks and saddle post. It just might have been the heaviest bike I ever rode. I’m not sure why I bought it, though it might have had something to do with the very comfortable ride. On one of my first days back riding to work, I ran into my boss, Rich. Rich was a tall, svelte man in his 60s. He worked on the seventh floor and always took the stairs taking every other step. (If he took the elevator that meant our director was chewing him out for something.) Rich’s passion was tennis and the Shriners. Work was somewhere pulling up the rear in that list. When I agreed to meet him at the Sacramento Zoo every morning to ride into work, it meant a cardio workout–the man peddled fast. “Pump it up, kid,” he would say whenever I started lagging behind him. Besides being in much better shape than me, he rode like Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious–flying through intersections as if stop signs and on-coming cross traffic did not concern him. One of the benefits of riding with Rich was I got the inside scoop on whatever accommodations our office was planning when it came to bicycles. I saw the early blueprint drafts of the new Lower Level floor that included a Bike Room with lockers and showers and I got my pick of lockers when they first were installed. These perks were not really that special, but Rich made me feel like I was a part of getting people out of their cars and off of the bus and to at least try to commute via bike. He was sensitive enough to let me suggest I lose my spacious office and move into a cramped cubicle. “We still need more room in the warehouse, kid. Hmm, I just don’t know where we are going to find that space.” His finger tapping near my office on the blueprint. “I know, Rich. I don’t need an office. We can gain space for two more cubicles if we demo my office.” “Really, kid. That’s okay?” “Sure!” Holding back the tears. “Use that space. I can work from a cubicle!”
When the rainy season started up, I was back on the bus. The first thing I saw to my utter amazement was all the Met kids holding Bibles! It seemed incredible, but when I had a moment to talk with John a few days later, he told me he had bought all those Bibles for them and ask them if they wanted to read The Gospel of Mark (presumably because it was the shortest and most accessible of the four gospels). Though there didn’t seem to be a proud bone in his body, I thought John was a remarkable man! When I complimented him on this grand gesture, he said it was the Holy Spirit. I wish I had that kind of faith. He also told me that none of them confessed to accepting Jesus, so he doesn’t know what is in their hearts, they may have just liked him and his gift of a book.
Shortly after my talk with John, two significant things happened. First, I got a scooter and found the freedom and self-respect I had lost some years back. I also started riding it to work from time to time. Second, and most importantly, I began to ride my bike to work–rain or shine. My wife and I took a weekend ride along the short, but serviceable Sacramento Bike Trail–the route Mike had told me about. From there we cut over to Front Street and crossed the R Street pedestrian bridge. We stopped here, but I could visualize my route to my office from that point. It was a much more pleasant and safer ride than the other ways I have ridden over the years. Of course, this does not mean I haven’t crashed and burned a couple of times including a time I got hit by a car, but it’s an excellent commuter path just the same. I bought some fluorescent-yellow rain gear and I gave my bike to my youngest son and bought a Giant Escape 3, the fastest, lightest bike I have had so far. It is still not as fast as the road bikes my wife and roadies who work in my office, nor has my garb changed–no bib shorts and a lycra top. I always look like a hot mess out there on the road: dress shirt with a safety vest over that, thermals with shorts over them. Also, people still pass me up like I’m riding backward, but I’m moving.
I rarely ride my bicycle around town, though I probably should. My bike is almost exclusively for commuting. My scooter is the way I get around when I am not commuting. My scooter has given me the freedom I lost many years ago when my driver’s license was suspended. Funny thing is I see people I remember from my bus commuter days. I live by Mike and wave to him when he is maintaining his immaculate lawn or is riding one of his many bikes down his street. I saw Alex at a grocery store on time. I was mid-aisle when we both noticed each other and I was too big to hide behind a box of Raisin Bran. As it turned out, he got an analyst job! I don’t recall if it was in the same office that he claimed blackballed him, but he was happy and that made me happy in more ways than one. Finally, there is John. I saw him talking with a rough-looking young man in a black tank top with sleeve tattoos in Vic’s Cafe. When the young man left, I was able to speak to John for a moment. Not surprising, he had recently led the young man to Christ and he was now attending John’s church. It’s hard to meet people like John or Fred or Mike or even Alex while riding your bike or scooter to work. Still, I’m glad I’m off the bus timetables no matter how wet I can get.
Skip is talking about jury duty and how, in his retirement, he gets summoned more than ever before. “I’m so tired of getting picked for jury duty. The next time a lawyer asks me what do I think of black people I’m going to tell ’em ‘There’re great. I think everyone should own one.’ Maybe then they’ll leave me alone.” Skip is a crusty old white man about 75 in a faded plaid shirt and wearing a beat-up, greasy San Francisco Giants cap with the bill bent in multiple angles almost looking like a half octagon. He is sitting two seats to my right. He’s talking to Jesse, another white septuagenarian (I’m also estimating) who is also wearing a plaid shirt albeit newer. Jesse is sitting between Skip and me at a counter of a Denny’s near my doctor’s office. It’s Tuesday, a scheduled day off for me. I have planned some errands to run after my doctor checks under the hood.
Lyn, a plump 40ish waitress, carries a coffee pot around and freshens all our coffees including the young woman on my left swiping through her iPhone. She missed the racial slur Skip made because she has had earbuds in since I arrived, only popping one bud out to hear whenever Lyn has to say to her whenever she stops at her spot across the counter. The waitress slides an All-American Slam in front of me: three scrambled eggs, hold the Cheddar cheese, two strips of bacon, two sausage links, hash browns and two slices of white toast. A better writer would keep his ears open, but my food is here and I don’t multitask well when food is in front of me.
What am I doing at a counter of a Denny’s? If I get a day off for appointments and errands, I almost always go to a neighborhood restaurant that serves a good breakfast, but today, thinking about writing a post on diners, I decided to throw caution to the wind and eat at this place. The original idea was to eat at the counters of a half-dozen diners to take the pulse of “Real Americans,” but felt the triteness of the subject wasn’t worth the extra lining of arterial plaque, so this post is mostly about my personal history of diners.
Lyn speaks to Skip, Jesse, and the young woman (who I’m guessing is in her 20s) as if they are regulars–cracking wise with Skip and Jesse and talking to the young lady with the earbuds in an empathetic tone. At one point the young woman apologizes to us for tuning us our–she says she is a healthcare professional who works a night shift in a skilled nursing facility and is really tired. All of us tell her it is okay. She smiles and pugs her earbuds back in. “When are you going to put cod back on the menu,” Skips ask Lyn. Before she answers, I feel some java coming up thinking about eating fish in a Denny’s. Skip presses the issue. Lyn tells Skip she doesn’t make the rules. Jesse, in a disgusted tone that I relate to, wants to know if Skip eats fish for breakfast. “No. You know I eat dinner here most nights!,” Skip snaps back. I look over at my neighbor to the left. She is oblivious to the fish banter.
I used to go to diners like Denny’s quite often. First, there were the times in the 1960s. I was somewhere around seven years old. My Grandfather used to take me to the Sambo’s only a block away from my his hardware store on the corner of 65th Street and Folsom Blvd. here in Sacramento. I vaguely recall enjoying the murals above the lunch counter that told the tale of “Little Black Sambo.” Of course, I was oblivious to the racist content at the time–it just seemed like a story to me. The NAACP, among other offended entities, saw it differently.
Because of that early exposure to the diner-style eatery, I have always had a fond memory of that kind of restaurant but had little interest in eating in places like that in the mid-’70s when I got wheels and a disposable income or at least that’s how I felt initially. In the ’80s I occasionally had late night snacks at diners when my friends and I would finish our night clubbing at local places like Club Can’t Tell and Danseparc or after attending local punk/New Wave concerts, usually at Galactica 2000/The 2nd Level. If we went to the now-defunct Carrows, we were often waiting on by a woman who was dating a friend. (She would later become my wife!) But in between the nightclubbing phase and before my marriage, there were my late-night coffee and homework visits to the Peppermill on Arden Way with my co-dependent girlfriend, Judi, one of those visits ending in a parking lot meltdown. (Intriguing? You’ll have to read about that incident in my post The Ballad of the Codependent Rat, but beware, it is not for the faint of heart.)
This would be a good time to mention an experience I had not too long ago. I have been living or working in the area of Broadway since 1980 and from that time the diner Pancake Circus has been a fixture in my mind. It has always looked creepy from the outside: worn down, dull, with the feeling that if you touched the building you would have to scrub that finger with acetone to get the ick off. And then there’s the whole circus motif with balloons and clowns. Surprisingly Pancake Circus has a presence on the web–well, sort of. It’s more like a placeholder, but includes a handy OpenTable reservation tool–I shit you not! It also has a photo gallery that doubles down on the whole creepy feel including an Easter Bunny that is so evil looking it would make poor little Johnny wet himself!
Until recently, I knew of only one person who has been in the place. In fact, if I remember correctly, Geoff Wong ate there every weekday morning. A local attorney, novelist, and host of “Geoff Wong Adventure Theater” that ran in the 70s, Wong was once my old Peppermill-patronizing, co-dependent girlfriend, Judi’s boss! The one time I visited his office to pick Judi up, she introduced me to him. He was eating his lunch standing up. I didn’t think much of him standing while eating, but when Judi and I were leaving she told me that he always eats his lunch standing up. “He says it better for his digestion, but…” I phased her words out at this point, as I often did with Judi, and envisioned the local celebrity barrister in Pancake Circus eating his breakfast standing up, ready to bolt when he saw one of those clowns coming for him!
That was the only person I ever met who had eaten at Pancake Circus and lived to tell the tale. That is until a year ago when I received a text from my East Bay buddy Paul informing me he was in town to visit family and they had decided the whole family would go to Pancake Circus after attending Mass. I reminded him how creepy that place always looked when we worked at the Tower Theatre down the street and to advise him to eat his pancakes standing up. I later received the adjacent image on my phone. Then, from his sister’s house, he texted me that the place was actually alright.
This led me to challenge myself one day to have breakfast there, just as I did this morning at Denny’s. It was about as creepy on the inside as it is on the outside. And the wait staff acted as if they stepped out of a wormhole from the 60s–all “Honey” and “Hun” and “Sweety.” As it turned out despite expecting Pennywise to appear in the service window with my omelette au Rohypnol saying, “Tasty, tasty, beautiful fear–uh–I mean eggs,” the food was good–even standing up. (Okay, I’ll stop.) The breakfast was on par with most diners, I doubt I will ever return, though. I don’t remember seeing any cod on the menu, but as I was leaving the place with a full belly I saw something on the sign I never noticed before: “Steaks Seafood Salads.” Ordering seafood there would be a challenge I would never take.
As I left the Denny’s this morning to ride to my doctor’s office, I found fresh vomit in the car lane next to my scooter. (“Fresh” meaning it wasn’t there when I parked my ride forty minutes ago.) A foreboding sign, to be sure, but my stomach felt fine. It dawned on me as I was riding to my doctor’s that I was scheduled to do some labs which required fasting. Oops. It’s incredible how my stomach lords over my brain!
Since my previous doctor retired, I now have a pretty blonde D.O. for a primary care physician. D.O. standing for doctor of osteopathic medicine. (Should be a DOM, but that was a previous post.) What is that, you ask. Here is how the website with the pithy name http://www.doctorsthatdo.org describes it:
Listening to you and partnering in your care are at the heart of our holistic, empathic approach to medicine. We are trained to promote the body’s natural tendency toward health and self-healing. We practice according to the latest science and use the latest technology. But we also consider options to complement pharmaceuticals and surgery.
Some may think that sounds like a bunch of New Age baloney. Not me! The books I have been reading on yoga, meditation, the chakra system, and Ayurveda have given me the impression that the first time I would see my new D.O. she would be wearing a sari, sitting lotus in the corner, chanting “Om mani padme hum” while incense burned. Nope, she walked in five minutes after me wearing white slacks, a lab coat and only smiled and said, “good for you,” in a near-patronizing tone when I tried to impress her by saying I practiced yoga. (Thank God I didn’t bow my head and say Namaste when she entered the examination room!)
Twenty minutes after leaving Denny’s parking lot I’m sitting on the examination table and whining about my sleeping problems and my weight. The irony is not lost on me here. Also, in the middle of my bitch session, I suppressed an All-American Slam burp into my fist. Was that bacon or sausage? Whatever. I excuse myself and go back to bitching about my weight.
This was my third appointment with my lady doctor and I’m not sure if she has figured out the walking contradiction that is me. If she got a whiff of the dead-meat burp that might explain her doling out some home-spun wisdom, “Don’t love food that doesn’t love you back” and the suggestion I see a nutritionist. I agree to the nutritionist referral knowing that person will not be prescribing All-American Slams for breakfast. I think about the vomit in the parking lot. Someone’s breakfast didn’t love him back, I guess. I ask myself the wrong question–why didn’t I order pancakes.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
I was doing a search in WordPress on the PSL (a common initialism for the Party of Socialism & Liberation) and I got posts about Pumpkin Spice Lattes–a frou-frou espresso drink that usually pops up on coffee house chalkboards every autumn. I thought the initialization of a drink name went too far. Mind you, the first blog with a post about pumpkin spice lattes I saw from the PSL results page was a new-mom blog. I haven’t been a new dad for nearly thirty years so it wasn’t my thing. Anyway, the post was about a creamer that made a coffee taste like a pumpkin spice latte, so it was faker than the fakeness of a pumpkin spice latte. (In case you didn’t know it, pumpkin spice lattes don’t contain a drop of real pumpkin in them.)
The results page showed many blog posts on the seasonal espresso drink referred to as PSL. I did a Google search and found even more pages relating to the beverage in that abbreviated form. Later I walked into a coffee house and saw the initialism once again. WTF? We’re now abbreviating crappy espresso drinks?
Where do we draw the line on this kind of abbreviation nonsense anyway? Way back before I knew there was a drink referred to by its initials, my son told me about the Party of Socialism & Liberation, he called it PSL (dropping the definite article for the sake of elegance). Then when I asked what the initials stood for he spoke out the whole name. The “Socialism” part piqued my interest.
I stowed my understanding of what PSL meant and started reading the party’s website. Then, for me, it became what PSL stood for and nothing else. I’m addressing you, you stupid latte, and Pakistan Super League, and Person Stop Loss, and the Romanian sniper rifle called Puşcă Semiautomată cu Lunetă. Yep, Wikipedia makes me look worldly.
While looking up the origin of the PSLing of the Pumpkin Spice Latte and found on its Wikipedia article that Starbucks used the hashtag #PSL in a Twitter and Facebook blitz back in 2012 to push the product. The corporation may have used that hashtag in over 12 million tweets in a single day. Who in the hell Likes or Follows a lousy corporation, anyway? A lot of people, it seems. Depressing.
I was taught in college that there is power in initialisms especially the three-letter ones. This power is associated with the Rule of Three in writing. It is far easier to remember three letters subjects–FBI, CIA, BBC, BMW, JVC–than it recalls two- or four-letter themes. Add more letters and it becomes even more challenging to hold the thing in your noodle.
A good example of this power in words and in initialisms is the sandwich Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato. Invented around 1900, the Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwich, or the BLT, is one of the greatest inventions in the history of food–and food has been around for a while! The prominence of the sandwich in American culture is so significant that it virtually owns its abbreviation. (Okay, there are a couple of odd exceptions, but unless you are a computer programmer or a perv they never come up in conversations.) The introduction of avocado has thrown a monkey wrench into the zen of this initialism. Whether or not you prefer the drupe in the otherwise beautifully understated BLT, the initialism “BLTA” puts the whole ordering thing off a little. I never order it that way–preferring to pronounce “avocado” after the core initialism. (Unless I feel like being a coastal elite prick and say, “I’ll have the BLT California Style, please” while inquiring if the establishment sells Pellegrino because nothing less will do!
I have looked up at a bistro menu and suggested (to myself) that the vowel gets pushed up in the order so the sandwich can now be a proper acronym: The BALT, but that does not do the sandwich justice–sounding like the bush-league pitcher error in baseball. We can switch the consonants around, but LABT and TALB won’t do and BLAT sounds horrible. Sometimes we just have to live with the awkwardness and I hate that, even with avocado.
To give you an aural example of how the Rule of Three in initialisms work just listen to Alan Rickman above. Now, imagine Rickman as a waiter delivering a certain sandwich…
At my job, I have written most of my unit’s procedures for over twenty years and dogmatically insist that the Rule of Three is employed in initialisms whenever possible in our documentation. For example, years ago, after someone suggested in a rough draft that Field Services (the group that is responsible for IT equipment installs and removals) be referred to as “FS,” I insisted that the abbreviated name include an additional “S” since the group is a Section in our organization. I spared them the Rule of Three spiel and just said the abbreviated name should be “FSS.” Damn, I don’t care if my fellow staff members immediately conjured up images of Brown Shirts goose-stepping down the office halls with PCs and monitors under their arms, FS just will not do!
My previous boss embraced the Rule of Three to an annoying fault. Back when he was in charge of my office it seemed like every unit in the bureau had a three-letter initialism: the first two initials explained what the office did, the last initial mostly was for the office’s type or size (e.g., unit, office, section, branch).
Using these abbreviations came in handy when it came to the written word, but my boss would speak in three-letter initialisms as well. It got to be that our weekly meetings sounded like code to any outsider listening in: “Is the TCO keeping up with FSS’ installs?” “I’m also concerned that NTS may not be reporting to TCO where they are installing the new hubs.” “Two inventory teams today: one for LDC the other for LCB. We’ll start on LOB tomorrow.” “Make sure BAS gets LAMS and FA showing the same search results.” If the language became any more coded the next step might have been for the staff to don headphones and tap out Morse to each other. After multiple reorganizations, many of the office names have become so long-winded, and clumsy it made rendering them down to initialisms essential for the written word, and almost impossible to use in speech. (I wonder if my old boss would throw around initialisms as LOPOD, LACC, WSCRM, WPCM, and CRPMS.)
Sometimes the aural initialization of groups and things turned unintentionally humorous (or at least to me it did). While everyone else referred to the office that provided ID badges, chairs, and ergonomics in our building as Facilities Management, my boss would continue with the abbreviations, so the Facilities Management Unit become “FMU.” So when he said, “What about, FMU?” I heard, “What about Fuck Me Up?” If I were current with urban abbreviations that clash with my internal office initialisms those meetings with my ex-boss could have been very funny, but as it is I didn’t know until now that the unit ETL also stands for “extraterrestrial lesbian,” the section BSS for “bullshit syndrome,” and–my favorite–the division EAD for “eat a dick.”
So, at times, we can abuse the shit out of the Rule of Three, but let’s get back to PSL. I wouldn’t be so touchy about this if it weren’t a damn marketing strategy taken in by, new moms and the other millennials targeted by corporate capitalists. I understand the heavy use of an initialism like the CIA, but maybe that’s because it has been around so long. By the way, two well-known entities use the same initialism and the two entities’ purposes couldn’t be further apart: the Culinary Institue of America and, of course, the Central Intelligence Agency. One gave us Anthony Bourdain and a host of other talented people who are known for their whimsy, creativity, and good taste (pun in place). The other gave us the Bush/Obama black sites, unconstitutional executions, drone strikes, the killing thousands of innocents, and a host of coups and abuses in the Global South. I’ll take the Lobster Frittata hold the waterboarding, thank you.
George Orwell devoted much of his career championing the written word and its meaning. While his classic and now surprise best-seller Nineteen Eighty-Four is best known as a futuristic dystopia based on trends he saw developing back in the mid-twentieth century, it is also about the power of words and how that power could be used to manipulate the reader:
“In the beginning, the practice had been adopted as it were instinctively, but in Newspeak, it was used with a conscious purpose. It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it.” (Emphasis, my own.)
This is the danger in the power of initialism. Orwell’s Newspeak employed neither the acronym nor the Rule of Three, but a truncation or condensation of two or more words. William Safire, the late conservative syndicated political and grammar columnist for the New York Times, wrote a weekly column entitled On Language (now written by Ben Zimmer) where he would nitpick what he believed was the deteriorating of the English language. He had his critics who said English was simply evolving. That said, he has a good point here:
“… Both abs and ads are now being called abbreves, an abbreviation of abbreviations. The clipping of words is a harmless habit, used less for speed in spoken communication than for its sense of novelty or insiderness. A generation ago, kids shortened “parents” to rents, “family” to fam, “brother” to bro. A generation or two before that, when invited to legit theater, we said natch, saving two and then three syllables. Fab was so well understood to mean “fabulous” that ad execs used it as the name of a detergent…”
“I have gone figging and now believe that the youth of each generation is shortnin’-bred. We cannot attrib the present syllabic slicing exclusively to text messaging, Twittering or the latest cellphoney-baloney; rather, lopping off word endings is not laziness but a function of generational insularity. No tradition is more time-honored than rebellion against linguistic tradition. Youth must not only be served, but its insecure communications must also have its own coded server.” — “Abbreve That Template,” New York Times, May 21, 2009
Before I conclude, one last super-annoying example of an abbreviation or an abbreve, (just kidding) is “inno” for innovation. Thomas Frank uses it liberally in his blistering criticism of the Democratic Party: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. The author introduces the abridged word intentionally, I believe, to mock his subjects: the rich tech execs and the neo-liberal Dems that gush over them while offering only lip service to the working class. My basis for this assertion is listening to the audiobook version read by the author. Kudos to Mr. Frank for keeping up the level of palpable disgust in his subject matter for over eight hours!
Perhaps Safire’s “On Language” column wasn’t as stogy as we all thought. Perhaps our language is slowly devolving, after all. All I wanted was information on socialism and I got a frivolous espresso drink!